Russia cancels African debt

Karam Said, Tuesday 1 Aug 2023

The Russian decision to cancel African debt and provide grain to the neediest countries at last week’s Russia-Africa Summit is part of a plan to woo the African continent, writes Karam Said

Russia cancels African debt
Putin, African leaders and heads of delegations attending a plenary meeting at the second Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg (Photo : AFP)


Delegations from 49 African countries converged on St Petersburg for the second Russia-Africa Summit and Economic and Humanitarian Forum on 28-29 July. The event was attended by 17 African heads of state, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The first such summit was held in 2019.

A main purpose of this year’s event was to build Russian-African consensuses and avert losses in Moscow’s influence in the continent following the Wagner mutiny and the Russian withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The summit appears to have been successful, in large part due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement during the plenary session that his government would cancel $23 billion of debt owed by African countries to help ease the African debt burden.

With this, Moscow has written off 90 per cent of African debts, leaving no direct debts outstanding apart from some financial obligations. Putin added that his government would also allocate over $90 million for development purposes at the request of African countries.

Africa has long been a main focus of Russian foreign policy, and it has been increasingly important since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the successive rafts of Western sanctions against Moscow, targeting every sector from oil and defence to agriculture.

The sanctions have been part of an attempt to curtail Russian influence, which has increased remarkably in the Global South during the past decade, including in Africa.

Moscow has managed largely to replace French influence in West Africa and to make significant inroads in areas that had historically been US spheres of influence, but that Washington has ignored for many years.

Africa had declined in importance in the US global strategic outlook as Washington reoriented its attention towards the Asian-Pacific region and began to see dealing with African problems as too much of a burden.

Moscow has various advantages to draw on in its drive to expand its influence in Africa, not least its history of support for African liberation movements and anti-colonial struggles. Russia forged strong political and economic relations with the newly independent African nations during the period of the former Soviet Union, and many African leaders and other political and cultural elites graduated from Russian universities and academies.

Moscow also follows a different foreign policy strategy in Africa to that of the Western powers and China. If the West’s approach is to subordinate the African countries to Western causes, China’s approach has been to intensify loans to them, luring African governments into a debt trap, sometimes without achieving the intended purpose of the loans.

Moscow, by contrast, promotes a policy of offering aid, building security cooperation, and optimising mutual benefit, to which its recent write-off of billions of dollars of debt testifies. The policy appears to have paid off, as the African nations seem to be more and more inclined to work with Russia, especially after realising the negative side of the Chinese loans.

They have long been aware of the strings attached to Western loans, with these often being inconsistent with their development needs and political aspirations.

In addition to the debt relief and against the backdrop of Moscow’s recent withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Putin has made it clear that he is aware of the importance of an uninterrupted food supply for the socioeconomic development and political stability of the African countries.

As a result, he committed to increasing Russian agricultural supplies to Africa during the summit and also pledged to provide grain at reduced prices and even free-of-charge to the neediest African countries.

Such steps have contributed to shaping an increasingly positive image of Russia in Africa.

In contrast to Washington, Russia has increasingly seen Africa as “an opportunity, not a problem.” In this spirit, Moscow stresses the importance of building fair policies with the African nations in order to benefit from the continent’s vast economic resources, such as its reserves of rare metals that are necessary for strategic industries.

In terms of geostrategy, Moscow attaches particular importance to coastal African states, and as a result it focuses on two main regions. The first is the strategically situated Horn of Africa region at the juncture of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The second is West Africa, which offers new trade opportunities after the French withdrawal from the Sahel and Sahara countries.

The Kremlin undoubtedly had several goals in mind when it decided to write off over $20 billion in African debt. For one, it wanted to strengthen its credibility in Africa as a responsible world leader at a time of growing acrimony between the African countries and the Western powers. The fact that Russia has become the largest trading partner of many African countries suggests that it has achieved some success in this regard.

The Kremlin has also been working to counter the West’s anti-Russian diplomatic offenses, and it has been campaigning to rally support behind Russian positions, or at least to secure African neutrality, in international forums, in debates on controversial issues, or in votes on resolutions.

It is no coincidence that Moscow’s decision to write off billions of dollars of African debt comes at the height of NATO-Russian tensions over Ukraine and in the context of the Western drive to impose an international blockade against Russia.

But Russia also appreciates Africa’s value as a key to dismantling the US-Western hegemony over the international order and to engineering the transformation from a unipolar to a multipolar world.

The Russian-African Summit cannot be seen independently of the growth in the military and defence relations between Moscow and Africa, which is a major market for Russian arms exports.

Russia has military cooperation agreements with at least 28 African nations, the majority of which were concluded during the past five years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has provided arms to 18 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade.

If the Russian-African Summit was successful, particularly against the fraught international backdrop, it can also be said that Moscow’s decision to write off a huge chunk of African debt was a landmark victory.

This should have far-reaching effects on Russian-African relations, given how it helps generate an environment conducive to further strengthening the Russian influence in Africa at a time when many African countries are cash-strapped and caught in the mill of global inflationary trends and crushing debt burdens.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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