By DJEHANE VALLY
‘Russiafrica,’ a neologism inspired by the word ‘Françafrique,’ which symbolises the special relationship between France and its former African colonies, is quite a stretch. Indeed, Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, are particularly interested in Africa, thanks to its incredible resources and potential. However, the influence of the former Soviet power has been exaggerated and should be reassessed.
What’s behind Putin’s geopolitical strategy in Africa? More importantly, what are his intentions? It is important to consider the context of this scramble for Africa as a reminder: Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not enjoy the power and influence it once had with African countries during the Cold War. Moreover, according to the IMF (October 2020 estimates), Russia’s GDP is only the 11th highest in the world, ranked after relatively small countries such as Italy and South Korea. Consequently, Vladimir Putin wants to bring Russia back to its former Soviet glories, increase his country’s sphere of influence and become a superpower once again. Also, by investing in Africa, Russia implies that EU sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea can be bypassed by entering a new market. Africa is a way for Putin to get anything he could ever wish for: access to warm seas, opportunity to establish new military bases, new markets to exports grains and weapons among other products, rich soil, and finally, acquiring soft power to maintain control.
How is Putin building up his influence though? Russia has trading partnerships with several African countries: Guinea, where it mines aluminium; the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is interested in mineral resources and gas; Sudan, where gold is rather abundant. Ironically, despite being an oil country, Russia could also be interested in Africa’s oil resources, simply because the more the merrier. Finally, let us not forget that Russia has plenty of solid military deals with African countries, sending large numbers of weapons to Algeria and Egypt, to name a few.
Nevertheless, how important is Russia’s role in Africa and how much of a boost does this give to its thrive for great power status? Well, not as much as you think. The numbers speak for themselves: Russia’s role in Africa is definitely overstated. Trade between African nations and Russia amounted to only US$20 billion in 2018 whereas, between Africa and the US, China, and the EU, it was US$60 billion, US$200 billion, US$300, respectively. Furthermore, according to numbers provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s main arms market is not even Africa; it is Asia. In fact, 59% of Russia's arms were sent to Asia between 2014 and 2019 whereas Africa only received 16% during the same period.
So, does this signal more intense competition between Russia and China? Most likely not. Currently, Russia wants to triple trade with Africa; however, it will never even come close to China. These two countries could compete to get more support from African states at the UN, as they are both permanent members of the Security Council and need help against the combined might of the West. Other than that, their interests do not really overlap. Now, it will be interesting to see how Africa reacts to this inflow of investment. Both China and Russia lack the colonial past that European countries have, and Putin is actually rather popular with young Africans, as he is seen as a strong leader standing up to the West and American imperialism. Nonetheless, Russia has little to offer to Africa. It has not much cash to give away like China. To add, several strategic mistakes were made by the Kremlin in Africa. For instance, supporting strongman leaders that were eventually overthrown, such as Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan, or Jacob Zuma in South Africa.
As the US slowly retreats from the African market, Russia and Putin are trying to fill the void. Growing anti-Chinese sentiments in Africa could open a door for Russia. But it is fair to say that for now, China is way ahead of Russia in terms of influence in Africa. Putin will have to do much more if he wants to compete with the, once “sleeping,” giant.