Unveiling the Essence: Exploring the Significance of the Russia-Africa Summit Amidst Putin and Wagner Uncertainty

**Russia-Africa Summit: Promises and Reality**
*Analysis of Economic Ties and Political Influence*

The 2019 Russia-Africa summit brought together 43 African heads of state with hopes of establishing Russia as a major source of investment and trade for the continent. Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to double trade with Africa to $40 billion in five years. However, since then, trade has contracted to $14 billion. Russian investment in Africa is minimal, accounting for only 1% of foreign direct investment. Despite these economic limitations, Russia has significantly expanded its influence in Africa through various means, including the deployment of troops and disinformation campaigns. This article explores the consequences of Russia’s growing influence in Africa and the questionable benefits for both parties involved.

**Economic Disparities and Limited Investment**
Russian trade with Africa is heavily lopsided, with Russia exporting seven times more than it imports from the continent. Furthermore, 70% of this trade is concentrated in just four countries: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa. In terms of foreign direct investment, Russia contributes a mere 1%, while even Mauritius surpasses it as a larger source of investment for Africa. Additionally, Russia’s gross domestic product has shrunk from $2.3 trillion in 2013 to $1.8 trillion in 2021, further highlighting the economic limitations of the relationship.

**Expanding Influence through Irregular Means**
Despite the diminishing economic ties, Russia’s influence in Africa has rapidly expanded since 2019. Russia has deployed troops and become the dominant external partner in several countries. Disinformation campaigns implemented through irregular means have also shaped the information environment in at least 16 African countries. These tactics include supporting isolated, autocratic regimes through the deployment of Wagner paramilitary forces, electoral interference, disinformation, and arms-for-resources deals. These methods destabilize host countries, leading to conflicts in half of the two dozen African countries where Russia is actively involved. Furthermore, Russia’s interference undermines UN operations in African countries where Moscow aims to exert influence, exacerbating instability in the region.

**Political and Financial Benefits for Elites**
Despite Russia’s aggressive policies and interventions, the number of African heads of state expected to participate in the St Petersburg summit remains roughly the same as in 2019. This suggests that the political and financial benefits anticipated by Russian and African elites outweigh the consequences of Russia’s disruptive interventions. However, such partnerships primarily benefit the elite, while ordinary citizens bear the burden through higher taxes, increased instability, and diminished freedom.

**Russia’s Geostrategic Posture**
The Russia-Africa summit provides Moscow with an opportunity to project a sense of normalcy and elevate its geostrategic posture following its invasion of Ukraine and other international controversies. While economic ties between Russia and Africa may be modest, Africa serves as a global stage for Russia to demonstrate its influence. Africa’s perceived welcoming attitude towards Russian engagement, combined with its reluctance to criticize Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, highlights Africa’s growing importance to Russia’s foreign policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made several visits to Africa since the attack on Ukraine in March 2022, underscoring Russia’s focus on the continent.

**Questionable Benefits for Africa**
Russia’s tactics, including limited investment, autocratic alliances, instability, and interference in domestic politics, do not foster a winning strategy for building a long-term partnership with Africa. Engaging with a foreign actor with a record of undermining stability poses a threat to African countries due to the potential spillover of conflicts and challenges to sovereignty. Russia’s influence operations primarily support incumbent autocratic regimes, often involving opaque mining and arms deals. While some African leaders may benefit from these tactics and welcome Moscow’s overtures, others may engage with Russia to gain more support from the West. However, the participation of African leaders in the summit perpetuates the “interests gap” between leaders and citizens, as citizens prioritize democracy, job creation, and upholding the rule of law, which Russia’s engagements undermine.

**The Role of African Civil Society**
Given the lack of championing reforms on citizen priorities for better governance, development, and security by most African political leaders, leadership in these areas must come from African civil society, media, and independent judiciaries. The Russia-Africa summit, with its projected announcements of mining, energy, grain, transport, and digitization deals, may provide a fig leaf for all attendees, but the reality is that these plans may never materialize or benefit ordinary citizens. It is crucial for African citizens to question whose interests are truly being served in these partnerships.

While the Russia-Africa summit conveys a perception of normalcy and amplifies Russia’s geostrategic posture, the economic ties between Russia and Africa remain limited. Russia’s expanding influence in Africa through irregular means, including troop deployments and disinformation campaigns, destabilizes the continent and undermines the rule of law. The questionable benefits of these partnerships primarily serve the interests of Russian and African elites, leaving ordinary citizens to bear the consequences. African civil society must take a leadership role in advocating for governance reforms and upholding the interests of citizens.

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