Putin woos 40 Africa lawmakers at Moscow conference with promises of money, nuclear power, arms and free grain

Putin woos 40 Africa lawmakers at Moscow conference with promises of money, nuclear power, arms and free grain
The battle for influence in Africa is heating up and Putin pulled out all the stops in a speech to lawmakers from over 40 African countries in Moscow. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 21, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin took time out from meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had just arrived in Moscow for a three-day state visit, to speak to lawmakers from more than 40 African countries on March 20 and woo them with generous promises of economic and military aid in a speech.

As the battle for influence in Africa heats up, Putin reminded delegates of Russia’s long-standing close ties and played on his favourite troupe of the need for a multipolar world, a sentiment echoed by many delegates, whilst vigorously rubbing raw the lingering resentment in Africa of the European colonial-era, to good effect.

“Ever since the African peoples’ heroic struggle for independence, it has been common knowledge that the Soviet Union provided significant support to the peoples of Africa in their fight against colonialism, racism and apartheid, how it helped many African countries to gain and protect their sovereignty, and consistently supported them in building their statehood, strengthening defence capabilities, laying the foundations of their national economies and workforce training,” Putin told the delegates to a round of applause.

The conference is a warm-up event ahead of the second Russia Africa summit slated for July in St Petersburg, where most of the continent’s heads of state are expected to attend. This will be the much-delayed second Russia-Africa summit after the first one, held in 2019 in Sochi, attended by 48 out of 54 African heads of state. Attempts to organise a second summit have been repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and then the start of the war in Ukraine.

As followed by bne IntelliNewsWestern and Russian diplomats have recently been travelling the world trying to shore up support in the clash that followed Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Africa has been a key battleground where Moscow has been able to capitalise on warm Cold War-era relations between Africa and the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has also been playing on and stoking lingering resentment amongst many Africans of the colonial period that still shapes politics today.

“I think that it is necessary to raise loudly the issue of compensating damage,” stressed Valentina Matvienko, the chairwoman of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament and the most powerful woman in Russian politics, who was also in attendance. “I mean financial payments to all the people in Africa who suffered during the colonial period from European oppressors, from the consequences of colonialism.”

Warm reception

Putin was playing to a receptive audience. Recent trips by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to South Africa and French President Emmanuel Macron to francophone Africa have not gone well. Blinken leaned on Petroia to end its trade and cooperation with Moscow, only to receive a cold shoulder. South Africa went ahead with joint naval exercises with Russia that began on February 24, the anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.

Macron was roasted by Felix Tshisekedi, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a joint televised press conference two weeks ago. “This must change, the way Europe and France treat us, you must begin to respect us and see Africa in a different way,” Tshisekedi said. “You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a paternalistic tone. As if you were already absolutely right and we were not.”

The parliamentary delegates have voiced similar complaints during their remarks to the summit in Moscow.

The Chairman of South Africa’s National Council of Provinces Amos Masondo said that “Russia has no colonial heritage in Africa and no African country sees Russia as an enemy. On the contrary, you helped us in our liberation, you are a reliable partner.” He echoed Putin’s favourite catchphrase, saying that his country stood for a multipolar world.

Putin is playing on a widespread feeling of resentment in Africa that its people are treated as second-class citizens by the Western world and excluded from the geopolitical decision-making process. Several delegates, including the President of the Senate of the Parliament of the Republic of Congo Pierre Ngolo and the Chairman of the National Council of the Republic of Namibia, Lukas Sinimbo Muha, called for a reform to the UN Security Council to make it more inclusive with at least one African seat.

“The permanent historical imbalance in the Security Council must be changed,” Muha said.

In counterpoint to the bad feelings left over from European colonialism in Africa is the warm regard many countries there have for the Soviet Union that supplied many liberation movements with arms as well taking the best African students into its higher educational institutes.

The Congo’s Ngolo recalled: “Relations between Russia and Africa became special during the period of struggle for independence, when the Soviet Union was the main force supporting the national liberation movements. Thus, the USSR became the defender of the oppressed. Then it was the USSR, and now it is Russia taking a special place among the friends of Congo in difficult times,” also adding that Congo backs the idea of a multipolar world.

There were similar remarks from the representatives of Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, Mali, and others.

Soviet Union revanche

Putin has followed through on Russia’s promise to play the same role in Africa today as the Soviet Union did before, which was already Kremlin policy before the war in Ukraine started.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Moscow earned a lot of credit by actively exporting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of its Sputnik V vaccine to many countries in Africa at a time when the West already had a full stock of vaccines to cover its own population but were reluctant to sell doses to Emerging Markets, in what was dubbed a “vaccine apartheid” by the director of the World Health Organisation. In October 2021, the WHO reported that rich countries had an average of 133 vaccine doses per 100 people, whereas low-income countries had less than four doses per 100 people.

