Africa’s hunger offers Russia chance to fight isolation by West

Saturday July 29 2023
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Russia President Vladimir Putin speaks at a plenary meeting at the second Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg, Russia on July 28, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Russian President Vladimir Putin was this week shaking hands with and hugging African leaders, labelling them friends, a partial show of the continent’s ties with Moscow in the wake of Western isolation after invading Ukraine last year.

And the gathering, the second Russia-Africa Summit in four years, came with significant imagery: The ongoing food crisis in Africa, and Russia’s war in Ukraine, seemed like a perfect combination for influence peddling.

On Thursday, Moscow offered free grain to six poor African countries and promised to stabilise supplies to other needy states.

Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea will receive “free” food from Russia, shipped directly to their borders.

Somalia had their decades-old $684 million debt owed to Moscow forgiven in a deal penned on Wednesday. The money was owed before Somalia collapsed more than three decades ago.

Read: Somalia gets debt relief from Russia-Africa Summit


But the gesture could reflect Russia’s use of every opportunity to cement ties with a restless Africa.

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who faces a general election in three weeks, was given a “free” helicopter to help him travel around the country.

Back in St Petersburg, President Putin spoke to his guests as “friends” and told them of his intent to improve grain supplies to the continent.

“Russia will always be a responsible international supplier of agricultural products. We will continue to support the countries and regions most in need.

“We will supply them with our grain and other food products, including free of charge and within the framework of the UN World Food Programme,” Mr Putin argued.

Read: Russia to seek deeper alliance with Africa

Mutual ties

At the gala reception hosted in honour of the participants of the second Russia–Africa Summit, President Putin told the leaders that their coming illustrates the mutual desire of Russia and African countries to expand and deepen mutually “beneficial ties and contacts.”

“This is also a real confirmation of our common intentions to take Russia-Africa relations to a new, more advanced level in politics, security, in the economic and social spheres.”

In the past, he argued, the Soviet Union rendered African nations “tangible support in the struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid…”

Today, he said, Russia and the African countries stand together for the formation of “a just, multipolar world order based on the principles of sovereign equality of states, non-interference in their internal affairs, and respect for peoples’ right to determine their own destiny.”

Putin spoke to the leaders – among them Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Comoros President and African Union chair Azali Assoumani, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi, the current chair of the East African Community, among others.

Read: Putin hosts African leaders in Russia after grain deal exit

Symbolic event

A deeper look at Russia’s involvement in Africa shows that the summit is mainly a symbolic event to signal the strengthening of ties, and to acknowledge Russia’s presence in the continent.

Dr Angela Muvumba Sellström, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), says Russia advocates a multipolar world in which Western democratic ideals are not imposed and the ideological sovereignty of non-Western nations is respected.

The narrative appeals to Africans who have often protested an unjust international order and suits Moscow’s campaign against Western hegemony.

But it is not unique: China, the European Union, the US, and France have held similar meetings.

“Russia has seized on Africa’s genuine feelings of disenfranchisement in the global economy and global governance, leveraging its own sense of marginalisation from the global stage to exaggerate the tangible benefits it can offer to the continent,” Dr Sellström told The EastAfrican.

In the short-term, against the background of the Russian war in Ukraine, Moscow is using the grain as a tool, especially after it refused to continue with the Black Sea Grain Initiative, she said, but noted that Russia’s strongest partners on the African continent – Mali, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, and even Uganda – would have to pursue bilateral arrangements to access grain purchases.

“I do not believe there are any viable long-term economic benefits on offer to Africa from Russia. Less than one percent of foreign direct investment in Africa comes from Russia.

That is a lot less than Europe, the US and China. South Africa and Mauritius have more direct investment in the rest of Africa than does Russia. Moscow focuses mostly on getting natural resources and energy out of Africa, and gives very little direct aid,” she said.

Read: Russia's presence in Africa: Weapons, Wagner and energy

Terror accusations

This week, however, Russia came under criticism from Ukraine and the West for pulling out of the Grain Initiative and attacking a Ukrainian port in Odessa, which had been exporting grain.

