Ideas & Debate

Why Russia entry to Africa won’t be a walk in the park

Russia's President Vladmir Putin
Russia's President Vladmir Putin (left) and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the subsequent end of the cold war, Russia has not featured significantly anywhere in Africa.

Whatever political allies that Russia had in Africa have moved on as the continent embraced economic liberalisation and globalisation.

Russia on its part has been busy rebuilding its economic systems while redefining its geopolitical strategies, which are still work in progress.

Russia is essentially a natural resource commodity export economy (oil, gas, minerals, metals) together with grains and military hardware exports. Russia has less of manufactured consumer goods that Africa likes importing from China, Japan and India.

Further, its free enterprise is not sufficiently developed beyond state-supported companies, making it more difficult to navigate competitive international export-import commerce.


Russia’s global trade and investments through proxy oligarchs may hit headwinds as a new wave of transparency spreads across Africa with the increasing emphasis on straight and competitive transactions, especially in public infrastructure contracts.

The country’s sociocultural presence in Africa is negligible without NGOs or development partnerships, which usually provide economic-political bridges, essential for trade and investments.

Russia is venturing into Africa at a time when the long-term dent is heavily burdening the continent, making it difficult to uptake new state-to-state project financing debt.

However, there is an option for public-private partnerships, which come with less public debt.

Russia is quite strong in the energy sector (oil, gas, nuclear) where it has made attempts at Africa entry, some successful others not so.

A nuclear power generation project is currently in progress in Egypt while plans exist in other countries.

Russia failed to clinch a nuclear generation deal with South Africa during Jacob Zuma’s presidency at a time when BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic partnership was at its peak.

In oil and gas, a Russian consortium led by RT Global Resources withdrew from a Uganda refinery project in 2014, at a time when the US President Obama had put many Russian entities and oligarchs under economic sanctions, which are still in force.

This is perhaps the nearest that the Russians ventured into East Africa energy sector.

Last week, the Russian state oil company Lukoil announced that they would partner with Saudi Aramco to prospect and develop oil resources in the Congo Basin, a very smart move considering the area’s hydrocarbon potential.

Kenya is already exporting tea to Russia, and I am sure the next logical step is for Kenya to extend the range and amount of agricultural exports to Russia.

Kenya is also a chronic importer of grains, which Russia can provide. These items should easily balance the amount of military hardware Kenya imports from Russia.

Opportunities exist between Kenya and Russia to co-operate in the exploration, mapping and quantifying of available minerals for development, an activity Russia is already involved in West Africa.

The same should apply to the exploration of oil and gas, where Kenya is currently not attracting sufficient interest and investments.

What Kenya should avoid is being tempted by Russia to go into the development of a nuclear power project prematurely. Whereas nuclear is on our generation planning, Kenya is not yet ready for the actualisation of a nuclear project due to high project unit costs, and the absence of critical demand to carry those costs.

Entering Africa will not be a walkover for the Russians.

However, no one should underestimate the diplomatic and political prowess of President Vladimir Putin of Russia to enter Africa. He is perhaps the smartest geopolitical operative we have today.

Mr Putin has created and maintained simultaneous diplomatic bridges among nations with differing political postures. He has the eager ears of China, Iran, Saudis, Syria, Turkey, Israel, India, and of course US President Donald Trump, entities and persons with differences among themselves.