The idea of Africa as a global balancing power is entrenched in the notion of the balance of power, which in stricter terms refers to the distribution of power among states as the major actors in international relations in order to prevent any one state from becoming more dominant as the sole hegemon, writes Nicodemus Minde.
With Russia’s recent diplomatic charm offensive in Africa, some have argued that Africa is at the centre of a new Cold War while others have called it the new scramble for Africa. Coupled with China’s foothold in the continent in the past decade, it is increasingly becoming clear that Africa is at the centre of a geopolitical contest.
Over the past few years, great powers such as China, Japan and now Russia have increased their engagement with Africa. Mid-range powers such as Turkey, South Korea, India, and Brazil have also taken a keen interest in investment and trade with Africa in the past decade. Amid a lull in Western engagement with the continent, big powers and mid-range powers have increased their reengagement with Africa. There is no doubt that there is a tectonic shift in global realignments. Global events such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the rise of populist leaders and the retreat in democracy have seen interesting global shifts in alliances. While much attention has been placed on the global West’s reshaping of geopolitics, there is little attention on Africa’s agency in these new global shifts. Over the past decade, there has been a rise in summit diplomacy between the big powers and Africa. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Tokyo International Conferences on African Development (TICAD), and US-Africa Summit in what has been termed as Africa+1 summit demonstrate that Africa has become an important geopolitical actor. Africa and African leaders can utilise the summit diplomacy and needs to leverage its newfound centrality in global power play.
Shifts in narratives: Not business as usual
In December 2022, the US President invited African leaders to Washington for the US-Africa Summit. The summit was framed as a reaction to China’s growing influence in the continent. African leaders went to the summit with an African agenda emphasising that the era of African leaders been lectured by the West was over. From the meeting in Washington, African leaders demanded a country-specific approach to the discussion with the US; something the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken acknowledged during a visit to South Africa in August 2022. China and now Russia are changing the approach as they engage with Africa. There is now a renewed focus on true and mutual partnership.
In 2019, the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi was used to reset Russia’s recent engagement with Africa.
The Sochi Declaration of 2019 pledged to cooperate in areas such as politics, economics, security, the environment, and science and technology. In the past year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has visited several African countries. Lavrov has used the shuttle diplomacy in African capitals to build support ahead of the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg.
Significance of the Russia-Africa Summit
The Russia-Africa Summit is a significant initiative that aims to promote cooperation and partnership between African countries and Russia. This high-level meeting was established in 2019 in an agreement between Russia and the African states. Since its initiation, the forum has been a subject of numerous academic and scientific research papers, with researchers scrutinizing the influence of Russian investment and aid in African countries, energy and mineral exploration, cooperation on peace and security, the summit's role in stimulating economic development, and the opportunities and challenges presented by Russia-Africa cooperation.
The Africa-Russia Summit, as an institution, manifests a significant milestone in the development of Russia’s renewed relations with African countries since the end of the Cold War. Historically, Russia had limited engagement with the African continent and was considered as a subordinate player in Africa’s international relations compared to states like China, the United States, and the former colonial powers of Europe. This summit provides a platform for Russia to showcase its economic might and political potential in Africa and explore opportunities for cooperation in various areas, including energy, mining, infrastructure, and security.
The forum’s first summit in 2019 spelt a new era for Africa-Russia relations. African leaders, the Russian government, and business community representatives attended the 2019 meetings; 43 heads of state or government attended the summit in Sochi. The summit provided an opportunity for its participants to discuss issues of mutual concern and explore opportunities for cooperation in various fields.
The first area of interest for researchers, scholars, and policy influencers in Africa and Russia is the economic impact of Russia's engagement in African countries. According to an economic report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Russia's investment in Africa is relatively limited compared to other countries such as the United States and China due to variances in the pursuit of different foreign policies. Nevertheless, Moscow's engagement in Africa focuses on strategic areas, such as peace and security, agriculture, energy, and mining, with significant expertise and resources. Russia also provides aid and technical expertise to African states in the fields of health, education, and agriculture. For example, Lavrov’s recent visit to Kenya saw Russia donating 30,000 tonnes of fertilisers.
The second main area of interest is the role of the Africa-Russia Summit in promoting political and diplomatic ties between Russia and the African countries. The summit will provide an opportunity for high-level engagement which will strengthen Moscow's diplomatic influence in Africa by providing a platform for deepened and warm diplomatic ties with African states, contrary to traditional Western, ideologically dominated forums and channels of diplomatic engagement.
Thirdly, the Summit plays an important part in facilitating Russian-African cooperation in social and cultural dimensions. Through cultural exchanges, Moscow can project its soft power in several ways, like teaching the Russian language and familiarizing African nationals with Russian cuisines and food. Furthermore, this summit supports a myriad of initiatives that promote educational exchange and cultural interactions between Russia and African countries, such as scholarships to African students to study in Russia. Critics and sceptics of Russia’s interest in Africa suggest that these ‘cordial’ initiatives on the one hand increase mutual cooperation between the two sides while on the other hand creating an asymmetrical relationship that will enhance Russia’s dominance through soft power relations.
In addition to the conventional high-level meetings of the Africa-Russia Summit, there are several follow-up committees that are vital in formalising agreements regarding the meetings between Russia and African countries. The main follow-up technical committees are the Joint Coordinating Committee on Economic Cooperation; the Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation; and the Joint Working Group on Agriculture. These follow-up committees ensure the technical implementation of critical agreements with practical implementations for further cooperation.
African as a balancing power
The idea of Africa as a global balancing power is entrenched in the notion of the balance of power, which in stricter terms refers to the distribution of power among states as the major actors in international relations in order to prevent any one state from becoming more dominant as the sole hegemon. As Africa continues to grow in terms of population and bolster its economic potential, it is increasingly understood as a potential balancing force in world politics. It is evident that Africa could play a significant role in balancing against globally dominant powers.