Russafrica is a neologism that should serve to account for and do justice to a plural and dynamic but little-known cooperation. In order to understand this cooperation, we must question its foundations. There are many of them, including historical, economic, scientific and academic, political and security.
On March 24, 2022, during the African vote at the United Nations condemning Russia in the conflict with Ukraine that started on February 24, 2022, there were “only” 25 countries in favour, 17 abstentions, 8 non-voters and 1 against (so 26 countries did not approve). Similarly, on April 7, 2022, only 10 African countries voted in favour of suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council in Geneva, 24 abstained, 9 voted against and 11 did not simply take part in the vote (so here again, 44 countries did not approve). These two surprising results within days of each other have caused confusion and disbelief among most non-African members of the United Nations, especially in the West. No one would have thought this possible on the part of Africa, except those who are following with interest the slow but steady build-up of Russia’s relationship with the continent.
These ultimately pro-Russian results do not only express Africa’s distrust of the West. They affirm the continental will to get rid of its historical incapacity of emancipation, based on colonization and on which certain thesis on its dependence had ended up prospering. This dependence has generally found its most successful mode of expression in what is known as “Françafrica”, a neologism that is supposed to reflect the cooperation between France and Africa that has been enshrined in the many summits between African heads of state and the French President. But since the irruption of the BRICS on the international scene, the mistrust of Africa finds its source among others, in the revelation that another path of cooperation, perhaps more fruitful and less condescending, is possible with other countries, especially Japan (“Japonafrica”) but also China (“Chinafrica”) or India (“Indiafrica”). Today, it must be recognized that a new neologism is imposed on the continent, namely “Russafrica”.
Inspired by Kester Ken Klomegah’s article “Russia eyes Africa to boost arms sales” in The Guardian on April 4, 2013, Slate Afrique magazine on the same day published an article entitled “La russafrique c’est pour quand?” It seemed to me to be the first time that this word was used, in anticipation of a neologism that should serve to account for and do justice to a plural and dynamic but little-known cooperation. In order to understand this cooperation, we must question its foundations. There are many of them, but I will only briefly mention five: historical, economic, scientific and academic, political and security.
Historical foundations. The historical foundations of Russafrica are to be found as early as the Middle Ages, when Russian and African travellers met and interacted frequently on the paths of their respective Christian and Muslim piety. Fast forward to the 19th century with the famous Alexander Pushkin whose great-grandfather was none other than Abraham Petrovitch Hannibal, Prince Kotoko in North Cameroon, freed and ennobled by Peter the Great. The Russian sailors and explorers took over the discovery of the continent, before the entry into force of diplomatic relations which were gradually established from the eighteenth century. The revolution of 1917 consolidated this historical construction thanks to the seduction operation that was set up around Africans studying in Russia. The 1922 Comintern Congress made the choice of accompanying Africa with an assumed option of defending anti-colonial and emancipation movements, which would later be affirmed with the independence struggles and, even closer to home, with an active participation in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Political foundations. Russia has diplomatic relations with all 54 African countries, and has embassies in 49 of them. Much has been said about the 2019 Sochi Summit, forgetting the first Russian-African business forum organized in 2011 by the “special representative for cooperation with Africa,” a permanent position that reports directly to the presidency. Russia is developing a political and operational discourse based on principles that appeal to Africa: global democratization, independence and non-interference that rejects “Western-style conditionalities”, diplomatic presence in the countries but also within African regional organizations, permanent reminder of its absence in colonization and at the Berlin Conference, health support, strong media presence with the tentacular Russia Today and Sputnik, but also protection of Africa in UN bodies through its right of veto.
Economic foundations. With the end of the Cold War, Russia has progressively moved from an ideological economic approach linked to Marxist-Leninist countries (or candidate-countries), to a pragmatic economic approach, with the search for raw materials in mind, but above all the development of business in a continent not subject to sanctions. In this logic, it has called upon a myriad of sprawling state enterprises (Gazprom, Rosatom, Sukhoi, etc.) supported by two powerful financing organizations that accompany their conquest of the continent (Vnesheconombank and Eximbank), as well as gigantic private enterprises (Lukoil, Kaspersky, Rusal, Evraz, etc.) that participate in a form of economic diplomacy supported by dedicated banks (Sberbank etc.). At the same time, and in a spirit of equality, Russia favours solidarity contracts (which link trade, energy and security), barter contracts, joint venture contracts, etc., which have the virtue of removing any feeling of inferiority from the relationship. In the end, although the level of trade with Africa is still low, it is growing exponentially (400% between 2010 and 2018!).
Scientific and academic foundations. In addition to the huge Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which includes up to eleven departments (history, economics, strategy, anthropology, etc.), and the Russian House of African Studies (Rossotrudnichestvo Agency), there is the most famous actor of the educational Russafrica, namely the Russian University of Friendship of Peoples (RUDN), which has trained more than 500,000 Africans since the 1970s, among whom are high-ranking officials and heads of state (Joao Lourenço of Angola, the late Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, etc.). Even today, about 15,000 Africans are studying in Russia, of which 3,000 are on Russian government scholarships (only 1,175 in France in 2020). In 2021, Russia has allocated 15,000 scholarships to international students, including Africans. For Africans with generally modest incomes, these scholarships make Russia extremely attractive and friendly. The resulting factory of African elites’ places Russia at the centre of governance arrangements in several countries led by these graduates.
Security foundations. A distinction must be made here between military security and energy security. In terms of military security, in the 1970s, Russia had up to 40,000 military advisors in Africa, which makes it an original country. Russian security in Africa has two dimensions: public and private. The public dimension revolves around military cooperation (with practically the entire continent), significant multiform military aid, linked to education, training, the installation of military bases, the fight against terrorism, but also a flourishing arms trade (up to 30% of African imports according to the Rosebonexport Agency). The private dimension is operationalized by numerous private military companies that are involved in counter-insurgency and anti-extremist activities, among other things. As far as energy security is concerned, Russia is one of the very few countries in the world to accompany Africa in its efforts to equip itself with civilian nuclear power plants or mini-power plants, in order to escape the diktat of hydroelectric power in the supply of electricity to the population. About fifteen African countries are currently involved in projects of this nature.
The five foundations thus mentioned highlight a singular relationship, on which few studies have finally dwelt, and which has allowed a solid friendship to be fortified in silence, all the sincerer because it is imbued with mutual respect and consideration.