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What can the Commonwealth learn from the Russia-Africa Summit?

Russia-Africa Summit

Last week, from the 27th- 28th July 2023, 47 African nations (comprising 16 African Heads of States and 31 Honourable Representatives including Prime Ministers, Vice-Presidents and Ministers of Foreign Affairs) and the Chairperson of the African Union accepted Vladimir Putin’s invitation to join him in St Petersburg for the second Russia-Africa Summit.

Let’s first consider which of these 47 African nations are members of the Commonwealth. In total, there are 21 African Commonwealth members, and of these, 18 attended the Russia-Africa Summit. That is a whopping 86%. Of these 18 nations, four were represented at the highest level by their Heads of State: South Africa (the usual suspect), Uganda, Mozambique and Burundi. Only three African Commonwealth countries did not attend at all: Botswana, Gabon and Lesotho.

Even against the backdrop of the Russia- Ukraine conflict, it would appear that Africa has not turned its back on Russia. In fact, some African countries have particularly close ties with Russia. Let’s take the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali as an example. Both CAR and Mali are clients of the Wagner Group (Russia’s private mercenary army), which provides military backing for governments and props up dictatorships, often in exchange for Africa’s minerals such as gold, which are then flown out to Russia to support its own economy and paramilitary activities back home.

Another example would be the close Russia- South Africa ties. Russia is a longstanding ally of South Africa and played a significant role in the struggle against apartheid. Indeed, a number of cadres from the African National Congress (ANC), which is still South Africa’s ruling party today 30 years on, received military training in Moscow during the apartheid era. It would be naïve and foolish to think that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would have any sway or detriment on this longstanding allyship between Russia and South Africa. To further reinforce this point, both countries are members of the BRICS and will host the ‘15th BRICS Summit’ in South Africa on 22nd August 2023.

Outcomes of the Russia-Africa Summit

Now that we have briefly considered the context of Russia-Africa relations, let us now turn to the outcomes of the Summit. To start with, four key declarations were adopted, as follows: prevention of an arms race in outer space; combating terrorism; international information security; and the Action Plan of the Russia-Africa Partnership. Another outcome of the Summit is that Russia will reopen its Embassy in Burkina Faso, which closed in 1992. Just last week, Burkina Faso announced that it is seeking Russia’s assistance in developing a nuclear power plant. This could be an ulterior motive as to why President Traoré chose to join the Russia-Africa Summit in person.

Arguably, the most significant outcome of the Summit, which came as a surprise to many, was Russia’s announcement to write off $23 billion of debt owed by Africa. While this will help to alleviate Africa’s debt burden, and is a tremendous step in the right direction for Africa, it is important to question the motivation behind this, which could be part of a bid to shift Africa’s allyship away from the West (which Russia defines as neocolonialist), and towards Russia.

Putin’s ‘charm offence’ did not stop at wiping debts. Putin proceeded to promise 25,000- 50,000 tonnes of free grain to each of the following six countries: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe. To appreciate the context of this, we must first understand the significance of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Black Sea Grain Initiative

A year ago, on 27th July 2022, Russia and Ukraine signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was an agreement brokered by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Türkiye’s President Erdogan. Under this initiative, Ukraine could continue exporting grain safely during the war, through the Black Sea towards Istanbul along an agreed humanitarian maritime corridor. Not only did the initiative support Ukraine’s exports, it also served to ensure that Russia’s food and fertiliser exports reached global markets in an effort to stabilise global food prices, which inevitably spiked as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war.

However, one year on from the agreement, on 17th July 2023, Russia decided not to renew the deal. Putin’s rationale for ending the grain deal was that restrictions were put in place to limit Russia’s ability to fully export its grain and fertilisers, particularly to countries most in need. It is within this context, and against the backdrop of the recent Russia-Africa Summit, that Russia announced it will distribute free grain to the aforementioned six African countries.

Why free handouts are foolish

Putin announced, “So that the poorest countries do not really suffer, so that there are no grounds to accuse us of being to blame for the plight of the poorest countries [of Africa], we said that we are ready to start supplying grain to these poorest countries for free, for humanitarian reasons”. If Putin wanted to support the poorest countries, he certainly would not have given free grain to Zimbabwe. Why? Because, as put by President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe himself, “We are not in any grain deficit at all. We are food-secure, he [Putin] is just adding to what we already have.”

There is a common misperception that the African continent is ‘food poor’ and unable to provide for itself. The international community has long fed off this misperception (excuse the pun) in an opportunistic manner to distribute food aid and food exports to Africa (not just Russia, but the ‘West’ too), to their own economic advantages.

Those who have recently tooted that ‘African nations are dependent on Ukraine for grain imports’ and ‘ending the grain deal puts millions at risk’ are most likely speaking through perverse incentives, as they are probably the ones profiting from Africa’s dependency on external supplies of food.

Instead, the world must finally acknowledge that for Africa to truly develop, it must become self-sufficient and not rely on aid and handouts. We need not look further than the quote, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. As such, we really ought to reframe this and ask, why are African nations relying on Ukraine and other nations for wheat and other grains in the first place, when many African nations are capable of becoming the breadbaskets of Africa themselves?

The end of the grain deal triggers yet another opportunity for Africa to reduce its reliance on food imports from outside the continent. Let’s take three examples as to where African nations should be importing their food from. First up is Uganda, which is a net exporter of food. Second is Ethiopia, which is said to have increased its wheat production by 70% last year to overcome supply chain constraints caused by the Russia-Ukraine war. Third up is Zimbabwe, which was once the breadbasket of Africa for wheat and corn and, as quoted by President Mnangagwa, ZImbabwe is food secure and often has surplus food reserves.

Listening to Africa’s needs, instead of assuming what it needs

During the Russia-Africa Summit, African Heads of State, most notably President Museveni of Uganda and President Ramaphosa of South Africa, told Putin exactly what it is that they need to develop and thrive. First, Africa asked for investment in irrigation and fertilisers to maximise food production. Secondly, Africa asked Russia to buy value-added goods as opposed to raw commodities; for example, as quoted by President Museveni, “buy textiles instead of cotton… electric batteries instead of lithium”. A reduction of trade barriers is needed to underpin the success of these two demands, which will be supported by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Recommendations for Commonwealth Policy

African nations have quite literally spelled out what it is they need. It could not be any clearer. African sovereign states are shaping their own destinies according to their independent national interests. If the Commonwealth wants to support Africa’s development and remain an ally, it must listen, step up, and create effective policies.

The Commonwealth should make it policy to invest in irrigation systems and farming machinery so that African nations can become the breadbasket of their own continent and beyond, eventually exporting competitively to other global markets. The Commonwealth must simultaneously support the development of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to make it possible to export these goods.

The Commonwealth should gradually make it policy to only buy value-added goods from Africa. The reason this has to be gradual is because many sectors do not yet have the capacity to create value-added processed goods at large scale. To reach this stage requires the Commonwealth to invest in Africa’s manufacturing sector so that countries have the factories and industrial capacity they need to transform cotton into clothes, cobalt into smartphones, or iron ore into steel. Once Africa has developed these products, the Commonwealth should become its consumers and markets.

These policies would create jobs and real economic growth across African nations. This, together with good governance and investment into public services, would reshape Africa’s future. The ‘Africa dependency model’ must be long gone. As President Museveni exclaimed at the Russia-Africa Summit, “investing in value-addition will create jobs and will stop our people from dying in the Mediterranean Sea trying to get to Europe”. Of course, by implementing these policies, the Commonwealth would have a strong chance tackling one of the root causes of migration too.

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