Plenty of Western observers rushed to gloat about the sharp drop in high-level participation at last week’s Russia-Africa forum, down from 43 in 2019 to 17 this year. Reasons given for this supposed shift in sentiment ranged from anger over Russia’s decision to pull out of the Black Sea grain shipment deal and its impact on African food security, to a growing sense that the Kremlin’s mercenary and arms bazaar approach appeals only to a narrow set of African countries and former allies from the Soviet days.
Counterviews from elsewhere sought to portray the event as a qualified success despite intense Western efforts to scuttle it through anti-Russian propaganda and even direct threats. Besides doubling down on accusations of Western imperialism, Russia has focused on highlighting what it sees as concrete outcomes: offers of free grain shipments, debt cancellation and support for an African seat at the G20, presumably in addition to South Africa’s existing seat and akin to the European Union’s participation.
All these narratives are missing a key point: The Russian summit flopped because Moscow failed to address substantial deficiencies in its offering to Africa.
Out of touch
Watching the summit carefully, it’s hard not to conclude that the Russian strategists behind the Sochi spectacle are simply oblivious to the buzz, vibes and flavours of modern Africa.
Considering that Russia represents just a fraction of the trade and investment power of China, the EU and the US in Africa – closer in heft to Turkey or South Korea – Moscow’s continued desire to summon African leaders to a stage rivalling the great powers must be matched with a sharper understanding of African priorities, trends and interests. It cannot afford to be complacent.
The spectacle in Sochi in recent years shows Russia doesn’t get it. The Kremlin’s offerings of food handouts and language exchange programmes, coupled with hot air around project pledges that ultimately go nowhere, betray an outdated mindset in which mere tokens of symbolic solidarity are good enough for an Africa exasperated by Western disrespect.
Until this mindset changes, Russia’s African soirees will fail to sparkle.
Can’t flip this flop
Before delving into explanations, it is important not to mince words: the summit did flop.
Russia sent invitations to all 54 African countries recognised by the United Nations. It leveraged its diplomatic resources to the hilt to ensure maximum attendance at the highest levels. But in the end, only 16 heads of state or government showed up, a 63% drop in representation from 2019.
There is no denying that Russia has positioned itself as a competitor for African affection against the US and the European Union, both of which recently held similar events attended by more than 40 African leaders.
So why did the Russian charm offensive fail? In a word, because Moscow’s offering to Africa is too bland:
1. Unequal trade only getting worse
Virtually all African exports to Russia are in the form of primary commodities: gems, rare earth metals, nuts, fruits, and cocoa. Russia on the other hand exports substantial quantities of machinery, refined hydrocarbons, fertilisers and chemicals to Africa.
Following its invasion of Ukraine, Russia increased refined hydrocarbon exports to Africa more than 13-fold. It has also boosted exports of machinery and automobiles to more than $5bn. Imports of manufactured goods from Africa, meanwhile, remain virtually non-existent even as the share of manufactured goods in Africa’s total exports stands at nearly 60%.
Russia has no programme like the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) duty-free import scheme or the EU’s Everything But Arms/Economic Partnership Agreements (EBA/EPA), which can provide a pathway for some value-added products from Africa to reach its shores.
2. Few real trade partners
Russia seems comfortable with a situation in which only four countries account for more than 70% of its total trade with the continent: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and South Africa.
As long as these scarce partners continue to provide a hefty trade surplus – Russia imported $1.6bn worth of goods from Africa and exported $12.4bn in 2020 – the Kremlin’s strategists appear satisfied with the arrangement. This heavily lopsided trade situation reduces Russia’s capacity for economic diplomacy.
3. Lagging technology transfer
The general configuration of Russia’s economic relationship with Africa simply does not allow the kinds of flows that the continent wants and needs: technology transfer, private equity and venture capital co-investing, cross-border venture incubation and institutional tie-ups in creative financial deal-making.
