Russia’s return to Africa has been discussed in the media and at various levels of power for two decades. However, the impetus given to Russian expansion to the African continent by the first Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019 made it the breakthrough event that made it possible to find an entry point for Russian business and Russia’s economic strategy on the continent, which today leads in terms of economic development.
The main advantages of Russia over other actors in the new “battle for Africa” include the historical ties of the African elites with their alma maters in the former USSR (many leaders and members of the governments of African states studied at Soviet institutes and universities), memories of the struggle for the freedom of Africa (Russia has always been famous in Africa as the main fighter against Western colonialism), and the economic offerings of the Soviet era (factories, dams, hospitals, supplies of tractors, cars and weapons). However, all these cards are a matter of the past, while in the present it has been difficult for Russia to offer Africa anything of value that could compete with large-scale Western investment or Chinese infrastructure projects (until recently).
Today the situation has changed radically. The events in Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali have shown that Russia can be an effective supplier of military assistance to African governments to maintain the stability of governments or their political positions: and this time not with the help of suitcases of cash and unrecoverable loans, as in the 1970s, but in the form of military advisers for the training of the armed forces. This type of support for friendly governments was also used very effectively in Soviet times — with the help of advisers from the USSR, new leaders came to power and the governments they created are still going strong in Egypt, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other countries throughout the continent. Today, Russian military assistance is even more attractive to the governments of African countries, since in exchange for it, Russia does not require a transition to the socialist system, or naval bases, or the construction of collective farms. Moscow positions itself as a relatively altruistic player: unlike China, which enslaves its partners economically, and the United States, Britain, and France, which require investments in political reforms and compliance with Western standards of public administration, often inapplicable to Africa in general, in return for their loans.
Russia has chosen the Politics First course, in which economic preferences are a natural consequence of successful political cooperation. This approach is likely to be efficient, since the reverse — first the economy, then everything else — has proven to be unsteady. Russian corporations have entered the market and invested in mining, processing or transport, but when the regime changed or there was any quarrel with it, the Russian entities encountered problems in the form of tax claims, the deprivation of licenses, and further up to forced exit from the market. Rusal managers who worked in Guinea or Nigeria have many fascinating but sad stories to tell about this. In the event that the government is tied to political cooperation with Russia, there is hope that economic cooperation will be more mutually beneficial and long-term.
Moreover, Africa really represents a historical chance for the expansion of Russian companies.
After the fall of another Iron Curtain between Russia and Europe and the emergence of energy and food crises in the global economy, the export flows of Russian companies may well be redirected not only to Asia, but also to Africa.
As market experts put it, “everything is needed here”: agricultural products and essential products, medicines, fuel, technology, auto parts and, as always, a lot of weapons and ammunition.
Today, about 30% of Russian agricultural exports go to Africa, and the needs of the countries of the continent in Russian grain will only grow. Just the other day, Algeria announced the lifting of a number of restrictions on the import of Russian grain, where shipments of Russian grain products resumed only last year after a long break. Egypt and Ethiopia, the leaders in grain imports, are traditionally Russia-friendly countries on the continent, and the trend towards increased grain consumption in these and other countries is guaranteed by high natural population growth. This year, the head of the African Union visited Russia to resolve food issues, and delegations from a number of African states discussed these issues at SPIEF.
Arms exports also remain an important area of cooperation — at the summit two years ago, the figure of $14 billion per year of Russian arms sales to African countries was announced, it may increase against the backdrop of growing instability in several regions of Africa in the coming years.
The main challenges for Russia in this regard are, first, the need to develop new, non-traditional sectors of economic cooperation, and second, an immense lack of personnel for successful work on the African continent and the promotion of this cooperation.
At a time when Western countries are very reluctant to share new technologies with their African counterparts and China prefers to develop them on African soil on its own, Russian technology in fields like energy, resource extraction, transport, and digitalisation can be in great demand in Africa. Just one striking example: today the only country that widely uses non-cash and contactless payments is Somalia — there is virtually no national currency here, and residents pay in shops and markets with instant transfers to their mobile phone number. At the same time, non-cash payment technologies in Russia are better developed today than anywhere in the Western world.
Political contacts can also play an important role in establishing large Russian public and private corporations in Africa. Any businessman who has worked south of the Mediterranean knows that the most reliable contacts and contracts come through officials, or at least in agreement with them. An intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in a certain industry will almost inevitably be more useful for starting a business in Africa than a personal acquaintance between African and Russian entrepreneurs. In this sense, it can be expected that the second Russia-Africa summit, expected in the summer of 2023 in St. Petersburg, will open the doors for many large investment projects on the continent.
However, Russia needs to be ready for them, and this requires people. There are still very few Africanists with knowledge of the languages, specifics, and business customs of the continent in our country, and amid the current conditions, the state should pay special attention to this problem. In the coming years, many such specialists may be needed. It would seem that knowledge of European languages — English, French and Portuguese — or Arabic is sufficient for work in most of the 54 countries of Africa, however, business on African soil is not so much about language, but communication skills and an understanding of local realities that can be mastered, in my opinion, only through several years of deep study with occasional internships on the continent.
If both of these problems are resolved in the foreseeable future, the bet on Africa may be justified, and Russia will be able to significantly expand its niche on the continent with a population of over 1.4 billion and huge reserves of resources.