SEATTLE — Discussing “great power” competition in Africa has recently been reserved for the U.S. and the rising influence of China. But under the more ambitious and status-seeking leadership of Vladimir Putin, some experts see a revival of Russian investment in Africa as imminent. As of 2014, Russia had deployed more troops for the U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa than the U.S., France and the United Kingdom combined. According to the Atlantic Center’s Africa Center, between 2000 and 2012 trade between Africa and Russia rose tenfold.
While China’s vast infrastructure and commercial credits have garnered much attention, Russian investment in Africa seems to have gone unnoticed. From higher education and training, to investment in the tourism industry in Tunisia, Russia is providing more than just military arms to the African continent.
Although there are strategic, political and economic factors driving this renewed Russian interest, another global player in Africa could provide healthy competition among the established world powers for greater investment and development aid on the continent.
Soviet Influence on the Continent Was Far-Reaching
Russian engagement in Africa is nothing new. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested heavily in pushing back the colonial ambitions of the U.S. and promoting its own communist ideology there. Massive investments in arms and manpower were posited as legitimate ways of assisting anticolonial, left-leaning movements.
But once the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the disengagement from Africa was sudden. Multiple embassies were shut down in the 1990s and economic adventurism abroad was curtailed. Russian leaders like Boris Yeltsin agreed that excessive foreign aid to developing countries, many of them in Africa, was one cause of the country’s economic plight.
But the Soviet footprint was already recognizable. At the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the Russian influence was evident in cross-cultural ties between Russia and Africa. By 1991, Soviet universities had already accommodated more than 50,000 African students. The Soviet Union also provided military and technical training in Africa; as many as 200,000 Africans had been trained by the time of its collapse.
Nevertheless, the tussle for ideological influence and raw material extraction was left to other global powers. Only recently has this changed. After withdrawing from the continent for more than two decades, Russia is again, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, regarding Africa as its rightful sphere of influence.
Russia’s Recent Engagement in Africa
While the departure of strategic interest was abrupt, today’s accompanying rise in Russian investment in Africa has been more measured. But that does not mean it has been inconsequential.
Some dimensions of Soviet development in Africa during the Cold War have returned, such as training and educational assistance. Training Africans in various strategic sectors of the economy is one aspect of what Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov referred to in Russian View magazine in 2014 as one of the “significant [and]practical steps to assist sustainable development of African states.” At the time of Lavrov’s statement, more than 6,500 Africans were enrolled in Russian universities, almost half of these paid for by the government.
Other development initiatives include providing almost 1,000 grants a year in the region and establishing the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
There are also more novel approaches being implemented by Russia in Tunisia. Between 2012 and 2016, Tunisia suffered several high-profile terrorist attacks, prompting a decline in routine European holiday travel and tourism spending. Russia has been filling the gap in revenue and propping up the struggling tourism industry in Tunisia ever since. In 2016, 600,000 Russian tourists visited the North African country, representing more than 10 percent of total tourist arrivals that year.
The U.S. Pivot to…Africa?
Skeptics say these measures, while encouraging from a developmental and humanitarian standpoint, simply cover up the extensive arms trade and Russia’s interest in raw material extraction. That misses the point. Regardless of political and strategic underpinnings of these active measures in Africa, Russia is providing a wake-up call for other global players, specifically the United States.
U.S. direct investment in Africa has been on the decline. Bilateral trade fell from $100 billion in 2008 to $39 billion in 2017. Greater energy independence of the U.S. might account for large parts of this drop—70 percent of African imports to the U.S. are for oil products—but other priorities in the Middle East might also be contributing to the wane in U.S. investment.
Russian Investment in Africa May Be Spurring a U.S. Reaction
Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government foreign aid agency, the U.S. recently invested $6.5 billion in 14 African countries. These investments were aimed at encouraging economic integration across Africa and nurturing an environment in which North American investments could thrive.
In February 2018, the U.S. government established a federal agency which could streamline functions of USAID and Overseas Private Investment. The Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act’s primary concern will be investment in sub-Saharan Africa.
Of course, the belief that the sole driving force behind these latest U.S. investments can be attributed only to renewed Russian investment in Africa is too simplistic. There are strategical, geopolitical and domestic considerations for both countries. But, combined with the rise of Chinese influence on the continent, this most recent push by Russia might ignite further interest in Africa from the U.S. and its allies.
Commenting on Russia’s disengagement in Africa over the last 20 years, John Endres, the Chief Executive Officer of Good Governance Africa, was quoted by Pambazuka News as saying, “The most conspicuous aspect of Russia’s involvement in Africa is its absence.” One hopes the same will not be said about the U.S. in years to come.
– Nathan Ghelli