SOCHI, Russia — As the Turkish presidential plane carried President Recep Tayyip Erdogan across the Black Sea from Sochi, Russia, back to Ankara last week, dozens of African heads of state arrived in this resort city for the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit the next morning.
During two days at a convention center in the Olympic Village in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin and his administration signed $12.5 billion worth of memorandums with more than 40 African governments for mining, oil and exploitation, nuclear energy, military cooperation and more, according to Russian statistics.
Having wrapped up a deal on Monday, Oct. 21, with Erdogan to take over parts of northeastern Syria — after American forces beat a hasty and confused retreat there — by the end of last week, Putin had made major plays for power across two continents.
An anti-colonial narrative
Amid balmy temperatures in Sochi, Putin set the tone early for the narrative that echoed throughout the summit. Building on the Soviet legacy of funding anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Russia pitched itself as offering a second independence for African countries reliant on the West or on China. The Soviet Union was a major power in Africa for decades, helping prop up political entities against the West, including Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Sekou Touré in Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.
Putin’s rhetoric was well received at the summit, especially by countries that collaborated with the Soviet Union in the past. In his bilateral meeting with Putin, Namibian President Hage Geingob, whose political party SWAPO received training and arms from the Soviet Union during Namibia’s independence war against the South African apartheid regime, told Putin: “During the difficult times, we were together. Now is the time that our old friends can come, and we’ll see how we can cooperate to what we call our second liberation struggle: that of economic emancipation.”
Ayanda Dlodlo, the South Africa minister of state security, was similarly enthusiastic about Russia’s return, brushing off concerns that the relationship could be potentially dangerous.
“Russia will never dictate to South Africa what South Africa needs to do,” she told PassBlue. “If anything, it’s one of those countries that never had an appetite to colonize or even bully any other nation. We’re happy with our relationship to Russia.”
True intentions or power projection?
Russia began taking Africa more seriously in 2014, when the United States and the European Union placed debilitating sanctions against Russia for its illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, forcing Russia to find new trading partners. In the last decade, it has tripled its annual trade with Africa to nearly $20 billion, and Putin announced that he wanted to double that amount in the next five years.
Sochi, a few hundred miles southeast of Crimea, is home to rolling green hills, nestled between an imposing mountainous backdrop and the placid Black Sea. Historically a resort town and summer getaway (Stalin had a residence in the forest just outside of town), Putin has held many of his biggest diplomatic initiatives at the Russian presidency’s summer residence here, including meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Putin revitalized the city by pouring billions of dollars of infrastructure into a winning bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and as a result, much of Sochi feels brand-new. The summit was held at a convention center in the Olympic Park that was easily sequestered from the rest of the city by Russian police and military.
Top members of the Russian cabinet and officials from state nuclear, oil, mining and military export firms were present and signed numerous memorandums worth billions of dollars. Russia’s major oil company, Lukoil, inked deals for hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Rwanda. The Russian mining firm Rosgeologia signed sweeping deals with South Sudan, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and others.
Summit attendees spoke highly of the economic potential that Putin’s interest in Africa could deliver. “There are a lot of ways African countries can work with Russia to develop key infrastructure, create industries and bring themselves to middle income,” Pravin Gordhan, South Africa’s public investment minister, told PassBlue.
Sierra Leone’s mines minister, Fodat Rado Yokie, encouraged such Russian investment in his mineral-rich country, saying on a panel that the Russian state mining firm is known for sharing its data, which would help Sierra Leone leverage its resources against Western companies. “We have always negotiated from a position of weakness because we don’t know what we have,” Yokie said.
While many memorandums were signed, actual contracts were few and far between, inviting speculation as to whether the summit was more about power projection than real business.
