Bolarinwa traced the history of Russia’s relationship with African countries to the post-colonial era when it had the support of Egypt under Nasser
The end of the Cold War and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, with its attendant economic consequences, forced Russia to reduce its presence in international politics, concentrating on internal affairs and building new infrastructures.
But the absence of Russia in world affairs was more prominent in Africa, a continent that was once the theatre of the Cold War, as Moscow and Western powers, led by the United States, scrambled for ideological dominance across the globe. The ideological warfare at the time had its toll on Africa to the extent that there was a great divide (characterised by antagonism) between the capitalist bloc and the communist bloc.
Russia’s abandonment of its Cold War allies resulted in the complete turnover of Africa to Europe and the US. Today, Europe and America are engaged in another scramble for Africa’s economic potential, including market. And, Russia has staged a comeback to the continent and has since joined the race to secure political, economic and military domain in Africa. Till the end of the Cold War, Russia concerned itself only with political affairs in the continent.
Now, it has established a strong presence in many African countries, including Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Angola, Sudan and Guinea, to mention but a few. Russia is engaged in the areas of military cooperation, arms deals and investment (mining, agriculture, geological studies and prospecting) as well as capacity building.
But what are the implications of Russia’s return to Africa? Can Russia provide the continent a better alternative of partnership, compared to post-Cold War Europe and America on the one hand and China on the other hand, or is its return part of the new Cold War being speculated by watchers of affairs of Russia and the West? These are among the questions addressed in this report by Dr. Joshua Olusegun Bolarinwa, a foreign affairs analyst and research fellow at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIA), Lagos.
Bolarinwa traced the history of Russia’s relationship with African countries to the post-colonial era when it had the support of Egypt, under former President Abdel Nasser, for example.
Bolarinwa said that the ties between Russia and African countries started drifting after some African allies “discovered that the aggression in Russian foreign policy, attitude and posture were not so friendly, not so good and they would not be able to accept such.”
He noted that the incursion of the West was a driving force for African countries, who hitherto had courted the friendship of Russia, to look the other way: “And with the incursion of the West, particularly Britain, France and the US, and again, with the pretence of what we call subtle diplomacy, which Russia was using, majority of African countries had to go the way of supporting the West.”
“As a result, Russia had to be disengaging gradually until the end of the Cold War, when the former Soviet Union disintegrated. That disintegration affected the economy of Russia. Of course, the former Soviet Union disintegrated into 16 allied states with Russia becoming a federation of its own,” he said.
Russia started looking inward, apparently guided by the saying that “charity begins at home. It was trying to improve its economy.”
Bolarinwa noted that, in the past three years, Russia has increased its presence in Africa, “The truth is that it is not only Africa. It has staged a return to global affairs, from Africa to Asia, and to parts of Europe.”
What is the force behind Russia’s rapid move into global affairs, almost a decade after the end of the Cold war? Bolarinwa pointed to strong leadership, which it has enjoyed in the past few years, particularly under President Vladimir Putin who “is feared, highly respected and loved by the average Russian. He has personalised leadership and governance in Russia.”
Perhaps, having recovered from the shock of the collapse of its former ‘empire,’ Russia, under Putin, chose to re-launch itself into world affairs with an aggressive foreign policy to reclaim lost ground. This move, according to Bolarinwa, has led some authors and scholars of international relations to believe Moscow has started a new Cold War. “That is what we have seen in the past few years that agitated Russia’s return to Africa.”
As if worried by this development, Bolarinwa asked rhetorically: “This return now, what is Russia’s aim, is it to destabilise Africa’s affairs, is it to rival the US and the rest of the West or to destabilise global affairs, because Russia is also being seen in the other parts of the world, especially in Asia and the Middle East?
“The survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad is dependent on the Russian govern- ment. Moscow’s support has given Assad the leverage to move around. He has travelled to Russia more than three times in the last six months strategising.”
Bolarinwa argued that Russia’s renewed vigour in Africa is all about Moscow’s redefinition of its foreign policy.
Deutsche Welle recently quoted Yevgeniy Korendyasov of the Center for the Study of Russia-African Relations, Moscow, as saying that “Africa’s rapid development in recent years means it has an important future role to play in international relations and Russia is very much aware of this”.
Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov, apparently confirmed Korendyasov’s remark during his visit to Rwanda this year, when he said, “We wish to increase our trade and economic cooperation, which though remains relatively low, it bears potential in the coming days”.
