Launched in 2019 under Egypt’s chairmanship of the African Union, the forum has capitalised on a historical connection that, aiming to benefit both sides, dates back to the years of the African struggle to end colonialism and gain independence.
The first Russia-Africa Summit was held in Sochi, Russia and co-hosted by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was attended by nearly all the leaders of the 54 members of the African Union.
Considering recent, volatile developments that aim to shape the current world order, and increasingly dangerous competition among the world’s most powerful countries on the political, military and economic fronts, the second Russia-Africa Summit reflected the growing importance of African nations and the African Union in international affairs as well as the world economy.
In this respect, both sides share the view that shaping an equitable and stable world should be based on principles of respecting the sovereignty of independent states, non-interference in their internal affairs, territorial integrity and the right of all peoples to self-determination, including the Palestinian people who have been suffering under a racist occupation for decades. Russia and the African nations also agree on the need to preserve national identity and protect traditional values, without insisting on imposing a given model on the entire world.
Meanwhile, the two-day summit was also an opportunity to reiterate Africa’s deep concerns over the consequences of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine on its emerging economies, especially after Moscow announced the termination of the UN-sponsored grain deal that allowed the export of Ukrainian wheat.
This has caused a rise in grain prices for most African countries which import 50-70 per cent of their needs on average from the big exporters of wheat, barley and corn like Russia and Ukraine. The African Development Bank (ADB) estimated that, by 2020, 15 out of 54 African countries were buying more than half their wheat from one of those two countries.
The African leaders left St Petersburg without a clear pledge from Putin to resume the deal, but there remains a door open for negotiations in the coming days, whether through African mediation, or when Putin meets his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayeb Erdogan, who originally mediated the grain deal. Meanwhile, Putin promised to start shipping 25,000-50,000 tons of grain for free to each of six African nations in the next three-four months: Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and the Central African Republic.
The presidents of Egypt and South Africa were among the most outspoken on the need to resume the grain deal. “We would like the Black Sea initiative to be implemented and that the Black Sea should be open,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said. “We are not here to plead for donations for the African continent.”
A delegation of African leaders has already met with both top Russian and Ukrainian officials in order to discuss the chances of bringing the fighting to an end, together with several other regional blocs that are not directly party to the conflict. In the Cold War era the former Soviet Union and the United States competed over winning African nations while fighting proxy wars on their territories.
The situation is different with this open-ended confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, backed by the United States and Europe, with African countries being among the hardest hit. Indeed the war impacted global food security, and led to a sharp rise in food and fertiliser prices, as well as disrupting international supply chains.
In his speech at the summit, President Al-Sisi expressed his eagerness to promote a partnership with the Russian Federation, considering the historic relations between the two countries, existing bilateral cooperation in many fields and ongoing joint projects, especially the Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, and Al-Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant; this is in addition to cooperation with regard to developing the transport and railway system, ensuring security, and combating terrorism.
He also stressed the importance of actual, practical results of the Russia-Africa Summit to benefit the African people in the first place, given that the summit aims to establish sustainable cooperation between the two sides. The president expressed Egypt’s readiness to enhance various aspects of cooperation.
Al-Sisi and Putin share a similar vision for many of the existing conflicts in Africa, especially regarding Libya and Sudan. On the war between Russia and Ukraine, President Al-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s support for all endeavours that would quickly settle the crisis politically in a peaceful manner in order to reduce human suffering, and end the negative economic repercussions in the world and especially in developing and African countries, as well as maintaining international security and stability.
As clearly stated in his speech at the summit, “African countries are sovereign, independent, and active in their international community. They aspire to peace and security and seek sustainable development to realise the interests of their peoples, first and foremost. They shall keep out of endeavours of polarisation in existing conflicts.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly