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Africa must speak with one voice

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Picture: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/ Taken on January 18, 2023 A military member stands at the site where a helicopter crashed near a kindergarten outside the capital Kyiv, killing sixteen people, including two children and Ukrainian interior minister, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The summit will address the crisis that the Russia-Ukraine war has created globally for food security, as well the tensions of a divided world, the writer says.

By Sizo Nkala

Russia will host the second instalment of the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg from July 27 to 28. The inaugural summit, held in Sochi, Russia, in 2019, was attended by 45 heads of state and all of Africa’s 54 countries were represented.

The meeting produced a declaration in which the parties committed to taking the first step towards the institutionalisation of Russia-Africa relations through the establishment of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, with the summit as the supreme body. The declaration also touched on enhancing co-operation between Russia and Africa in several areas, including trade and economic development, security, science and technology, diplomacy, and environmental protection.

About 92 agreements and memorandums worth 1 trillion roubles were signed at the gathering. However, a lot has happened since the parties met in 2019. The summit took place on the eve of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed almost 7 million people around the world and plunged the global economy into a recession. The world is still recovering from the unprecedented disruption caused by the pandemic.

The second event of global import is the Russia-Ukraine war, which began in February 2022. The war has been raging for 17 months and has also disrupted critical supply chains for food, fertilisers and energy, just as the global economy was recovering from the pandemic.

The conflict has escalated tensions between Russia and the US, and divided opinion in the world, including in Africa. While 28 African countries voted in favour of a UN resolution to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, 17 abstained, Eritrea voted against it, and eight countries did not vote. At the top of the coming summit’s agenda will be the war in Ukraine.

The economic repercussions of the war have been debilitating for Africa, where a significant number of countries import grain and fertilisers from both Russia and Ukraine, whose supplies have been constrained by the fighting. Moreover, the destabilisation of the global energy markets led to an increase in global inflation, which further impoverished hundreds of millions of already struggling African citizens.

Hence, African leaders must take the opportunity to push for an end to the war. A contingent of African leaders visited Russia and Ukraine last month to communicate Africa’s desire for a peaceful end to the conflict. On the other hand, Russia will also seek to use the summit to convince more African leaders to support its adventure in Ukraine and to demonstrate to the world, especially to the West, that it still enjoys Africa’s support.

The West has been leading a spirited campaign for the global isolation of Russia after it invaded Ukraine. High-ranking US officials, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Vice-President Kamala Harris, have made trips to Africa where they blamed Russia for causing global inflation and undermining the global order.

The US Strategy Towards subSaharan Africa, released by Blinken in August last year, specifically labelled Russia as a negative influence in Africa. Therefore, Russia will be happy to use the upcoming meeting to advance a counter-narrative. Russia will be keen to remind Africa of its solid anti-colonial credentials, which have been the main reason countries such as South Africa have refused to condemn it for its actions in Ukraine.

Economic co-operation will also probably figure prominently in the deliberations of the summit. Economic co-operation between Russia and Africa is relatively subdued, and this summit will be important in exploring avenues to intensify economic relations. Trade between Russia and Africa stands at $14 billion (about R252bn) compared with $65bn in trade between US and Africa, and $254bn between China and Africa.

Trade between Russia and Africa has declined since the first summit in Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to increase trade flows. In terms of investment, Russia is not even among the top 10 sources of foreign direct investment for Africa. Nonetheless, there is real potential for the parties to expand their economic relationship, especially in the energy sector.

Russia will be eager to expand its penetration of Africa’s energy markets in a bid to blunt the impact of western sanctions. Russia’s oil products to Africa increased from just fewer than 100,000 barrels a day in March 2022 to more than 400,000 barrels a day in March 2023.

Another important area of discussion will be security co-operation. Between 2017 and 2021, Russia supplied 44 percent of African countries’ imports of major arms, becoming Africa’s largest arms supplier. The Russian private paramilitary force, the Wagner Group, has also expanded its footprint in Africa, helping to maintain security in several countries, including Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mozambique and Libya.

Beyond material gains, these kinds of gatherings provide an important platform for building long-lasting relationships through establishing stable channels of communication and co-operation. Nobody expects Putin to announce jaw-dropping amounts of financial aid for Africa like the leaders of China, Japan and the US do in their respective forums with Africa.

Russia simply does not have that economic muscle. However, Russia is still a major power with significant global influence, and its partnership with Africa is of immense strategic value. African countries should avoid seeking individual benefits from these forums. The Continent would gain more from these summits with major powers if African countries would co-ordinate their interests and negotiate from a collective position.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies