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Putin's Pivot To Africa: Russia Can Offer Alternative To USA, EU, And China. But Africa, Watch out!

Updated: Jan 31

Russian President Vladimir Putin have new aspirations in Africa to restore his country to strong power status, spurred on by concerns that China, EU, India, Turkey, Brazil, and especially the United States are intensifying their involvement in Africa.

Russia is seeking to bolster its presence by building relations with existing rulers and grooming new generation of leaders.

People of older generation can remember the chronicle of the times of Patrice Lumuba and his like-minded peers, whose efforts, with the active support of the Soviet Union, marked the peak of the declaration of independence for African countries in 1960s.


Sadly with the outbreak of the cold war, a clash of political ideologies [Capitalism vs Communism/Socialism] which opposed the United States, its western allies against the Soviet Union, what followed the independence were assassinations, revolutions, coups, civil wars and genocides in Africa.


It was inevitable that the US and European colonial masters would not be prepared to let Africans have effective control over strategic raw materials, lest these fall in the hands of their enemies in the Soviet camp. It is in this regard that Patrice Lumumba's determination to achieve genuine independence and to have full control over Congo's resources in order to utilize them to improve the living conditions of Congolese people was perceived as a threat to western interests. To fight him, the US and Belgium used all the tools and resources at their disposal, including the United Nations secretariat, under Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche, to buy the support of Lumumba's Congolese rivals , and hired killers.


Patrice Lumumba

Facing enormous turmoil in the newly independent Congo (DRC), the first legally elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic leader of the largest nationalist faction, appealed to the United States and the United Nations for help to suppress the Belgian-supported Katangan secessionists. Both refused, so Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for support.


The Kremlin promptly sent military advisers and munitions. This led to growing differences with President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and chief-of-staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, as well as with the United States and Belgium.


President Joseph Kasa-Vubu used his command of the army to launch a coup d'état, expelled the Soviet advisers and established a new government under his own control.


Lumumba was taken captive and subsequently, in what is believed to be the most important assassination of the 20th century, he was executed on 17 January, 1961 by a firing squad under the command of American and Belgian governments, which used Congolese accomplices and a Belgian execution squad to carry out the deed.

Following his assassination, Lumumba is widely seen as a martyr for the wider Pan-African movement.


Lumumba tragedy illustrates the failure of the Soviet attempt to export their model of socialized development in Africa mainly because,

  1. The independence movement was led by middle-class youth trained in the Western Judeo-Christian philosophy of education that had little or no exposure to communism or socialism.

  2. Even after independence African affairs were almost entirely controlled by the United States and European colonial powers, therefore the unreliability of local leaders, and the Congo crisis serves as proof to that.

  3. Russian Soviet-era relations with Africa began on political and ideological grounds (socialism), and the Soviets did not pay much attention to the economic interaction with Africa.

For Russia to succeed in the current scramble for business in Africa , It needs to let go of the old Soviet-era way and take a practical, business approach. And this is what Vladimir Putin is trying to do.


This fall in October, Russia will host its first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi. And the Russia–Africa summit is expected to be attended by roughly 3,000 African businessmen, according to the official report.


In 2017, Russia’s trade with Africa rose 26 per cent to $17.4bn.

In the Central African Republic, Moscow has sent planeloads of arms to the country, alongside five armed forces personnel and more than 200 private military contractors to train hundreds of elite troops. That have unnerved France, CAR’s former colonial ruler and traditionally its most prominent foreign ally.


New recruits for the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). © AFP

In Zimbabwe, in 2014 an arms-for-platinum deal with Russia worth a reported $3bn was concluded bypassing both a European arms embargo and its lack of hard currency to swap rights to the Darwendale platinum concession.


Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Harare. © Reuters

The list of Russian commercial engagements with Africa is long. Russian aluminium group Rusal mines bauxite in Guinea. Alrosa, the Russian diamond miner planning to enter Zimbabwe, already has assets in Angola and Botswana.


Rosatom, the Russian nuclear company, is working in Zambia and Rwanda. Russian geologists are active in Madagascar, Algeria, Libya and Ghana.


Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, is developing oil and gas-fields in Egypt, Mozambique and Algeria, and rival Lukoil has projects in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.

As for politics in Africa, the Russians are presenting themselves as mediators, as honest brokers. They are repeating their successful Middle East strategy.


Following recent controversial elections in DRC with western countries calling for an investigation into the presidential elections early this year, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said “We do not interfere with elections, The Congolese people can handle this on their own and it is important not to impose this or that agreement as is normally done by France, the US and other former colonial powers.”

The failure of the Zuma and Putin’s $70 billion 2015 nuclear deal


In South Africa, Russia has met strong resistance from elites leaning to Anglo-American countries for business. This has lead to the failure of the Zuma and Putin’s $70 billion nuclear deal with Rosatom that would have seen 9,600 megawatts of nuclear power added to South Africa’s grid.


Russia had never had a very strong presence in South Africa until Zuma got into power. Through Zuma, Russia was trying to get in. South Africa joined the BRICS, an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

And then in 2015 the nuclear deal was signed.


Later, two virtually unknown NGOs took the nuclear deal to the court and won their bid against the deal, with the judge ruling that any deal with Russia was unlawful.


Zuma was seen out of office in December 2017, with South Africa’s ruling party, ANC selecting the then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, a businessman and former political stalwart, as leader.


Presidents Xi Jinping, Cyril Ramaphosa and Vladimir Putin in Johannesburg © AFP

In January 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa scuppered any nuclear ambitions saying that South Africa simply has no money to build a nuclear power station.


Russia can compete well in Africa but Africa needs to watch out for geopolitical conflicts.


While Russia is lacking the financial firepower of China or the longstanding trade relations and cultural recognition of former colonial powers, it can compete well by finding what unique offers it can make, that has not already been made by Chinese investments or the Western aid.


Russian-African relations have a positive note, where unlike the western powers, Russia has not tainted itself with the crimes of slavery and colonialism.


With massive population growth and abundant raw materials reserves, Africa is widely seen as a potential vast future consumer market and its huge demand for investment in new infrastructure, renders it one of the most promising future markets.

Meanwhile, Africa has to find a way to protect itself from big power exploitation. And with coups happening in Burundi (failed), Zimbabwe, Sudan and Algeria, Africa needs to watch out that the increasing economic influence by foreign powers and the escalating competition between Russia, China and Western countries within Africa, will not lead to the repeat of geopolitical conflicts, assassinations, revolutions, coups and civil wars of the Soviet-era.


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