Russian banks such as the majority state-owned VTB (formerly International Trade Bank) are better known for opaque government deals, such as the tuna bonds scandal in Mozambique, than for any serious M&A or other sophisticated financial dealmaking. Meanwhile Russian technology companies, unlike Chinese ones, have almost no localisation activities in Africa.
Russia’s overall foreign direct investment (FDI) activity is also heavily concentrated. Over the past few years, more than 70% of Russian FDI – accounting for just 1% of Africa’s total inflows over the past decade – has been concentrated in a nuclear facility in Egypt.
Debt forgiveness diplomacy is also lagging. Most of Russia’s debt stock dates from the Soviet era, and cancellations, as was seen in Angola and Algeria, are often tied to fresh arms deals. This has contributed to making Russia Africa’s largest arms supplier.
4. Wasted soft power
President Vladimir Putin spent about a third of his speech at the forum talking about teaching Russian in African countries and introducing Russian “pedagogy” on the continent; persuading Africans to attend sporting and cultural events in Russia; urging high-end African tourism to Russia; and boosting Russian media exports to Africa.
Many of these hopes are anchored in the 35,000 African students enrolled in Russian institutions of higher learning and other cultural and educational exchanges. Comparable numbers of Africans study in the US, but a far greater percentage of those stay on to build careers and create bridges. Russia’s highly bureaucratic environment for foreign students severely limits the prospects of African graduates of Russian universities advancing Russia’s image and prospects once they return home.
5. Inadequate follow-through
Russia lacks the capacity to translate grand diplomatic initiatives, of the type exemplified by the forum, into concrete programmes.
An exhaustive effort to trace the outcomes and results of the 92 deals touted at the 2019 forum – from railway hubs in Nigeria to oil refineries in Morocco – found little of significance.
Tellingly, virtually no status updates were provided on the vast majority of these deals during last week’s forum. For example, this reporter could find no evidence that the deployment of Russian Promobot AI systems in Nigeria promised at the 2019 forum ever happened.
It is true that US, European and Chinese projects also tend to languish due to local capacity issues. As a result, a sprawling consulting industry has developed to facilitate project execution. The problem for Russia is that this complex is heavily Western-dominated. Russia has not bothered to invest in this area, preferring to focus on sales and marketing even when business development is key to unlocking African opportunities.
China has learnt this the hard way, hence Beijing’s tactical retreat from infrastructure projects across Africa, with Belt & Road investments falling 55% this year.
6. Mismatched priorities
At a time when Africa is grappling with multiple existential crises, the Russians failed to schedule any serious discussion on the redistributional effects of growth or environmental and social justice.
With many African countries exploring climate finance and keen for fresh thinking on how to marry social, environmental and governance expectations with the hard realities of poverty and underdevelopment, the absence of such themes made the event look out of touch.
A visible mark of this limitation was the very poor gender and youth balance on panels, with old men over-represented both in hallways and on stage.
7. Ignoring civil society
Likewise, the Russians made virtually no effort to represent the voices of African civil society regarding political accountability and transparency.
This may have been deliberate, as Putin’s autocratic regime often describes such efforts as a Western Trojan horse. Still, shunning civil society seems counterproductive for the Kremlin given that large swathes of African civil society are part of international social movements that are heavily critical of Western global leadership.
8. Lack of African cultural representation
The entire event was devoid of any serious African cultural expression. African artists and cultural icons have exploded onto the global scene and are now seen headlining important international events. None were to be found in St. Petersburg.
9. Little African bluechip engagement
Given the lack of fresh thinking on global trends at the forum, it was not surprising that blue-chip corporate participation from Africa dropped by 80% in 2019. That year, c-suite representatives from some of Africa’s biggest companies had turned up in force.
Senior bosses from household names such as Naspers, Transnet, TDB, AFC, Oando and a host of national business champions all attended in 2019. Even though this was still far lower than the level seen at premium events such as Davos, it was still a respectable showing compared to this year’s situation.
10. No engagement with the start-up community
True, the case could be made that the African growth story is now more driven by startups, innovation brokers and greentech enthusiasts than large established corporations. The problem is, this new class of entrepreneurs was also nowhere to be found.
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