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Opinion

Africa Beyond Russia’s Grains Partnerships -By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Until sustainable food security is established through modernizing agriculture and ensuring adequate support for local farmers, Russia’s grain supply would be as a soft bait (i) to reinforce the existing time-tested relationships with Africa and (ii) to solicit endorsement for the unprovoked war in Ukraine.

In a speech delivered, 20th March 2023, during the interparliamentary conference ‘Russia-Africa’ held in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin described six African countries as the least developed and poorest in the world that are urgently in need grains, alternatively referred to as humanitarian aid, to feed its population.

The beneficiary African countries – Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe – have warm-heartedly expressed their highest gratitude for the wonderful ‘food-gift’ that was promised, and was chorused in a speech in July 2023 at the second Russia-Africa summit held in St. Petersburg.

During that Russia-Africa summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised what was referred to as ‘grains at no-cost delivery’ (when it was first announced to an ear-deafening applause at the inter-parliamentary conference March 20), and as expected, the Russian Agriculture Ministry has accomplished that mission by despatching a total of 200,000 metric tonnes as humanitarian aid to these African countries. (For further detailed information on this, read the transcript on the Kremlin’s website)

“After the Russia-Africa summit, we have been maintaining relations with African countries and building cooperation,” Patrushev told Putin during Kremlin meeting. “As a result, we were able to deliver this volume of wheat to these countries quite quickly.” He also told Putin that Russia expected to export up to 70 million metric tonnes of grain in the 2023-2024 agricultural year. In the previous season, Russia shipped 66 million tonnes worth almost $16.5 billion.

This 200,000 metric tonnes humanitarian aid to Africa has been given unprecedented world-wide publicity. Russian state TV in the past month showed white bags of wheat marked “gift from the Russian Federation to Burkina Faso” and printed with the flags of both countries. “It shows Russia’s solidarity for the Burkinabe people and the good, strong relations between our two countries,” Nandy Some-Diallo, Burkina Faso’s minister for solidarity and humanitarian action, said at a ceremony to mark the donation in January.

TASS state news agency put it most blankly: “Russia has completed delivery of wheat to six poorest African countries. At the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, Putin vowed to supply Russian grain free of charge to African countries most in need.”

Since the first announcement in March, followed by the second in July 2023, it several months to deliver to Africa which officials blamed logistics. “The first ship departed on November 7, 2023. The average travel time stood at 30-40 days. The last vessel arrived in Somalia in late January and the unloading of its cargo was completed on February 17,” Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev said, adding that “this is the first time that our country carried out such a large-scale humanitarian operation,” according to Russian state news agency TASS.

Many observers, however, say the Kremlin’s grain gift is a ‘strategic’ move as Putin’s African alliance broadens. “It’s strategic in the sense that Russia realizes these countries are in need, and basically takes advantage of that specific need,” said Zimbabwean development economist Godfrey Kanyenze.

“It is geopolitics at play … the major string is to control or get a head start ahead of other rivals or competitors,” Kanyenze, who is a founding director of the Labor and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, told CNN in February 2024, adding that Africa has become a very critical playing ground, further suggested that Russia could be playing the long game to emerge as Africa’s preferred global partner.

Notwithstanding that, African countries generally have goodwill towards Russia, and this has noticeably reflected in their avoidance in criticizing the war in Ukraine which began Feb. 24, 2022. While many took a neutral stance, Eritrea voted against a UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Reports say the Kremlin is steadily making inroads, taking advantage of instability in countries that used to rely on former colonial ties with Europe. Leaders of those countries have vehemently criticized former colonial relations, moved to cut ties with the West — mainly France — and often narrative fact that Russia never colonized African countries.

The foreign and local media posts on Russia’s humanitarian grain to the six African countries have interestingly received millions of readers and viewers. Some news outlets ran headlines praising Russia for feeding Africa, but terribly failed to analyze the implications to include the incapacity of these African countries to modernize agriculture instead of settling for food packages. That business often goes beyond the humanitarian aid. Almost half of the African continent import, at least, their wheat from both Russia and Ukraine. Besides wheat and grains, Russia does an excellent business with security assistance and arms supplies, mostly in exchange for mineral concessions and uninterrupted access to natural resource deposits in Africa.