Though Russia may have the good intention of doing good business with Africa, Bolarinwa sounds a note of warning. He wants African leaders to be cautions of Russia’s activities. He was quick to draw attention to China’s incursion into Africa. According to him, “if we allow China to move into Africa just as the West did, the effect of their own incursion will be more grievous than that of the West. So, we should be wary of China”.
He supported this school of thought by pointing out that, in Nigeria, the Chinese have invaded the local markets, owning stores in various locations in Lagos, for example. It is for this reason that he wants African leaders to ask critical questions to determine and establish the real reason Russia wants to return to Africa.
Asked to be specific on what Russia wants from Africa, Bolarinwa said: “there is the suspicion that new industries are emerging in Russia, and the country is gradually moving from a socialist economy to a capitalist economy,” even though “it still runs a centrally planned state, what I would describe as a unitary system of government, where power is concentrated in the centre and in the President. So, there will be the need for raw materials to feed the industries and Africa in a ready source of raw materials.” Though Russia is among countries that had vowed not to own colonies and indeed had never colonised any overseas territory, Bolarinwa foresees political undertones too in its new incursion into Africa, citing, again, its role in the emergence of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as President of Egypt.
Bolarinwa was emphatic when he said Russia may also be on a mission to rival Europe, America and China in Africa. Since the end of the Cold War, the US and European countries like Britain and France have had strong military presence in Africa, they have shown a commitment to the enthronement of democracy and good governance in the continent, deploying funds and personnel to support various governments.
Russia seems to be extending the same gesture to African countries. It has made statements considered as subtle attacks on the West.
“We insist that African problems need African solutions, and the international community should respect the Africans’ choice of resolving a conflict, and support them morally, politically and financially in training staff for peacekeeping operations, which Russia has been actively doing,” said Lavrov during his visit to Zimbabwe this year.
Also, Lavrov issued another strong political statement in Rwanda when he said Russia would lobby for permanent representation of Africa at the United Nations Security Council: “It is important in achieving the reform of the UN to have more representation in African, Asian and Latin American countries.”
Even with Russia’s sympathy for Africa’s quest for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and its standpoint that “African problems need African solutions,” Bolarinwa insists that Russia may not be a good alternative partner for Africa to deal with, “Because in all relationships, antecedence and precedence are very important.”
“Russia has not had a good precedence in Africa. In most cases, it came to destabilise Africa politically. So, Africa needs to be wary of Russia and try to define its relationship with it.
“Of course, it is not only Russia. My remark is a general message about all relationship that Africa has had or is having now, be it with China, USA and the West, we need to redefine our relationship, we also need to put our fate (destiny) in our hands and try to dictate or try to know what we want in every relationship we go into, so that we do it to our own benefit.”
Bolarinwa wants a symbiotic relationship between Africa and the rest of the world.
He said, “It should not be a parasitic relationship, which has made Africa to continue to be struggling in development crises, struggling in political crises and even struggling in religious and other crises. This has retarded all our growth plans.”
Continuing, he said, “Russia may not mean well. They are good people, they have good technology. But they may not mean well. Russia cannot come back now and be telling us that they are angels.
“On a general note, none of the big powers may really mean well for Africa. They are coming to get what they want, what favours their national interest, none of them will defend our interest for us.”
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But why is Bolarinwa not upbeat about Russia’s return to Africa? He is quick to refer to the Middle East and parts of Asia: “All the troubles in the Middle East and part of Asia were caused by Russia. The records are there. It is Russia that is driving the Iranian deal from behind and it is Russia that is also dividing the West. Of course, US President Donald Trump is another nationalist who is also causing other problems.”
Bolarinwa expressed fears about the activities of Russia and the West in Africa and raised fundamental questions regarding leadership and governance as well as the underdevelopment and poverty in the continent. How can the continent rise to the challenges of the moment?
Bolarinwa called for good leadership, which he said “connotes good followership.”
“We need good leaders who are also strong, who know what we want. When we are doing well by ourselves, when we take the right decision, reduce corruption, reduce poverty, reduce leadership crises and reduce ethnic chauvinism, to the extent that there is political stability, relative economic stability, when all of these are present, some of these big powers would want to relate with us as equal partners.
“And we will be able to make a choice of who to deal with and what to demand or reject. We will be able to give conditions for mutual partnership. So, we just have to start from somewhere. Rome was not built in a day.”