News images of African political leaders smilingly handling Kalashnikov rifles and other deadly weapons on exhibit at the recent Russia-Africa summit unnerved observers who recall how strife racked the African continent during the Cold War. The Russian-made AK47 was the killing machine of choice during the decades when global superpowers played a violent game on the chessboard of Africa.
A younger generation was not as troubled by the imagery. Arms makers plying their trade at the summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi were simply businessmen showcasing goods to countries that might need them, it was argued.
The principal message of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum was that Russia was keen to assist African countries however it could – including helping them deal with security threats such as jihadi insurrectionism.
Other wares peddled on the side-lines of the meeting – which saw an impressive 43 African heads of state in attendance on the personal invitation of Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin – included nuclear power, financial services, food, media and digital expertise.
The summit was the centrepiece of Moscow’s new drive into Africa which is widely seen as an attempt to catch up with China and India in fostering geopolitical influence in Africa after years of minimal engagement. Old Soviet Union connections to African liberation movements in parts of Africa were heavily leveraged at the meeting, held on 23 and 24 October.
Beyond nostalgia for the anti-colonial struggle, the Africans were keen to hear what modern Russia had to say. The US of Donald Trump is actively disengaging with much of the world, while China is showing signs of a tougher attitude to debt problems in Africa, so there are market gaps.
Putin admits his country cannot begin to match the financial muscle of China, but has other things to offer – like friendly advice, nuclear power stations, trade opportunities, friendly advice and guns. In return, he wants access to markets, support in international fora, preferential infrastructure contracts and mining concessions.
The approach is dubbed “soft power”, the sort of thing Westerners have been dealing in for centuries – though sometimes not so softly.
“The Russians have their own way of thinking, different from the Western patterns,” Jose Matemulane, head of a new St Petersburg-based think-tank called Afric, told the New York Times in Sochi. “I used to tell people: Russians are nothing else than white Africans, white blacks.”
For their part, the African leaders say they welcome more options in their international alliances. It is a free market; may the best deal win.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who spent much of the summit at Putin’s side, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the other side, said his country wanted foreign investment but would remain independent from outside influence.
Ramaphosa said there was a dramatic rebalancing of relationships between the world’s advanced economies and the African continent. China, Russia and other large economies want to forge greater economic ties with Africa to “harness the current climate of reform, the deepening of good governance, macro-economic stability and the opening up of economies across the continent for mutual benefit”, he added.
Cynics argue that African politicians see Putin as an international maverick and calculate they might benefit from his efforts to outdo the West in a friendship arm-wrestle. The cynical narrative further suggests the Russians are not as morally prescriptive as the West and will not be insisting on onerous conditionalities in any deals struck.
The counter argument is that the West has hardly been a shining beacon of moral rectitude in some places it has imposed itself, such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Putin’s African charm offensive is seen as a rational, self-interested response to changes in the US’s foreign policy. Africa holds vast potential for its allies – notably in massive untapped mineral wealth and agriculture.
Arguments for and against closer ties with Russia are all about how far the relationship goes. Much of the world is deeply suspicious of Putin’s motives, his clear imperialist ambitions, and warning that inviting him into a country is like letting the fox into the chicken coop.
Lengthy articles in the New York Times in recent months have looked closely at Russian engagement in Africa, and in particular Central African Republic, which has suffered intermittent civil war for years. When peacekeepers from former colonial power France left the country in 2017, declaring their mission complete, Russian military advisers and mining oligarchs quickly took their places.
That might not in itself be sinister, with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra having invited the newcomers in to help him better manage his country and, critically, grasp control of the diamond mining that has been at the heart of much of the internal strife. Various militia, including Islamic insurgents, are in constant battle over a vast “blood diamond” industry in CAR and Touadéra wants to impose order and channel gem revenue into government coffers.
However, there is a growing number of incidents that show Russian “mercenaries” abetting the lawlessness.
The man at the centre of Moscow’s involvement in CAR is Yevgeny Prigozhin, accused by the US of being the mastermind behind Russian cyber interference in the election that saw Trump elected. Prigozhin has ties to all the mining, logistics and security companies now very active in CAR.
Thus, the fox and henhouse metaphor arises, though such accusations are inevitably called patronising and racist by some and a classic example of Western hypocrisy.
In Sochi, al-Sisi – current president of the African Union – invoked memories of the AK47 as he talked of historic links between Russia and African nations since the middle of the last century. He reminded delegates of Russia’s solidarity with Africans in their struggle against colonialism; of how it supported the liberation movements across Africa financially, logistically and morally.
Egypt’s president then labelled terrorism as the priority threat to African and international peace and urged direct confrontation as the best way to uproot and limit terrorism.
The shop window of military hardware in Sochi seems to have hit the right note.