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Shift in Geopolitical Relations: Russia’s Roadmap to Nigeria, ECOWAS and Africa

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The growing US-China rivalry and Russia-Western allies’ geopolitical tension have
shaken the international peace and security system’s foundation and significantly
shaped Russia’s diplomacy with Africa. While that seems to be the general trend
across the board, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is also getting highly renewed
attention from Moscow. Historically Nigeria, like a number of African states, has
had relations from the Soviet times and still maintains traditional relationships
after the Soviet’s collapse in 1991. Nevertheless, it is interesting to explicitly note
that a new wave of democratic change has also blown all over Africa. We can
convincingly point to the fact that old ideological friends of the Soviet Union
changed camps and transformed in favour of the capitalist-democratic model, in
line with the changing political dynamics inside Africa and around the world.

In practical terms, the Soviet Union offered enormous assistance during the
decolonization process of African countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and
the Kremlin’s policy, at that period, for the newly liberated African countries
included:

To gain a lasting presence in the African continent,
To have a voice in African affairs,
To undermine Western influence in the African continent by equating
capitalism with imperialism, and
To keep communist China out of the African continent.

In pursuit of its foreign policy agenda, the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic
relations between Nigeria and many on the continent. There were 48 diplomatic
offices across Africa. Nigeria established diplomatic relations on November 25,
1960, after it had attained political independence from Britain. The mission was
formally opened in 1961.

There are noticeable bits of historical landmarks between Nigeria and Russia.
Olusegun Obasanjo visited Russia in 2001. That was followed by Muhammadu
Buhari in 2019. However, in June 2009, Dmitry Medvedev, president of Russia,
visited Nigeria for the first time and held topmost state-level talks on possible
nuclear energy, oil exploration and military cooperation. There were talks also
focusing on establishing a petrochemical plant in Nigeria. There was also a
declaration on principles of friendly relations and partnership between Nigeria
and the Russian Federation.

Russia’s second-largest oil company, and privately controlled Lukoil, has gone
back and forth these several years with plans to expand its operations in Nigeria
and several West African countries. There has been a long-dead silence after
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, signed an agreement with the Nigerian
National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on the exploration and exploitation of
gas reserves with a new joint venture company known as NiGaz Energy Company.

Despite the complexities and obstacles, Nigeria is still high on Russia’s agenda for
reviving multifaceted business ties, at least to share the market and take up
opportunities similar to external players such as the United States, Europe and
China. We sincerely acknowledge efforts by Russians now gearing up to revamp
the Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Complex, which was abandoned after the collapse of
the Soviet Union three decades ago, and further take up energy, oil and gas
projects in Nigeria, as well as facilitate trade between Nigeria and Russia.

Further to the above, there could be specific points of focus in the current
relations: The strategic point of convergence between Moscow and Abuja is
stability in the West African region, which is vital for both countries in their
interests. It could best be achieved through ensuring security, boosting economic
development, expanding tentacles in energy and infrastructure projects and
raising cooperation with the regional bloc – the Economic Community of West
African States (ECOWAS).

Suffice it to say that Russia’s passion for humanitarian cooperation is strongly
recommended here. This will help sustain its traditional sphere of influence in the
western region of Africa. The main reasons are that Nigeria is considered the
economic powerhouse. Ghana now hosts the headquarters of the African

Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), spanning 54 states over the next years
with the potential to unite more than 1.3 billion people in a $2.5 trillion economic
bloc. It has the potential to generate a range of benefits through supporting trade
creation, structural transformation, productive employment and poverty
reduction. The AfCFTA opens up more opportunities for both local African and
foreign investors from around the world.

Both African and foreign policy experts argue that African countries need to
support meaningful dialogue and take steps toward addressing the economic
dimensions in the continent and this must necessarily reflect in their relations
with potential external partners while, at the same time, maintaining their
territorial integrity and political independence. We strongly believe that African
economic diplomacy and partnerships could be raised to appreciably new levels
the Russia-Africa relations. This is where I shared my views with both foreign and
our African experts that these measures will contribute tremendously, in pursuit of

the economic integration of our continent, towards the attainment of the well-
known vision: Agenda 2063, the Africa We Want.

Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa are the biggest economies on the continent, and
Nigeria, for example, plays a major role in the West African region. The Nigerian
economy is based on private enterprise, but the state participates in many ways.
That is why Russia has to redirect its focus to the private sector to enhance its
economic profile. In this case, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and
other countries have enormous potential to cooperate with Russia in the West
African region. According to reports, on different occasions, former Vice President
Yemi Osinbajo expressed keen interest in developing bilateral cooperation and
spoke frankly about the need to increase the presence of Russian companies in
Nigeria.

Three key factors are at work here for Russia to get a foothold in West Africa. First,
Russia is seen as the provider of security, and Russia’s defence capabilities
continue to play a crucial role in maintaining stability in the region. One more
point here is the French-speaking Sahel-5 (Burkina et al.) is nearly under the

control of Russia. Reports pointed out that cooperation among forces from the so-
called G5 countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – remains

difficult given the anti-French sentiments in the country, forcing under-equipped
local armies to quickly step up their game against Islamist rebels in the volatile
Sahel region.

With high interest, Russians are consistently pushing for military-technical
cooperation. For Nigeria, Russian military equipment supply could be a high-value
addition to the fight against the notorious Boko Haram, which threatens West
African states. Many experts say conflict resolution should be coordinated and
undertaken within the framework of multilateralism, which, of course, falls within
Russia’s interest in forging relations with respective Security Councils of
ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations.

Second, an opportunity to have market access to the West African region if
potential Russian investors decide to locate some kind of production with the rules
and regulations put in place under the African Continental Free Trade Area
(AfCFTA). Unlike Russia, United States investors look forward to exploring several
opportunities in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a policy
signed by African countries to make the continent a single market. Russian
investors could similarly pursue public-private partnerships that support Russian

and African businesses, including women-owned and led Small- and Medium-
Scale Enterprises (SMEs).

Third, to carefully look at optional ways of utilizing civil society and private sector
organizations. If Russia wants to play a pivotal role in advancing its economic
influence, it has to navigate, leverage or make inroads into the private sector.
Understanding these factors is crucial in formulating policies and appropriate
mechanisms for realizing them. Worth to say that efficiency and effectiveness must
reflect in its policy implementation. On the other hand, the shifting geopolitical
landscape dictates new refined strategies. It also implies the ability to choose the
multi-alignment dimension of countries rather than just dealing with a few in the
region.

Notwithstanding multiple challenges with pursuing general policy goals in Africa, I
would also note here in this article that Russia has maintained a traditional
friendship, particularly with Nigeria and broadly with West Africa, so it is
important that some focus be given to issues raised here at the forthcoming
Russia-Africa summit. The critical focus areas are agriculture, energy, oil and gas,
telecommunications, healthcare, transport, financing, marine exploration,
aerospace, and other areas where Russian technology can have a comparative
advantage.

Many Russian companies such as Lukoil, Gazprom, Rosatom and Rosneft are
some of Russia’s energy and power industries actively engaged in Nigeria, Egypt,
Angola, Algeria and Ethiopia. It must be stressed that in 2018, “Nigerian oil and
gas Exploration Company Oranto Petroleum announced that it would be
cooperating with Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, to develop 21 oil assets
across 17 African countries.” Unfortunately, this has not materialized due to
Rosneft’s lack of interest in doing business in Africa. Additionally, Russian
Rosatom has signed nuclear energy agreements with 18 African countries,
including Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Rwanda, to address the power needs of
those countries.

The Russian strategic policy interest in Africa and given the strong limitation of its
current capability, according to Paul Stronski, one-time Senior Analyst for Russian
domestic politics for the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and
Research, “in many respects, Russia’s re-emergence in Africa, is an earnest
attempt to resume relations where they were left when the Soviet Union departed
the scene.” Paul Stronski further argues, “In sub-Saharan Africa, Russia’s priority
is on exploiting new commercial opportunities and securing diplomatic support
for its positions in multilateral institutions.”

