Russia-Africa summit: what was in it for Africa?

Do partner summits add value to the search for a better African continent?

The recent Russia-Africa Summit, originally slated for October 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, took place in July 2023 in St Petersburg due to the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia.

Unlike previous forums, the 2023 convening was crucial for an increasingly isolated Russia to bolster relations with and support from African states. It needs the continent for votes in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and to expand its economic, political and geostrategic influence. The summit also allowed Moscow to demonstrate its capability to circumvent Western efforts to isolate it over the war in Ukraine.

Ultimately, the summit confirmed Russia’s importance in Africa’s affairs

Ultimately, the summit confirmed Russia’s importance in Africa’s affairs and led to a declaration outlining some of Moscow’s plans for the continent. However, emerging promises from the summit raise doubts about whether intentions will translate into outcomes in Africa’s interest.

Low turnout by African leaders

The summit was significant for Africa following the disruption to grain exports and the effects of Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports. However, wider fallout from the tensions around Ukraine led to low turnout of African heads of state at St Petersburg. While the number of delegations attending the meeting increased from 48 in the October 2019 summit to 49, the number of heads of state dropped by 60%. From 43 heads of state in 2019, 2023 witnessed only 17 attending.

African leaders’ participation at Russia-Africa summits

 African leaders’ participation at Russia-Africa summits
click on the map for the full size image)

Some policy actors interviewed by the PSC Report attributed the low turnout of African heads of state to concerns over Putin’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, controversies around Wagner Group’s activities in Africa and the tensions between Africa and the West around the Ukraine crisis.

As not much resulted from the 2019 Sochi summit, others also believe the lower turnout of heads of state could also be attributed to the growing fatigue of African states in participating in the growing club of Africa+1 summits. But the Kremlin blames the West, particularly the United States (US) and France, for exerting unprecedented pressure on African states to prevent the summit from taking place. However, this view downplays African states’ agency in choosing how to engage with their international partners.

Moscow’s limited offering

A key outcome of the summit was Moscow’s offer to send 25 000 to 50 000 tonnes of cost-free grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic (CAR) and Eritrea within three to four months. While this move acknowledges the importance of the uninterrupted grain supply to African countries, Moscow’s continued attacks on Ukraine’s ports, which destroy tonnes of grain destined for African countries, communicates a contradictory approach. It raises concerns about whether Russia’s promise of grain is matched by its commitment to ensuring unhindered grain exports to Africa.

Moscow’s attacks on Ukraine’s ports have destroyed tonnes of grain destined for African countries

Amid the food insecurity issues orchestrated by the Ukraine crisis, the volume of grain offered to the six African countries pales in comparison to the 32.9 million tonnes of grain shipped under the Black Sea Grain Initiative to various African countries. Africa will continue to suffer the effect of interferences in the Black Sea Initiative through soaring food prices with dire implications on the stability of many states.

Many have also raised concerns about the choice of beneficiary countries and whether the choice of states has any relationship with the voting patterns of those countries on matters concerning the Ukraine war at the UN General Assembly or on their dynamic military security relations with Russia.

The promise of peace

The African peace initiative in June was discussed, with African leaders pushing Putin to move forward with their plan to end the war. Their interventions, with a visible role of the African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson on the second day of the summit, were more concerted and forceful than the June overture. They underlined the depth of African concern at the war’s consequences, particularly energy and grain supply disruptions.

While Putin expressed interest in considering the African initiative, he also praised China’s efforts to find a solution to the conflict. This represents a notable departure from his stance in June. Then, the Kremlin maintained that the African initiative would be challenging to implement; at the summit, he suggested that it could be the basis for processes seeking peace.

The African initiative, however, demonstrates the willingness and ability of African states to contribute to global crisis management through diplomacy rather than as regular recipients of the world’s support. African efforts are likely to remain tainted by perceptions around the extent to which Russia seriously considers the African peace mission as the central option towards peace, as opposed to considering it merely as a diplomatic formality by a host country.

So far, African states’ voting on UN General Assembly resolutions has shown that the continent remains divided on the Ukraine issue. The Kremlin’s military-security interests in Africa, including now-deceased Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attendance at the summit, raise questions about the peace and security implications of Russia-Africa military engagement. Wagner’s activities in Africa have allegedly helped fund Russia’s war in Ukraine, pillaged civilian populations and led to human rights atrocities.

A mechanism for monitoring progress from Africa+1 summits is imperative

Moreover, Russia’s invitation to the summit of suspended military juntas contradicts its commitment to close security cooperation with Africa. It raises questions about Moscow’s respect for AU’s efforts to address Africa’s challenges and how the continent’s partnership with Russia should be shaped moving forward.

More declarations, fewer deeds?

Moscow’s 2019 summit pledge to expand and diversify trade with Africa to US$40 billion within five years has fallen flat. This outcome is yet to be seen. Trade volumes have, instead, plummeted to around US$18 billion a year and tilted in Russia’s favour. Outcomes of this year’s summit, particularly Moscow’s promise to deliver grain to African countries are likely to be fulfilled, but implementing an Africa-led peace initiative on Ukraine might be unlikely in the near- to medium-term. A mechanism for monitoring progress from Africa+1 summits is imperative.

At the same time, Africa’s leaders must begin to look inward for solutions to crises. The Ukraine war’s consequences on the continent make it no longer a ‘non-African conflict’. Food price shocks could fuel public discontent and exacerbate state-society tensions, adding to complex threats to peace and security in Africa. This provides a valid interest for Africa’s leaders to want an end to the war.

A PSC session dedicated to discussing the cycle between armed conflict and food insecurity will be a first step to break the heavy reliance on Ukraine and Russia for grain. Commitment to constructively addressing conflict in Africa is crucial to boost food sovereignty in line with the Dakar 2 summit’s outcomes.

Better organised and coordinated African-led mediation is needed to intensify diplomatic efforts to end the war. This would also position African states as active stakeholders in crisis diplomacy based on their own values, principles and commitments to a peaceful international order.

Africa’s delegation should be bold enough to call out Russia’s inconsistencies, such as preaching food security while attacking Ukrainian grain ports. The AU PSC should also leverage such platforms to support the implementation of continental institutions’ major decisions. In relation to the management of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa, for instance, it is time for the AU to work with partners to avoid inviting suspended states to such summits. It is also time for African countries attending such summits to critically review both the value addition of such meetings to the development of their countries and their contribution to the search for a better Africa.

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