Are China and Russia Giant Competitors in Africa?


By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Russia has to acknowledge the difference between illusions and realities in the geopolitical games. It has to recognize and thoroughly analyse and manage the current economic rivalry and competition among foreign players across Africa. It has, over these several years, been taking steps to uplift or broaden economic cooperation inside Africa.

In late June, Interfax News Agency reported, sourcing Roscosmos Head Yury Borisov, that Russia would sign a full-scale space cooperation agreement with Africa during the July summit. “We are touring African states ahead of this forum (Russia-Africa) and have agreed with the colleague from the Egyptian agency to draft a full-scale agreement on a broad range of possible relations in the space industry,” the press service quoted Borisov as saying.

In another related development, Russian giant Gazprom has shown a preparedness to help African countries develop gas production. It indicated this interest several years ago; Gazprom officials have visited several African countries in connection with this energy sector. It has signed an agreement referred to as NiGaz with the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The title of the project offered absolutely nothing, no gas production until today in this West African country.

Research shows that Nigaz was established in 2009 as a joint venture between the Russian gas company Gazprom EP International B.V. (100% affiliate of OAO Gazprom) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. It planned to invest $2.5 billion to build oil and gas refineries, pipelines and gas power stations in Nigeria. Launching the company, Dmitry Medvedev, then president, announced his intention to form a major energy partnership with Nigeria at a meeting in Abuja with Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua.

Gazprom is prepared to help develop natural gas production and use in African countries, the Russian gas giant said at an international roundtable in Johannesburg on the benefits of gas for consumers and the economy. The roundtable was attended by representatives of business communities, experts and reporters from nine African countries, including Algeria, Angola, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa.

“Taking into account the South African government’s policy to decarbonize the economy, gas could become an effective means of meeting demand for energy since renewable energy sources cannot ensure uninterrupted supplies. In this regard, I believe that Gazprom’s experience implementing liquefied natural gas and gas pipeline construction projects could be of interest to South African partners,” Russian Ambassador Ilya Rogachev was quoted as saying in the press release.

“Greater use of natural gas will help Africa solve a whole range of problems, from economic to social and environmental. We believe that Africa should fully discover the advantages of this fuel for itself,” the head of Gazprom’s foreign economic activities department, Dmitry Khandoga, said.

“We see potential in cooperation with African countries and can offer our unique experience and technological know-how. Gazprom is open to discussing constructive and mutually beneficial proposals that would facilitate economic development and improve the lives of people in African countries,” Khandoga said.

The chairman of the African Energy Chamber, NJ Ayuk, said more than 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity, and 900 million people, most of them women, do not have access to clean cooking technologies. Either they do not exist, or they are insufficient, and solving this problem alone is sufficient reason to use the continent’s rich gas reserves, he said.

In Africa, which needs industrialization, affordable and abundant natural gas will help create many new jobs and opportunities for capacity building, economic diversification and growth, Ayuk said.

The participants discussed the role of natural gas in Africa’s sustainable development. It was noted that the availability of energy remains a problem in most countries on the continent, and its consumption is several times lower than the global average.

Meanwhile, experts estimate that Africa will account for more than 60% of global population growth by 2050. Along with urbanization in the region, there is expected to be substantial economic growth, which will be accompanied by a twofold increase in energy consumption. Demand for natural gas is expected to grow by 150%.

Increasing natural gas production will help meet the growing energy demand, roundtable participants said. “However, at present most of the gas extracted here is exported. For example, one in three residents of Nigeria, Africa’s largest LNG exporter, does not have access to energy. Therefore, it is the accessibility of energy for industry and households that will be of foremost importance for Africa’s dynamic development,” Gazprom said.

With the help of China, a number of African countries, through bilateral agreements, now have the capacity to assemble, integrate and test satellites. This will enable them to position themselves as the continent’s space industry powerhouse. Quiet recently, Egypt took delivery of two China-funded prototypes for the MisrSat-2 satellite project on June 25.

The satellites will be assembled and tested at a centre, also financed by China, at the Egyptian Space Agency near the country’s new capital city. China provided a $74 million grant for the project, as well as $68 million for the satellite assembly, integration, and test centre to be built.

Over the past three months, engineers from Egypt and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation have been conducting tests on three MisrSat-2 satellite models – two prototypes and a flight model.

