Putin woos Africa

October 24, 2019

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin has this week hosted an interesting conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, to which he invited 44 presidents and prime ministers from all over Africa. The two-day gathering draws together the threads that Putin has been laying out in recent years by hosting individual African heads of state in Moscow.

Amidst the normal statements about goodwill and mutual benefit, the noises coming out of the conference focused on trade. Russia has indeed doubled its exports to African countries in the last four years. However its $20 billion of Africa sales stands in stark contrast to the $204 billion China recorded last year. The US, EU and India are also way ahead of Russian exports to the continent and even the United Arab Emirates earned more from Africa than Moscow in 2018. While Russian business would love to sell more into Africa, the country is not renowned for its consumer goods and high technology. However, it has always been successful selling armaments, to the extent that throughout Africa, the Kalashnikov AK47 is virtually ubiquitous, both in the hands of security forces and terrorists, such as Boko Haram, Nigerian franchise of Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS). African states might also be customers for Russian oil and refined products.

But clearly it is not really trade that underpins the Russian president’s African hearts and minds campaign. Putin’s real interest is geopolitical. And in this he is looking in two directions. Despite Moscow’s current amity with Beijing, they are essentially rivals. China’s massive economic power dwarfs that of Russia. On paper, its armed forces are more than a match for those of Moscow. But in terms of military confrontation, the Kremlin and the White House are glowering with each other. Despite Washington’s brinkmanship with the reefs and rocks that Beijing has expanded and militarized in the South China Sea, in defiance of international law, presidents Trump and Xi are currently at odds over trade rather than the projection of military power.

The Cold War was essentially a nuclear-armed standoff in which the then Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe sought to face down the United States and its NATO partners. China’s role was marginal. As part of the Moscow-Washington confrontation, a series of brutal proxy wars was fought out, many of them in Africa. The Soviet Union, often working with Fidel Castro’s Cubans, sought to counter the influence of the United States and the former European colonial powers, particularly France and the UK.

After taking over the construction of the Aswan Dam, abandoned by the United States when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser turned to the Soviet Bloc, the Russians were responsible for a range of African development projects, including the provision of small nuclear reactors, steel works and in southern Egypt, a fish processing factory. Many African students trained in Moscow at the Patrice Lumumba University, named after a murdered Congolese Communist. For a while Soviet hopes of ousting Western influence throughout the continent looked realistically high. But then Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser and was persuaded by Washington to throw the Russians out. They left with exceedingly bad grace, even demolishing and taking away with them that fish-processing factory. Moscow will be hoping to do a better job in Africa this time.

October 24, 2019
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