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said everyone will be impacted by the Russian invasion.

“Everyone is affected by this Russian terror. Everyone in the world should be interested in bringing Russia to justice for its terror,” he said in a Telegram video message on Thursday, after Russian missiles destroyed nearly 60,000 tonnes of grain in a yard in Odessa.

And Julianne Smith, US Permanent Representative to Nato, labelled Russia among the “two main threats facing the Nato Alliance”, the other being terrorism.

“I think those are topics of interest to our partners across Africa as it relates both to Russia’s activities on the African continent and what Africa – what Russia is doing in Ukraine as it relates to this grain deal,” Smith told a group of African journalists in a virtual meeting on Wednesday.

“Russia has violated the foundational principles of the UN Charter itself. The Wagner Group behind the recent coup attempt against Putin’s regime remains a destabilising presence and a threat to the African continent more specifically.

Read: Inside the Russian mercenary machine in Africa

“And, of course, Russia’s refusal just recently to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative and its threat to attack commercial vessels carrying grain have led to increased food insecurity across the globe,” she said, adding that the US has established a roadmap on global food security, alongside 100 other countries, worth $4.5 billion for both acute and medium- to long-term food security assistance.

On July 17, Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was scheduled for its fourth renewal, accusing Ukraine of diverting grain from poor recipients. The initiative has been instrumental in facilitating the export of Ukraine’s grain and agricultural products to global markets.

Shortly after the termination of the deal, the Russian Ministry of Defense asserted that it would view any ship heading for Ukraine as a potential carrier of military cargo.

A bulletin by the EUvsDisinfo, a European Union project on Russia’s disinformation, argued Moscow had twisted facts,including a denial of how Ukraine had been the biggest supplier of grain to the World Food Programme.

Yet experts think the West was reactionary.

“The West is already reacting as guessed: Focus on Russia; like the focus on China, which makes other players like African countries appear as voiceless subjects lacking agency,” said Dr Hawa Noor, associate fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS), University of Bremen.

Read: The new scramble for Africa

“Much as Russia is re-positioning itself following the war by courting Southern countries, it should be remembered that these countries have their own agendas too. It’s not all about Russia doing something to African countries.

“There are a lot of bilateral deals as ever despite that tug-of-war between major powers. These countries have their own agendas to push. And, of course for the West, the less support for Russia in Africa, the better,” she told The EastAfrican.

Dr Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist at the Global Centre for Policy and Strategy in Nairobi, said the St Petersburg Summit may just reflect pragmatism and independence of African countries in their foreign policy in their relations with Russia.

“Every country has an aspect of their interest that they individually wish to fulfil through their relations with Russia. Indeed, Africa has not developed a common position towards Russia, as in holding an extraordinary meeting at the African Union to discuss matters surrounding Russia-Ukraine. So, it is not easy to generalise the strategic interest of African states toward Russia,” Dr Muliro told The EastAfrican.

Moscow strategy

Russia conducts its foreign policy with African states at an elite level, an opaque or unconventional statecraft, which may explain why its close allies in Africa strongmen or leaders of countries are mainly undergoing complex political transitions such as Libya, Mali, Sudan and Guinea. As a result, Dr Muliro argues, Russia has failed to be in touch with the masses or build people-to-people relations on the continent.

Putin has also not fulfilled the promises he made during the earlier Russia-Africa summit in 2019, where Moscow promised $40 billion worth of investments to the continent.

Read: Russia-Africa summit: What Vladmir Putin stands to gain

The politics of food, however, is appealing.

“Russia has done its homework well and found that beyond the supply of arms, the new gateway to Africa is through the supply of grains and fertiliser to mitigate the food crisis occasioned by adverse climate change. Literally get to the head and heart through the stomach. This food insecurity is likely to continue because it is projected that most states especially in East Africa are most likely going to have a poor harvest,” Dr Muliro said.