Russian and Nigerian officials announced an ambitious memorandum to build a railway from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, to Calabar, in the southeast of the country. Despite the fanfare coming from this memorandum, its implementation is muddled: the Nigerian transport ministry’s own website announced an agreement for the railway in 2016, in partnership with a Chinese firm. A top Nigerian official told PassBlue that maybe the deal with Russia “is just to send a message to [the Chinese] that you’ve got competition.”
Likewise, skepticism surrounds the biggest announced deals in the nuclear energy sector. Although Russia’s state nuclear firm, Rosatom, has signed MOUs with 18 African countries, its chief executive, Alexey Likhachev, told reporters that only Egypt, Rwanda and Zambia have shown they are serious about getting started. Officials from Rwanda and Zambia, however, said they first needed to conduct feasibility reports. They estimate they are two decades away from developing nuclear energy.
Nigeria signed an MOU with Rosatom in 2017 to develop two nuclear power plants, but no progress has been made because Nigerian officials were never serious about such projects, according to a Nigerian energy consultant who asked not to be named.
It is also hard to assess the exact results of the MOUs because the vast majority of them were signed behind closed doors. Moreover, few heads of state offered press appearances to outlets other than Russian media or their own state-run media. Few American media made the trip to Sochi other than PassBlue, and only a handful of French journalists were present.
Most leaders and other top officials rebuffed reporters’ questions. The deputy head of analytics and forward planning of Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosonbornexport’s Andrey Kryukov; Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed; Guinean President Alpha Condé; and Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré all refused to answer questions from PassBlue, giving no reason other than “I am not doing interviews.”
Russia, of course, is not known as a haven for free press, and the suspicious killing of three Russian journalists who were investigating Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic in 2018 does not bode well for public accountability of its increased engagement in Africa.
Military encroachment and consequences
Russia is perhaps most serious about exporting arms to the continent. It is now Africa’s largest arms supplier, although 80 percent of the weapons go to one country, Algeria, according to Pentagon officials quoted in The New York Times.
African countries have been eager to develop defense ties with Russia, much to the chagrin of the American military. Namibian President Hage Geingob told Putin, “Our military people say they want to go back to the olden days and have Russian military advisers,” while Russia flew two nuclear bomber aircraft to South Africa for a military visit right before the summit.
Russian weapons officials advertised their services at the summit by using Putin’s forays in the Middle East as a selling point. Kryukov of Rosonboronexport told a panel called “A Safe Africa”: “You saw how we crushed the terrorists in Syria.” Rosonboronexport’s benefactor in Syria, President Assad, is well known for using sarin gas and dropping barrel bombs on Syrian civilian neighborhoods. And Russia’s own air force has targeted hospitals in Syria many times in the war, violating international law and spurring a new United Nations investigation into the bombings.
A lack of American interest in Africa and Trump’s racist comments about the continent (calling it a “shithole,”) have helped opened the path for Russia to return to the fold. John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, said in his December 2018 outline of Trump’s Africa strategy that Russia “continues to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations — votes that keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security, and run counter to the best interests of the African people.”
Although Bolton himself is an architect of the disastrous 2003 Iraq war and is considered by many experts to be a war criminal, it’s hard to argue that more weapons from any country will bring peace, stability and prosperity to the African continent.
Nearly 2,000 businesses were present at the summit, according to official figures, and though visitors were intrigued by stands selling Russian vodka, agricultural products, health care technology and other goods, the Russian weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov had probably the most popular stands. Delegates from African countries and Russia stopped to try out models of the latest assault rifles and admire rocket launchers, model tanks and helicopters on display. They tried out a virtual-reality shooting range.
Across from the Kalashnikov stand, the Ivory Coast delegation advertised coffee and cocoa to potential Russian suitors. One delegate told PassBlue that while many people were admiring the guns and posing for selfies with them, military diplomacy “is an old way of doing business, and I think we in Africa are past that point.”