The trade volume between Russia and Africa was $ 14.5 billion annually in 2020.
However, this figure pales insignificance when compared with China, whose trade
with Africa has attained $ 165 billion per annum during the same period and $ 254
billion in 2021, even with its late-comer status in Africa. This is to say that the
doubling of trade relations within the next five years between Africa and Russia, as
stated by Vladimir Putin in 2019, Sochi is not only a vision in the right direction of
growing Russia’s partnership with Africa but also a desirable imperative.

In this sense, a new partnership with Africa could be defined not in terms of
ideology but by alternative economic and developmental options which give Africa
competitive parity. There are two distinctive initiatives which are appreciated: (i)
President Vladimir Putin’s debt cancellation of twenty billion dollars ($20 billion)
owed to Russia by African countries, which, in his very own word, “was not only a
mark of generosity but also a manifestation of pragmatism.”

(ii) The systematization of regular summits. The joint declaration says, “At the
initiative of African participants, a new dialogue mechanism – the Russia-Africa
partnership forum – has been created. Top-level meetings will occur within its
framework once every three years, alternately in Russia and African states. And,
the foreign ministers of Russia and three African countries – the current, future
and previous chairpersons of the African Union – will meet for annual
consultations.”

The two sides have set goals and tasks for further developing Russia-Africa
cooperation. They moved from an “ad hoc approach” and often controversial
decision-making modalities to “a more comprehensive structured long-term policy
plan” dealing with relations.

Beyond the summit, it is necessary to follow up on the concrete decisions as these
will give a new impetus to the wide-ranging and long-term multifaceted relations
with the countries in West Africa. Ghana, Nigeria and a few countries are already
traditional markets for foreign producers and investors, including the United
States, Europe, China, India, and even the Gulf states. Ghana and Nigeria open
wide windows and doors to the real African market, beginning with the formidable
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional market.

“Today, for instance, Nigeria offers Russia the advantage of that cheap and robust
labour. Given Russia’s recent experience of sanctions by America and its Western
allies, a new model of doing business with Africa through investment has become
not only sustainable but also imperative.” This was argued by Professor Shehu
Abdullai Yibaikwal, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal
Republic of Nigeria, with concurrent accreditation to the Republic of Belarus. In
his academic lecture at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Federation,
perhaps one of the sectors where this model of doing business can be symbiotically
harnessed is the field of agriculture and its value chain as a result of the steep rise
in the large African market and the projected certainty of huge returns on
investment in this sector.

Russia has expressed deep interest in Nigeria, highly pledging to build nuclear
power plants, petroleum pipelines, railways and infrastructure. Unfortunately,
these corporate plans have not been realized; Russia sees instability or neo-

colonialism as factors impeding its investment. Then there are also the project
financing and legal aspects that must be mutually resolved.

Our part is to ensure sustainability by making partnerships more reliable,
workable and long-termed. We still have skyline hope and optimism for building
back better relations between the two countries, and most importantly within the
context of the Declaration “On the Principles of Friendly Relations and
Partnership between the Russian Federation and the Federal Republic of Nigeria”
signed as far back in 2001, and the multilateral cooperation that was signed
between Russia and Nigeria by both leaders at the first Russia-Africa Summit held
in Sochi. The forthcoming second summit in July 2023 also signals Russia’s
practical preparedness and commitment to work based on a single rule book for
trade and investment and towards sustainable development growth across Africa.

To finalize this article, we should refer to the quote by Egyptian President Abdel
Fattah el-Sisi, Chairperson of the African Union (AU) in 2019 and co-chair of the
first Russia-Africa Summit: “Our declaration has reaffirmed the goals of Agenda
2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We have approved a
ministerial mechanism for promoting dialogue and partnership. We appreciate all
these moves and believe they have created a solid foundation for further
developing Russian-African relations.” Aware of this common responsibility, the
Russian and African sides will continue coordinating their efforts to monitor the
implementation of the documents adopted at the summit. This meets the desires
and aspirations of African states and the Russian Federation.

By Professor Maurice Okoli is a fellow at the Institute for African Studies and the
Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of
Sciences. He is also a fellow at the North-Eastern Federal University in Russia.

 

Source: Professor Maurice Okoli| Contributor

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