There has been a growing interest in the Sub-Saharan Africa for several reasons: it has plenty of natural resources (e.g. oil, gas and over 30% of world's mineral reserves), it's a growing consumption market, a potential manufacturing power (a future replacement for China); and it represents circa a third of the UN memberships.
Thus, it's not surprising that the rivalry between the US and Russia has been moving towards the African Continent; but which of these two powers presents the most suitable characteristics to assist in Africa's stability and security?
Some analysts say that Russia is now turning to Africa as a way of mitigating the damages caused by western economic sanctions; but this cannot be true because even before the Ukrainian Crisis (that resulted in the mentioned coercive measure), the Russian Federation was already stretching its arm to the African continent as Steven Blank wrote a couple of years ago “African resources attract Russian elites because they are relatively unexplored and can contribute to Russia’s wealth, political influence and ability to affect European natural gas policy”. Having said this, the marketed Russian interest in the Sub-Saharan Africa is to be interpreted as being in step with the Russian Federation's long planned Foreign Policy.
It's easy for Russia to reach African countries, since many of them insist on using old communist rhetoric (e.g. blaming former imperialists for all their woes) therefore President Putin takes advantage of it to reach his goals. A good example of this, is one of Russia's main partners: Angola. This country has been on the spotlight for having incarcerated 15 political activists, including a Luso-Angolan (Luaty Beirão) who until last week was on a hunger strike, and was visited by the Portuguese Ambassador to Angola – as always, the reaction was "They think Angola is still a slave, that we are slaves of the Portuguese (...) that we don't have a voice and that Portugal is in charge, that Portugal talks and we all know what walks. The Portuguese need to realise that Angola is a sovereign state" (source, in Portuguese); which is exactly the kind of thing that Russia thrives on (as President Putin's speech, delivered at UNGA, showed us).
Grabbing opportunities is what politics is all about. However, Russia not only grabs opportunities but it also creates them; and thus Africans should be asking themselves how far is Russia willing to go in order to expand its sphere of influence and wealth?
If African leaders really mean it when, standing every year before the UNGA, they say they are fighting for the human development of their respective nations, then they must be reminded that assisting Russia with its strategic interests may bear a heavy cost, since Russia focuses on the expansion of its military industry first – meaning that we could expect to see an increase in civil wars, or regional conflicts, in Sub-Saharan Africa to plenish Russian coffers. $13.3 billion in weapon sales revenues in 2014, and an estimated +$13 Bn in 2015 (in Russia's 'Charm Offensive' In Africa: The Case of Angola; October 19, 2015), is enough an incentive to promote bloodshed in order to sell more weapons.
America took long to turn to Africa, after a series of blunders in its role during the independence wars. But given America's profile, it should be inferred that the US – in an attempt to balance tensions during the Cold War period – granted a lot of leverage to the Soviets; but the truth is this quid pro quo not only arrested the development of Africans but it also delayed US penetration in Africa (beyond the usual CIA operations). Notwithstanding, Presidents Bush and Obama turned that dark page and re-directed their country's gaze towards that strategic continent.
While Russia wants to use Africa to control oil and gas prices, to benefit its cartel; the US actually sees it for what it really is: a foreign policy game changer. By investing in Africa's oil, gas and mining industries, the US decreases the excessive relevance bestowed on troublemaking nations (that sponsor terrorism) being, thus, able to negotiate with those countries from a stronger position. Notwithstanding, the US is not entirely oblivious to the fact that this new reality will cause those oil-rich countries to react by sponsoring conflicts in Africa in order to keep investors at bay; therefore, the American leadership's preferred method of penetrating Africa is to make partnerships to quell security issues (as opposed to feeding them, like Russia).
One example of such partnerships is the National Guard State Program. According to Scott Morgan, the “National Guard is considered to be able to offer unique skill sets that other Branches of the US Military are not able to provide” and therefore, two new partnerships have been created:
- Kentucky will partner with Djibouti
- Massachusetts Guard will partner with the Kenyan Defence Forces (the agreement was formalized on June 2nd of this year)
Two powers racing for the same continent. Two different approaches.
If African leaders truly wish to put the interests of their people first, they should consider solving any existing tensions with the US (a symbol of the West) because in spite of the its imperfections (obsession with democracy, human rights, occasional ambiguity etc), America remains the most reliable partner to build stable and secure societies – although it takes two to Tango. Russia's profile suggests that it's not the best partner to guarantee stability in the African continent, because when Russians express willingness to contribute to Africa's security needs we must remember that, unfortunately, they are a two-edged knife.