Other leaders disagreed. Central African Republic’s President Faustin Archange-Touadéra talked up the idea of a permanent Russian military base in his beleaguered country, while South Sudan’s embattled President Salva Kiir, who flew to Russia on a RwandAir jet because South Sudan doesn’t have a presidential plane, attended the conference with big hopes. The United Nations has placed an arms embargo on South Sudan, which will be angling for an exemption similar to the one that the Central African Republic got in 2017. (Days earlier, Kiir met with the UN Security Council in its trip to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.)
Nigeria has shown a clear intent on collaborating with Russia in the defense sector, especially after American human-rights concerns held up a contract to sell Nigeria some American fighter jets. The Russian news agency RIA reported that Nigeria bought 12 attack helicopters at the summit, but this has yet to be confirmed by Nigeria.
France has the most to lose
At the request of France, in 2013 the UN Security Council restricted the sale of arms to the Central African Republic without UN approval. In 2017, Russia sought and was granted a controversial exemption to sell arms to the Central African Republic government by the Council. Russia then doubled down on its commitment by sanctioning the deployment of Kremlin-linked mercenaries from the Wagner Group to assure the personal security of Central African Republic’s president and his administration, as well as training its armed forces. In exchange, the Wagner Group gained access to diamonds and other lucrative mineral deposits.
The move angered France, whose troops have been based in the country on and off since it colonized the territory in the late 1800s. In 2016, France withdrew its most recent military peacekeeping mission, Opération Sangaris, after accusations that it was not protecting civilians and that some of its soldiers had sexually abused children.
While disturbed by the speed and efficiency with which Russia upended France’s control over the Central African Republic, the Quai d’Orsay – France’s foreign ministry — is much more concerned now about a possible Russian military foray into an area vital to its interests: the Sahel region of West Africa.
With 5,000 troops stationed there and billions of dollars committed to Opérations Serval and Barkhane for more than half a decade, France regards the Sahel — and West Africa generally — as an integral zone to secure resources, win important votes at the UN, prevent a dangerous jihadist takeover of friendly countries and stop migration from Africa to France and elsewhere in Europe. France guards these interests through military means by securing the stability of the countries under its sphere of influence: Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Senegal, to name a few of the Francophone nations.
If Russia were to make a similar push to establish military ties in any of these countries, as it did in the Central African Republic, it would upset a political balance and threaten French hegemony. Some West African countries like Burkina Faso have already signed military cooperation memorandums with the Russians, and Niger has made favorable moves toward one as well.
Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, Alpha Barry, tweeted that Burkina’s president asked Russia “to help the Sahel and Ecowas countries in the fight against terrorism.” [Ecowas is the Economic Community of West African States.]
Barry said that Putin responded, “We will help the Sahel.”
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali said, “It is clear we need your help” in defense matters. (The UN has one of its largest peacekeeping missions in Mali.)
Even the Ivory Coast president, Alassane Ouattara — whose friend Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the French helicopter strikes that tipped the balance against Ouattara’s rival Laurent Gbagbo after he tried to annul the 2010 election results — was open to the idea of Russian influence in the region.
Ouattara told Russian media at the summit: “We’re all aware of the important role Putin plays internationally. Thanks to him, peace reigns in multiple regions of the world.” Ouattara also pointed out the importance of collaboration at the UN, noting, “Côte d’Ivoire is on the Security Council right now, and we have an excellent collaboration with the Russian ambassador.”
Russian officials at the summit were clear that they were counting on resistance from Western nations in their continent-wide push. “The countries that always thought of Africa as their own territory will try to hinder our economic partnerships,” said Mikhail Anichkin, the head of Peacemaker International Security Center, a program of the Russian government.
Russia’s renewed interest in the continent could be characterized as a simple power projection designed to irk China, the US and France. Or it could be viewed as a real, concerted effort to overturn Africa’s economic and political alliances.
Either way, everyone is now watching Putin’s next move in Africa. That alone may count as a Russian victory.
This story was updated on Oct. 29, 2019.
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Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in New York City. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded Sahelien.com, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.