On 14 July 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly received two African leaders, Gabonese Ali Bongo Ondimba and Sudanese Omar al-Bashir, within the framework of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The two were on a three-day working visit part of which was to attend the FIFA World Cup final match between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Together 12 presidents, prime ministers and many high-ranking representatives of foreign states attended the final match.
While meeting them separately in the Kremlin, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s role in and support for solving endless conflicts specifically in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in Sudan, and other regional conflicts in parts of Africa. The meetings were also to consolidate the existing diplomatic relations.
Despite its significant mineral deposits and other resources, such as uranium reserves, crude oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, lumber and as well as significantly large arable land, the CAR is among the ten poorest countries in the world.
Nearly 90 percent of the estimated population of around 4.6 million as of 2016 is among the most impoverished [people in the world]. CAR has been engulfed in political and ethnic conflict.
“There is naturally a lot of work to do for us, including the regional settlement in Central Africa. We know that Gabon takes the most active part in this, making a significant contribution to this joint work,” he stressed at the meeting with Ali Bongo.
In this context, Gabon is now chairing the Economic Community of Central African States and this community or regional organisation is directly involved in settling the conflict in CAR.
Gabon is bordered by Equatorial Guinea to the west, Cameroon to the north and the Republic of Congo on the east and south, and the Gulf of Guinea to the west. Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had three presidents.
Abundant petroleum and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Sahara Africa. Gabon’s economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues constitute roughly 46 percent of the government’s budget, 43 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), and 81 percent of exports.
During the meeting, Ali Bongo argued that, “Russia is a huge country, which has enormous capabilities and which can, of course, contribute a lot to the continent. Everyone talks about Africa today, from most various angles. The continent is rich in resources, and we observe how many major states fight each other to gain access to these resources.”
From the above statement, Ali Bongo was encouraging the Kremlin authorities to flex [their] muscles to face risks and high competition, in order to raise Russia’s economic profile on the continent to match with its global status. As already known, African countries have seriously adopted “economic diplomacy” and are looking to find pragmatic solutions to issues relating to infrastructure development, foreign trade and investment cooperation.
The transcript posted to the Kremlin official website did not say anything about oil business, but understandably, Russia seeks to cooperate in this sphere.
The Kremlin press service said that trade between Russia and Gabon doubled in 2017 to US $47.7 (from US $29.1 in 2016). Last October, Russia’s oil giant Rosneft signed a profile protocol of understanding with Gabon’s Oil and Hydrocarbon Ministry.
In June 2017, Zarubezhneft and the Gabonese oil company signed a memorandum of understanding – a framework agreement on key aspects of cooperation, including joint exploration of deposits and construction of oil and gas facilities in Gabon.
In his discussion with Putin, Al-Bashir noted that Russia and Sudan relations really demonstrated positive dynamics. “As for the economic sphere, we are developing a programme to share information and opinions on how we can develop these relations. Russian companies, including those producing mineral resources, actively work in Sudan. There will also be a meeting devoted to the agricultural sphere in September,” the Sudanese leader said.
Sudanese leader hopes to start tourist exchanges soon. He also encourages the participation of Russian oil and gas companies so that they would work in Sudan.
There are positive shifts in the military-technical sphere and in military cooperation. “We see big exchanges between specialists of Russia and Sudan. A big number of Russian specialists work in our country and this is why we highly praise the role that your country plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel,” Al-Bashir told Putin.
In fact, Putin and Al-Bashir last met and had a comprehensive business discussion in November 2017 in Sochi, Russia. According to the Kremlin website, the two sides have signed agreements and memoranda of understanding in the field of oil, gold mining, the peaceful use of nuclear power, higher education, external relations and agriculture.
In Sochi, Al-Bashir affirmed that, “Sudan is opening its doors for all countries and companies to invest in the country”, indicating that Russian, Chinese and Arab companies are now operating in Sudan.
Interestingly, Al-Bashir has offered to help Russia in Africa. “Sudan has extensive ties in Africa and can help Russia develop relations with African countries. Sudan may become Russian’s key to Africa. We are a member of the African Union,” he promised Putin.
“We have great relations with all African nations and we are ready to help. We are also interested in developing relations with BRICS,” he concluded assertively. The BRICS group of emerging economies comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa will host a summit of BRICS countries on 26-27 July.
Despite the fact that bilateral relations between Russia and with both Gabon and Sudan are still below expectation, the three leaders Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir in their separate discussions expressed high optimism to take practical [and] effective steps working towards their growth and sustainability.
It is worthy to note that Africa, indeed, has emerged as a playground for foreign powers especially Asian powers including China, India and Japan; each with its economic interests in the region and trying to expand its influence in strategic ways. In principle, all three leaders (Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir) have agreed that relations, in anyway, be developed in all directions between their individual states and Russia.
*Kester Kenn Klomegah writes about Russia, Africa and the BRICS