“I want to emphasise that our country has always and will always consider cooperation with African states a priority. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is one of the unchanging priorities of Russia’s foreign policy,” Putin said. “During the coronavirus pandemic, Russia was among the first countries to provide African states with large volumes of vaccines, test kits, personal protective equipment, and other medical and humanitarian cargoes.”

Amongst the delegates to the Russia Africa conference were members of the scientific, educational, and expert communities from Russia and African countries, the State Duma, federal executive authorities, senators of the Federation Council, chairmen of the legislative bodies of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation, as well as representatives of the business community.

The US has largely ignored Africa as unimportant until recently, highlighted by the fact is only one full-scale military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, as described in a bne IntelliNews feature Playing Real Risk and investment into raw materials and energy on the Continent is dominated by China and Russia. The US held its own US-Africa summit in December that was attended by all 49 heads of state invited and has established a $600bn infrastructure fund led by the G-7 dedicated to Africa. However, Russia is much further ahead in terms of active investment projects on the continent.

Russia means business 

“Large Russian investment projects are being implemented in Africa, involving such domestic companies as Rosneft, Gazpromneft, RusHydro, ALROSA, Lukoil and many others. We will continue to help African countries with electricity production, which so far covers only a quarter of the continent’s needs,” Putin emphasised.

One of the main successes of the first Russia-Africa summit in 2021 was to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that Putin promised will integrate more closely with both the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EUU) as well as bilaterally with Russia itself.

“In the future, this zone will become a continental market with a total GDP of more than $3 trillion. We are in favour of actively developing ties with this new association both within the Eurasian Economic Union and bilaterally,” Putin added.

The promise of power is especially appealing as Russia has been actively selling its world-class nuclear power technology in Africa via the state-owned Rosatom, which is increasingly playing the same foreign policy role that Gazprom used to in places like Europe.

“Today we are offering new environmentally friendly technologies, primarily in nuclear energy. Rosatom is already building a nuclear power plant in Egypt and plans to expand its involvement in the development of the national energy systems of the African continent. I would like to note that significant, in some countries 100% funding, is provided by Russia. These are serious projects worth $15bn, $20bn or $25bn,” Putin said.

Nuclear power plant deals are particularly appealing to the Kremlin as in addition to locking in the client state with billions of dollars of debt, the NPP comes with typically 60-year servicing and fuel supply contracts that cement relations for the long term.

And Putin was flogging other Russian-made high-tech solutions. For example, Russia is helping to create the ANGOSAT satellite communication and television broadcasting system in Angola. Yandex is actively introducing information services to organise the transportation of passengers by taxi and other modes of transport in African countries.

“At the same time, Russia is always ready to share its technologies with African countries; it offers precisely joint, diverse technological development,” Putin said before specifically referring to military cooperation. “Military and defence industry cooperation continues, including the supply of Russian weapons and military equipment to African partners, and the training of relevant personnel. Currently, military personnel from over 20 African countries are studying at the institutes of the Russian Ministry of Defence.”

Russia’s Wagner PMC is already active in many African countries that are suffering from insurrections and Russia is a major supplier of arms and materiel across the continent.

And finally, Putin offered food. Russia is currently the world’s biggest grain exporter and Africa is particularly dependent on imports of Russian grain. A new Black Sea grain export deal was agreed on March 14, although some uncertainty remains over if it will run for 60 days or the full 120 days of the previous deals. The Kremlin’s room for manoeuvre on grain exports is limited as while preventing grain exports starves Kyiv of a major source of foreign exchange earnings, it also plunges Russia’s partners in Africa into famine and crisis. Putin assured delegates that would not happen.

“I would like to stress that Russia is reliably fulfilling all its obligations pertaining to the supply of food, fertilisers, fuel and other products that are critically important to the countries of Africa, helping to ensure their food and energy security,” Putin said. “You probably know that we are ready to supply some of the resources we have frozen in European countries to countries in need free of charge, including fertilisers; and the first batches have already been sent. But unfortunately, there are obstacles here as well.”

On the subject of grain exports, Putin didn’t miss the opportunity to rub raw the colonialist resentments by pointing out that while the Black Sea grain deal was sold as necessary to prevent famine in Africa, most of Ukraine’s grain was actually sold to the EU.

“For reference, I can give you the following information. From August 1, 2022, to March 20, 2023, 827 ships left Ukraine, of which only 3mn tonnes of grain were sent to Africa and 1.3mn to the poorest countries in Africa. As I said, almost 45% went to well-fed European countries, despite the fact that this whole deal was presented under the pretext of ensuring the interests of African countries,” Putin said. “By the way, let me note that at the same time, despite all the restrictions and limitations on the export of Russian grain, almost 12mn tonnes were sent from Russia to Africa.”

Putin went on to promise that if the deal does expire after 60 days, Russia was prepared to continue to export grain to Africa in the same volumes as under the deal, and send it to the countries in most need at no cost, which brought a round of applause.