Putin's Africa Forum Failure: 7 Key Reasons Revealed
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News around Africa - August 1, 2023

Putin’s Africa Forum Failure: 7 Key Reasons Revealed

The recent Russia-Africa forum in Sochi has been widely deemed a disappointment as high-level participation plummeted from 43 African leaders in 2019 to just 17 this year with invitations sent to 57 African Countries under the United Nations. While some attribute this decline to Russia’s withdrawal from a critical grain shipment deal and its mercenary and arms-focused approach, others counter with claims of Western propaganda and threats against the event. 

However, both views overlook a crucial factor, Moscow’s failure to address significant deficiencies in its offerings to Africa. As Russia vies for influence on the continent, its outdated mindset, limited trade power compared to major players like China and the EU, and superficial gestures of solidarity have left African leaders unimpressed. In this article, we explore seven key reasons behind the summit’s lackluster outcome. Let’s dive in.

The disparity in trade continues to worsen

The trade disparity between Russia and Africa is increasingly alarming, with African exports mainly comprising primary commodities like gems, rare earth metals, nuts, fruits, and cocoa. In contrast, Russia’s exports to Africa include machinery, refined hydrocarbons, fertilizers, and chemicals. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia boosted refined hydrocarbon exports to Africa by more than 13-fold, and its machinery and automobile exports exceeded $5 billion. 

However, the lack of significant imports of manufactured goods from Africa, despite these goods constituting nearly 60% of Africa’s total exports, raises concerns. Unlike the US and EU, Russia lacks a dedicated program to facilitate duty-free imports and support value-added products from Africa.

There are only few genuine trade partners

Amidst the intricate web of trade relations between Russia and Africa, it becomes evident that only a handful of countries play a substantial role. Remarkably, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa alone contribute to over 70% of Russia’s total trade with the continent. This concentration of trade partners may seem surprising, but as long as these countries continue to offer a significant trade surplus, the Kremlin appears content with the current arrangement. 

In 2020, Russia witnessed an import value of $1.6 billion from Africa while enjoying exports worth $12.4 billion, underscoring the lopsided nature of the trade dynamics. However, relying heavily on just a few trade partners limits Russia’s maneuverability in engaging in robust economic diplomacy across the African continent.

Lagging technology transfer

The technology transfer between Russia and Africa remains alarmingly deficient, failing to meet the continent’s essential needs. The existing economic relationship lacks the required mechanisms for crucial flows such as technology transfer, private equity and venture capital co-investing, cross-border venture incubation, and creative financial deal-making collaborations. Russian banks are known more for opaque government deals, like the tuna bonds scandal in Mozambique, rather than meaningful M&A or sophisticated financial transactions. In contrast to Chinese counterparts, Russian technology companies have minimal localisation activities in Africa.

Furthermore, Russia’s foreign direct investment (FDI) is heavily concentrated, with a significant portion allocated to a nuclear facility in Egypt, accounting for just 1% of Africa’s total FDI inflows. Debt forgiveness diplomacy is also sluggish, often linked to fresh arms deals, making Russia the largest arms supplier to Africa. This hindrance in technology transfer, finance, and investment engagement calls for urgent attention and remediation.

Wasted soft power

Russia’s soft power efforts in Africa have yielded limited results, leaving much of its potential wasted. During the recent forum, President Vladimir Putin focused a considerable portion of his speech on initiatives like teaching Russian in African countries, introducing Russian “pedagogy,” promoting cultural and sporting events in Russia, encouraging high-end African tourism, and expanding Russian media exports to the continent.

Although there are approximately 35,000 African students studying in Russian institutions and engaging in cultural and educational exchanges, the impact of these efforts falls short of expectations. In contrast to the US, where a significant percentage of African students remain to build careers and foster connections, Russia’s highly bureaucratic environment hampers the prospects of African graduates of Russian universities from effectively advancing Russia’s image and interests upon returning home. The untapped potential of Russia’s soft power in Africa calls for a reevaluation of strategies to better harness these opportunities.

Priorities are not properly aligned

The misalignment of priorities was evident at the Russia-Africa forum, where crucial discussions on Africa’s pressing existential challenges were notably absent. At a time when the continent grapples with urgent issues like environmental concerns, social justice, and redistributional effects of growth, the forum’s agenda failed to address these critical themes. 

African nations are actively seeking climate finance and innovative solutions that integrate social, environmental, and governance expectations with the harsh realities of poverty and underdevelopment. The event’s lack of focus on these matters made it appear out of touch with the continent’s needs. Moreover, the poor representation of gender and youth on panels further highlighted the limitation in addressing essential concerns.

There is limited engagement with African blue-chip companies

The limited engagement with African blue-chip companies was evident at the Russia-Africa forum, as corporate participation from the continent witnessed a significant 80% decline compared to 2019. In the past, c-suite representatives from some of Africa’s most prominent companies, including household names like Naspers, Transnet, TDB, AFC, and Oando, actively attended the event. However, the lack of fresh thinking on global trends during the forum seemed to have deterred their participation this year. The significant drop in blue-chip company representation highlights the need for greater efforts in attracting and engaging with Africa’s leading businesses, as seen at other premium events like Davos.

Inadequate Follow-Through in Business Practices

Inadequate follow-through in business practices has emerged as a significant challenge for Russia’s engagement with Africa. Despite ambitious diplomatic initiatives showcased at forums, including the 2019 event, translating them into tangible programs remains a struggle. A thorough examination of the 92 deals touted in 2019, ranging from railway hubs to oil refineries, revealed limited substantive outcomes. Notably, the recent forum offered minimal updates on the majority of these deals, raising concerns about implementation. 

The absence of evidence regarding promised projects like the deployment of Russian Promobot AI systems in Nigeria further underscores this issue. Unlike Western counterparts, Russia’s focus on sales and marketing overshadows investment in crucial business development, hindering progress in unlocking African opportunities. Learning from China’s experiences, which led to a tactical retreat from infrastructure projects, Russia must address this inadequacy to effectively engage with Africa’s vast potential.

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