Between July 27 and 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted leaders from Africa at the Expo Forum in St. Petersburg. This marked the second time African leaders have gathered in Russia to discuss ways of strengthening their relations following the first summit, held in Sochi in 2019. As expected, this event attracted a lot of media attention, albeit with a clear distinction between how the event was reported in Russia, Africa and the rest of the world. Given the timing of the event, it is not surprising that there would be such a disparity regarding how the event was being reported and in extension how it was understood. Despite the existence of an elaborate agenda and guidelines for the meeting, what many people picked up from the event was to a large extent shaped by media reporting and not the realities of the event. On the one hand, instead of focusing on the merits and demerits of the actual event, some saw it as an opportunity to extend their view of Africa’s International Relations as a continuation of great power politics. The danger of such reporting is that audiences miss out on the significance of the summit to both Russia and Africa and therefore calls for the need to revisit the event and reflect of some of the valuable lessons from the forum.
While the Russia -Africa summit is not unique in the sense that other countries have also found it meaningful to interact with African heads of states in one forum (examples include the China-Africa summit, US-Africa summit, India-Africa summit, Japan-Africa summit and Turkey-Africa summit), what is unique about the recently concluded summit in St. Petersburg is the diversity in the nature of participants, issues and thematic areas that were addressed. Of importance are the different intellectual forums that were organized just before or on the sidelines of the events. A good example is the Russian-African conference of the Valdai Discussion Club, which was hosted a day before the summit and brought together over 60 experts from Africa and beyond to critically assess the progress of Russia -Africa relations and provide intellectual perspectives regarding the gaps and way forward. Such a conference opened the possibility of continued interaction between African and Russian experts on a range of issues outside the more crowded and complex political space.
In addition, there were several interesting scientific, cultural, social, and sport activities happening alongside the many bilateral and multilateral diplomatic activities. This explains why a majority of the 161 agreements signed during the summit were spread across diverse sectors. They include 56 agreements on international and interregional cooperation, 51 agreements on education and science, 10 agreements on scientific and technical cooperation and another 10 agreements on exports and foreign economic activities. In addition, sports programmes, a youth programme, cultural programmes, and a robust exhibition that brought together leading industry players in the fields of defence and security, medicine, agribusiness, information technology, energy, finance and transport offer an indication of priority areas that were given emphasis during the summit.
However, in a world of information warfare and bearing in mind that the control of information is disproportionately distributed between the West and non-Western countries, there is a need to approach some of the media headlines with caution, since they are likely to divert attention from key issues that are of importance, especially regarding the African continent. Indeed, one of the challenging barriers of Africa-Russia relations is that the people in Africa get information about Russia from Western media platforms and Russian people also get information about Africa mainly from Western sources. Sometimes the issues given priority in the reports may not be the most important for the continent and its partners. Therefore, despite the preoccupation with the number of heads of state from Africa who attended the summit, the event had immense value for those who opted to take advantage of it. The focus of those who mean well for the African continent should not be on the number of people who attended the programme but rather the merits and/or demerits of the agreements and perhaps recommend better ways of improving Russia-Africa relations.
Similarly, there has been a growing number of summit diplomacy critics who view the events from a post-colonial lens and argue that African leaders should not gather to meet other heads of state because they are equally heads of states themselves. While this argument is simplistic and populist to an extent, it does offer an opportunity for African leaders to think of the possibilities of hosting other heads of state. This, in my view, can serve as an opportunity for them to also showcase opportunities and a development agenda that can be implemented through cooperation with other countries. That, however, is not the only lesson that the summit in St. Petersburg offers. For one, it shows that Africa can leverage its numbers to become a formidable agency at the international level, something individual countries are not likely to have. The collective strength of African states is consistent with Pan-Africanism and could be the vehicle by which the continent raises its issues to a level of priority. Secondly, summit diplomacy should not be confused as an attempt to dilute or even get rid of bilateral relations. Indeed, during the Russia-Africa Summit, many bilateral agreements took place not only between Russia and an African state but also among African states themselves. Thus, such platforms should be seen as an effective opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations while looking at the bigger picture.
Furthermore, summit diplomacies can offer African countries a channel to explore different avenues of engagement by listening to the proposals on the table during one summit to another and strengthen cooperation with those that offer better terms of cooperation. By choosing to isolate one country from the summits simply because of great power politics should not be in the interests of African countries, who should approach international relations with an open heart and a sharp desire to improve the wellbeing of the people of the continent. The Second Russia-Africa summit did have numerous opportunities regarding this direction, even though some of these benefits were overshadowed by information warfare.