Dar es Salaam. The past few months have not been the best in relations between Africa and the West, with rising tensions over a wide range of issues pertaining to human rights and governance sparking a fresh round of diplomatic squabbling.
That development – not entirely new in form and nature – is, apparently, playing well for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has launched a major a diplomatic campaign to win new friends and partners in the resource-rich continent.
Africa is at the forefront of a sweeping foreign policy pivot by Moscow, as it seeks fresh alliances to bolster its global geopolitical clout.
The visit to Moscow in January by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa could be one in what is expected to be many such high-profile visits by African leaders ahead of the much-awaited Russia-Africa Summit later this year.
Interestingly, while some sections of the media played down the importance and timing of the trip, Mr Mnangagwa left Moscow with something more tangible than what the West offered during months of re-engagement efforts.
The two nations agreed to have Russian investment in Zimbabwe’s diamond industry, a fertiliser supply contract and two financing deals worth $267 million. The Russian diamond miner planning to enter Zimbabwe already has assets in Angola and Botswana.
Yet as Russia extended its diplomatic outreaches in Zimbabwe, US President Donald Trump early this month extended by one year sanctions against Zimbabwe saying that the new government’s policies continue to pose an “unusual and extraordinary” threat to US foreign policy.
The renewal comes despite calls by African leaders, including South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, for the sanctions to be lifted to give the country a chance to recover from its economic crisis.
With the US retreat, there is space for Moscow to extend its diplomatic outreach and expand its trade with Africa, which in 2017, rose 26 per cent to $17.4 billion.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, complementing China in seeking to widen investment in the vast nation, has expressed interest in building on old Soviet ties.
As Western governments fell short of declaring the DR Congo elections a fraud after the disputed victory of opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi in January this year, Moscow hailed Mr Tshisekedi as the winner.
Moscow is contrasting its history of engagement with that of former colonial powers, who have at various forums been accused of ‘Big Brother’ arrogance.
More so, while Russia is keen to build new relationships, it is no stranger to the region. During the cold war, the Soviet Union had strong ties with various African states, supporting independence movements aimed at dislodging western colonial powers.
Some political analysts have noted that Moscow has the sincerity and political muscle to compete well in the race involving China, India and the West to create a power bloc out of Africa’s disparate nations.
“Russia has managed to jump into the last carriage. But it can compete well by offering both unique and cheaper services to African nations,” Olga Kulkova, a senior fellow at the Africa Institute of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, says in a recent interview with the Financial Times.
Already, Russia has UN peacekeepers in Africa—not to mention counterterrorism interests there, too.
Not only that. Moscow may be on its way to establishing a naval base in Sudan, which sits along the western shore of the strategic Red Sea waterway. The two nations reportedly have inked a draft port access agreement for naval ships.
Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, is also developing oil and gasfields in Egypt, Mozambique and Algeria, and rival Lukoil has projects in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.
Moscow argues that it has a long history with the continent, as opposed to the ‘invader’ or ‘Johnny-come-lately’ tag that the US and its allies seek to discredit it with.
“Russian-African relations have a rich history, while, unlike the former global powers, Russia has not tainted itself with the crimes of slavery and colonialism,” the statement noted.
“In the middle of the last century, our country actively contributed to the achievement of national independence and sovereignty of African countries . . . Many African leaders are well aware of this.”
Following Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s tour of a number of African countries last year, during which various issues of Russian-African cooperation were discussed,
“The Russian Federation is successfully implementing programmes of cultural and humanitarian cooperation with various African countries, which include contacts in education, science, culture, art, the media and sport,” he noted.
“These efforts are aimed not only at consolidating cooperation with the African countries but also at resolving key African problems such as overcoming social inequality and the involvement of young Africans in sustainable economic development, to name a few.