Chinese ambassador to Egypt, Liao Liqiang, said Egypt would be the first African nation that could assemble, integrate and test satellites. “Egypt is the first country to which China handed over the satellite cooperation project outside China, and the first country with which China cooperated to complete the large-scale trial operation of the satellite outside China,” Liao said at the ceremony to present the grant to the Egyptian government.

Media reports further said that Beijing was keen to work with Egypt to advance cooperation in space and to continue deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two nations. The satellite is expected to be launched from China in October.

Nigerian space scientist Temidayo Oniosun said China had taken a prominent role in partnering with African institutions to develop their space programmes. He said that in addition to Egypt, China had bilateral agreements with 13 other African countries covering space technology, training and ground infrastructure.

“Like other countries such as Russia, the United States and Europe, China is always exploring new business opportunities on the continent,” Oniosun said, adding that the African space industry was growing – generating about $20 billion in annual revenue – and everyone wanted a slice of it. “It is also a critical tool for international diplomacy, and this defines China’s long-term plan on the continent,” he said.

“Competition among key African states ‘racing’ to become leaders in this sector, and competition among external players – especially China and France – to secure contracts in Africa,” noted President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. In fact, Egypt is strategically placed to be a centre for satellite assembly since it has access to Europe and Africa. It is also bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the East.

China had 28 space agreements with African nations – the most of any country – spanning everything from earth observation and capacity development to satellite navigation, communication and astronomy. It boosts cooperation on space technology, promotes Africa’s space infrastructure development, and uses the space industry to drive social development and improve people’s living standards.

Last year the South African Institute of International Affairs, a reputable policy think tank, said in its report that “Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence.”

It also highlighted the fact that Russia is using Africa as a geopolitical playing field, soliciting support for invading neighbouring Ukraine, and warned African leaders that Russia might not, in practical terms, deliver on its pledges and implement promptly bilateral agreements.

Professors Irina O. Abramova and Leonid L. Fituni, both from the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a report last year, reminded the authorities, who are squeezed between illusions and realities, about their policy ambitions in Africa. And that high-ranking Russian officials need to change their approach towards Africa.

The fact that African countries consider Russia a reliable economic partner, and it is necessary to interact with African public and private businesses on a mutually beneficial basis. In this regard, Russian initiatives should be supported by real steps and not be limited to verbal declarations about the “return of Russia to Africa,” especially after the Sochi gathering, which was described as very symbolic, they wrote in the report.

The first symbolic first summit at the Black Sea city of Sochi, indeed, fêted heads of state from 43 African countries and showcased Moscow’s great power ambitions. At the tail-end of it, both Russia and Africa adopted a joint declaration, a comprehensive document that outlines the key objectives and necessary tasks to raise assertively the entire relations to a new qualitative level. Several agreements were also signed with African countries. And yet Russian officials are desirously looking to sign more new agreements during the next summit.

And, of course, this late July, African leaders and corporate businesses will be heading to St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, primarily to discuss ways to end the Russia-Ukraine crisis and its related adverse impact on Africa’s economy and across the world. Secondly, they will be looking strategically to negotiate for “no-cost delivery” of grains and wheat and, most possibly, access to advanced technology and investment in the economic sectors. Third, close-ups of the two-day gathering with memorable group photographs.

What do potential external players need? What does Africa Want from foreign countries? Beyond signing bilateral agreements, what next? With the emerging challenges and geopolitical changes in this evolving multipolar world, it is certainly true that Russia has to take practical steps towards interconnecting, to build better multi-dimensional relationships with Africa.

In the 21st century, Africa does not need anti-Western rhetoric. It has to address sustainable development goals, especially rising youth unemployment, food security, energy deficits, and improved infrastructure. Simply anti-Western slogans will never facilitate its economic development. The best way to fight ‘neo-colonialism’ is to invest in competitive sectors where the United States and Europe are showing similar interests.

On a broader scale, the African Union (AU), an organization which unites sovereign states across Africa, also needs to adopt a new policy strategy with Russia. In reality, and taking cognizance of the huge untapped natural resources, and combined with the available human capital, Africa’s sectors are presently crying for drastic economic transformation to take care of the increasing demands of the estimated 1.4 billion population.

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