Despite frequent complaints against United States and Europe over global (dis)order and hegemony, further blaming them for over exploiting Africa, Russia is now at the frontline, unquestionably fighting neo-colonialism on behalf of Africa. Without much doubts, Russian flags have become an acceptable symbol of anti-Western sentiment across Africa. But in practical terms, it rather exposes the collective weaknesses, inability to sharpen development priorities, gross mismanagement and incompetencies of Africa leaders. In a nutshell, African leaders pay lip service in pursuit of working towards attaining their own economic sovereignty.

The system of governance, lack of strategies and poor development policies are largely hindering sustainable development. African leaders have opened faultlines: globe throttling for humanitarian aid at international conferences and summits, switching investment partners, take their mines and natural resources from one foreign player and pass them on to another foreign player – in the name of fighting neo-colonialism.

The Global Development Index shows that African governments continue to pursue trivial development questions, poor governance and deep-seated corruption. In fact 80% of Africa’s population still live in abject poverty, the state development is shabby. And yet blamed United States and Europe for their under-development and exploitation. The neo-colonialism topic is a source of much discussion at all levels around the world. After pivoting away from the much-disparaged United States and Europe, a number of African leaders have found new ‘friends’ in the so-called East, enthusiastic bartering their gold and diamond mines.

Often said that Africans have to use their wisdom, prioritize the continental unity and development especially in the context of current rapidly changing global architecture. Strict compliance and respecting the policy guidelines of regional and continental organizations, and this step will in turn make them stronger on international stage.

Better target critical institutional reforms inside Africa, take strict measures to prevent foreign ‘friends’ from exploiting loopholes in these state institutions. Regardless of the facts, African issues are still very lamentable, and leaders are excited at Africa being described as poorest in the world, on one hand. Then on the other hand, Africa is described as uniquely endowed with enormous untapped resources. The dichotomy of the present day Africa.

What really makes these countries – Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe – poor? As it is well-known, Zimbabwe, with roughly 15 million people as per 2022 census, claims has recorded its highest wheat harvest during the agricultural production year. Thus, Zimbabwe emerges as one of the few African countries which has adopted import substitution agricultural policy and strategically working towards self-sufficiency. Consequently, this could be a great lesson for Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali and Somalia.

Besides the humanitarian grains, Russia plans to earn estimated revenue amounting to $33 billion by exporting food to African countries. In a sharp contrast to food-importing African countries, Zimbabwe has increased wheat production especially during this crucial time of the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. This achievement was attributed to efforts in mobilizing local scientists to improve the crops’ production. Zimbabwe is an African country that has been under Western sanctions for 25 years, hindering imports of much-needed machinery and other inputs to drive agriculture.

Some experts and international organizations have also expressed the fact that African leaders have to adopt import substitution mechanisms and use their financial resources on strengthening agricultural production systems. Establishing food security is important for millions of people facing hunger in Africa and is crucial for sustainable economic development and long-term prosperity of the continent.

In the course of this discussion, it is worth to underline the that Africa is the world’s second-largest with a huge landscape for agriculture. Despite this low concentration of wealth, recent economic expansion and its young population make Africa an important economic market in the broader global context. But why Africa remains the world’s poorest and least-developed continent? And be running around for food packages? Interesting loans and investment capital have been diverted and siphoned off back to Europe. Africa is now at risk of being in debt, particularly in sub-Saharan African countries.

Addressing food security, therefore, is key for a rising Africa in the 21st century. With the geopolitics intensifying, Africa can only gain contentious economic strength by confronting challenges, handling emerging opportunities, fine-tuning strategies and importantly above-all – utilizing much of its own abundant human and natural resources. It is about time to halt the Africa’s dreamy European circus. And in a nutshell, take cognizance of the key necessity to acknowledge the popular saying ‘African problems, African solutions’ and/or alternatively the ‘Africa We Want’ within the parameters of Agenda 2063 as widely propagated by the African Union.

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