One aim of the two-day Russia-Africa Summit taking place in the beach resort of Sochi is to open new markets in Africa to compensate for those lost as a result of US and EU sanctions against Russian companies.
“I hope that the forum will help identify new areas and forms of cooperation, put forward promising joint initiatives that will bring the collaboration between Russia and Africa to a qualitatively new level and contribute to the development of our economies and the prosperity of our peoples,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his greeting message posted of the forum’s official website.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who, as the current chairman of the African Union (AU) will co-chair the summit, said the event is the first of its kind to emerge during a period of major global and international transformation.
“With this in mind, we express our hopes that the Russia-Africa Summit will help in the establishment of constructive strategic relations, based on partnership between two sides across various fields, and in the service of fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of the African people and their friends in Russia,” Al-Sisi said in his greeting message, also published on the forum’s website.
Moscow hopes the inaugural summit will act as a counterweight to Washington’s US-Africa Summit, China’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) and the Africa-EU Summit, says Tarek Fahmi, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo.
Ali Hefni, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, says the gathering will offer a chance for Moscow to boost its presence, influence and impact across the continent.
“The summit opens doors for Russia and for African countries — on bilateral and multilateral levels — to head to stronger security, military, political, technical and economic relations. The benefit is mutual, without doubt.”
At least 47 heads of African states are expected to attend the summit alongside hundreds of businessmen and representatives of regional organisations.
President Al-Sisi is expected to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the sidelines of the event. Commentators expect Al-Sisi to reiterate Egypt’s demand for a mediation to resolve the stalemate in negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Following the diplomatic standoff between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam and Cairo’s decision to ask for international intervention all eyes are on Russia and whether or not it can play the role of mediator given its good relations with both Cairo and Addis Ababa.
The failure to reach any agreement in the technical and ministerial rounds of negotiations has made it obvious resolving the dispute requires a political decision, says Hefni.
“I am not saying that the decision will be taken during their meeting, but the meeting will provide the opportunity to share views and reach an understanding on controversial issues.”
Besides, he added, it is high time for Addis Ababa to acknowledge Egypt’s right to a certain quota in Nile water, acknowledge the principle of pre-notification of other Nile Basin countries if any country wants to build a dam on the Nile.
Egypt called for international mediation to help reach a “fair and balanced” agreement after the last technical and ministerial meeting in Khartoum ended in deadlock. Ethiopia has yet to respond to the request.
Egypt did not name any particular party though the presidency called on the US to play “an active role in this matter” and welcomed a White House statement saying that Washington supports Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan’s ongoing negotiations to reach a sustainable and mutually beneficial agreement on filling and operating the dam.
Although Egypt has not directly asked Russia to mediate, the summit is a good opportunity for Moscow to assume such a role, says Fahmi. He cautions, however, that Al-Sisi’s meeting with Ahmed is a procedural step that will have to be followed by other, more tangible moves.
What is needed, he says, is “a crystal-clear agenda for negotiations and a timetable that the two parties commit to follow”.
In December Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri suggested involving the World Bank as a fourth-party mediator in the tripartite negotiations, a proposal Ethiopia rejected.
More recently, Egypt proposed a seven-year, flexible timetable for the filling of the dam’s reservoir, and a guaranteed onward flow of 40 billion cubic metres of water. That, too, was rejected.
The past decade has seen a surge of Russian interest in Africa. Russia’s trade with the continent has increased by 350 per cent in the last 10 years, according to figures reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Russian companies are involved in some of the continent’s most significant projects, including the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant and the development of one of the world’s largest platinum mines in Zimbabwe.
Yet Russian trade with Sub-Saharan Africa remains modest. It stood at $20 billion in 2018, compared with US-Africa trade of $61 billion, China-Africa trade of roughly $200 billion, and EU-Africa trade of more than $300 billion.
Where Moscow does have an edge is in providing security cooperation and exploiting the commercial opportunities that arise from it.
Over the past five years Russia has signed 23 security cooperation deals with African governments and is now the continent’s largest arms supplier.
The summit is being held under the banner “Russia and Africa: Uncovering the Potential for Cooperation”. Sessions will be held on the role of the media in Russian-African relations, the contribution of nuclear technologies in the development of Africa, investing in Africa, illegal migration and smuggling. The event will also address new forms of cooperation between Russia and Africa, including opportunities to set up special economic zones based on the Russian industrial zone in Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.