Russia scrambles to be the next major economic player in Africa

A MiG-29 jet fighter. African countries have become some of the leading customers of Russian arms because the weapons are inexpensive and relatively easy to maintain and operate compared to those from the West. PHOTO | ANDREJ ISAKOVIC | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Moscow’s economic and diplomatic efforts are so far focused on those African countries that the Soviet Union supported in liberation struggles.

  • Russia has also begun prospecting for markets and political influence in East Africa.

  • Russia plays a more modest role as an arms supplier to Kenya.

  • Moscow’s weapons business is booming elsewhere on the continent.

While much attention is being given to the US-China competition in Africa, Russia has been striving, with little notice, to become another major player on the continent.

Moscow’s economic and diplomatic efforts are so far focused on those African countries that the Soviet Union supported in liberation struggles. Today’s Russia seeks to build on historical friendships with Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, as well as with post-apartheid South Africa.

Russia has also begun prospecting for markets and political influence in East Africa. The sub-region’s natural gas deposits are “of particular interest” to Russian energy companies, notes Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the London-based Chatham House think-tank.

Kenya’s and Uganda’s nuclear-power ambitions have also been identified by Russia’s state-owned Rosatom Corporation as offering opportunities for major investments.


Rosatom is bidding to design and build Kenya’s first nuclear plant, while the company last year signed a memorandum of understanding with Uganda to help launch a nuclear industry in that country.

Uganda has also become a leading customer of Russian arms merchants in recent years. Russia has accounted for nearly three-quarters of Uganda’s weapons imports during the past eight years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Russia plays a more modest role as an arms supplier to Kenya. Deliveries last year reportedly included a single transport helicopter for Kenyan police.

Moscow’s weapons business is booming elsewhere on the continent. It is the source of about 40 per cent of total African arms imports, Sipri says.


Last year, for example, a UN sanctions committee approved a sizable transfer of Russian arms to the embattled government of the Central African Republic. Also in 2017, Russia signed a $1 billion defence-cooperation agreement with Angola as well as a military-technical pact with Nigeria.

Russian weaponry is seen as attractive in parts of Africa because it is comparatively inexpensive and relatively easy to maintain and operate, notes Paul Stronski, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Intentional Peace.

Russia faces obstacles, however, in its push to secure equal footing in Africa with China and the US. Moscow lacks the economic and political resources available to Beijing and Washington, Mr Vines observes.


Russia is not even as powerful a force — in Africa or in the world generally — as was the Soviet Union, the Chatham House scholar adds. He points out Russia’s economy is roughly the same size as Australia’s.

“Unlike China, India, Brazil and Turkey, Russia is not an emerging or re-emerging power,” Mr Vines says. And because it cannot strongly compete with the US or China in Africa, Russia is working to develop niche markets in the armaments and energy sectors, he adds.

More direct Russian military involvement in Africa is occurring as well.

Russia is currently contributing 90 uniformed personnel to United Nations peacekeeping, mostly in Africa. While that number is not large, it does exceed the combined total of Africa peacekeepers supplied by the US, United Kingdom and France, observes Peter Pham, head of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.


Establishing a permanent military base is also part of Russia’s Africa agenda.

Moscow sought to share the Djibouti naval base that China recently built, but its overture was rebuffed, Mr Vines says, adding that Russia is now exploring the possibility of building a military base in Sudan.

The government led by Vladimir Putin views African markets as a vital alternative to those from which it has been excluded in Europe and North America due to international sanctions, Mr Stronski says.

Mr Putin also regards Africa, with its emerging economies, as a source not only of trade benefits but as a geopolitical terrain on which Russia can demonstrate that it should be taken seriously as a global power, Mr Pham adds.


Toward that end, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently undertook a diplomatic tour of five African countries. As is the case with broader elements of Russia’s role in Africa, Mr Lavrov’s visit was eclipsed by the simultaneous safari organised for then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Russia is specifically cultivating potential African allies for political backing in the UN. Africa holds about 25 percent of General Assembly seats and is assigned two rotating positions on the 15-member Security Council. As part of its effort to overcome its international isolation, Russia has endorsed Africa’s goal of obtaining at least one permanent seat on the Security Council.

These political overtures may find receptive audiences in African countries that do not want their foreign and economic policies to be dominated by relations with China and the US, Mr Stronski suggests. Russia also takes the same value-free approach as China in its dealings with African countries.


Both Russia and China differ in this way from the US, which attaches human rights and governance conditions to initiatives such as the Agoa preferential trade programme.

The aviation sector is also becoming a target for Russian manufacturers seeking customers in Africa. Russian suppliers of aircraft and air-traffic control equipment recently showcased their offerings at a forum in Nairobi that was part of a three-nation African prospecting tour.

Despite its claims of pending deals and investments in Africa, Russia exhibits “a significant gap between announcements and actual deliverables,” Mr Pham says.


He advises the Trump administration to pay attention to Russia’s presence in Africa but to avoid “over-hyping” the threat Moscow poses to Washington’s interests on the continent.

Mr Pham and other analysts point out that Russia commands little of the “soft power” employed by the US in Africa and around the world. Russian culture does not command much attention outside Russia itself, for example, and, as former US President Obama pointed out in 2014, “Russia doesn’t make anything” that consumers in Africa or elsewhere want to buy.