By Somar Wijayadasa*
This is the first of a two-part article looking into relations between Russia and Africa, which began long before the massive decolonization of Africa in the 1960s.
NEW YORK. 31 July 2023 (IDN) — The Russia-Africa summit on 27 and 28 July in St. Petersburg warrants us to examine Russia’s historic and current relations with Africa.
Opening the Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the “deep-rooted” relations between the two countries. He said Moscow’s ties with the African continent have always been distinguished by stability, trust, and goodwill.
Many—mostly Russophobes—who are unfamiliar with Russia-Africa relations question what Russia has to do with Africa. Actually, a lot—historically and currently—and a brief look at the events that unfolded over the decades may be educational and informative.
USSR and Russia Relations with Africa
The relations between the two countries—the former Soviet Union (USSR) and later Russia with Africa—developed long before the massive decolonization of Africa in the 1960s.
It is no secret that the USSR—in keeping with its socialist ideology and traditions—had been a staunch supporter of national liberation movements and decolonization worldwide—especially in the African continent.
Therefore, it was natural for the former Soviet Union first to assist the African countries struggling to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism and, secondly, to assist the newly liberated but impoverished African countries to develop much-needed infrastructure to govern themselves.
A heavily colonized Africa began to change in the 1950s when European powers (mainly the UK and France) began to lose control of their former colonies.
By then, the USSR had been providing military assistance to anti-colonial movements in Africa, and later, rightfully, the USSR was a key actor in the post-colonial development of Africa.
According to available records at the United Nations, in the 1950s, the Soviet Union’s Representatives at the UN’s General Assembly and its Trusteeship Council have been staunch advocates for the liberation of all African colonised countries.
Addressing the UN General Assembly in 1960, it was Nikita Khrushchev (the Soviet leader from 1953-1964 and then President of the USSR) who initiated the adoption of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.
According to TASS, Nikita Khrushchev addressed the UN calling for African independence and welcomed the decolonization process—announcing that “The USSR established especially close ties with the so-called countries of the socialist development model (Guinea, Ghana, the Congo Republic, Mali, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique and Benin)”.
In 1960, 17 African countries were liberated from colonialism and that phenomenal year became known as The Year of Africa. By 1977, 50 African countries had gained Independence from Belgium, France and the United Kingdom.
By the time the colonial powers were compelled to leave Africa, the colonizers had pillaged its wealth leaving the African continent in poverty, and the majority of its people in destitution with the lowest literacy rates in the world.
To provide the much-needed support for these newly independent countries, USSR unhesitatingly filled the gap by establishing diplomatic, political, military, and cultural relationships with African States.
Egypt was the first African country with which the USSR signed a trade treaty (1955), followed by Tunisia (1957), Morocco (1958), Ghana, Ethiopia and Guinea (all in 1959).
Also, by 1960, the USSR was basking in the glory of a Super Power with a thriving economy, marvels of industrialization, advances in science, technology and medicine, escapades into outer space, and was fully competent and equipped to provide financing, economic and technical assistance, and expertise to develop Africa’s infrastructure—so vitally needed for the development of African nations rapidly liberating from centuries of European colonization and exploitation.
Though exporting Socialism or displaying the Soviets’ glorious achievements (as some critics argue) may have been a covert factor, the USSR had the finances and the expertise necessary to develop Africa promptly.
The Soviets magnanimously embarked on providing much-needed hydropower, mining, geological explorations for mineral deposits (including oil and gas), construction of industrial facilities such as cement, sawmills, leather and footwear factories, construction of power plants and hydroelectric stations, and most importantly the building of educational centres—all Soviet funded projects.
As a prelude to the Russia-Africa Summit, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin wrote an illuminating article entitled “Russia and Africa: Joining Efforts for Peace, Progress and a Successful Future” describing the enormous contributions made by the former Soviet Union (USSR) and later Russia towards Africa’s development—when Africa was struggling to get out of the shackles of colonialism.
Putin wrote “We have consistently supported African peoples in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression. We have provided assistance in developing statehood, strengthening their sovereignty and defence capability. Much has been done to create sustainable foundations for national economies”.
He pointed out that by the mid-1980s, with the participation of Russian specialists, hundreds of large infrastructure and industrial facilities have been built in Africa, such as power plants, irrigation systems, and industrial and agricultural enterprises, which are successfully operating to this day, and continue to make a significant contribution to the continent’s economic development.
According to “Russia Beyond”, since 1960, the Soviets signed cooperation treaties with 37 African countries and participated in building some 600 enterprises, factories and plants. USSR’s billion-dollar financing of Egypt’s Aswan Dam is one example of such fruitful endeavors.
In the early 1960s, Africa perhaps had the lowest literacy rates in the world (records non-existent) as even today, according to UNESCO, “In all of Africa, there must be at least 100 million illiterate persons.
One of the Soviet Union’s primary objectives was to educate young Africans, and it provided full scholarships to study medicine, engineering and other subjects vitally needed for the rapid development of Africa.
From 1949 to 1991, around 60,000 Africans studied in the USSR and later Russia.
In his article, Putin stated, “Tens of thousands of African doctors, technical specialists, engineers, officers and teachers have received education in Russia”.
Among the prominent African graduates of the former Soviet Union and Russia are Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt (Military training in USSR); Michel Djotodia, President of the Central African Republic; Hifikepunye Pohamba, President, Namibia; Yousuf Saleh Abbas, Former Prime Minister of Chad, many ministers, judges, professors, ambassadors, doctors, and engineers who have made a dedicated commitment to their communities.
According to available statistics, nearly 12% of medical doctors and over 10% of engineers currently working in Africa were educated in the former Soviet Union and Russia. That is a remarkable record that no other country could match.
Thus, the Soviet Union, as an economic powerhouse at the time, unhesitatingly supported the newly independent African countries.
It was also precisely for that purpose—to educate young people from those poor and developing countries—that President Nikita Khrushchev established the People’s Friendship University in Moscow and provided free education to tens of thousands of students from developing countries —a higher education that they would have never received in their own countries. Needless to say that such cadres were crucially needed to rapidly develop the newly liberated countries. Russia to-date unwaveringly continues that legacy.
During the current Summit, referring to education in Africa, Putin noted that Russia is helping African states to build their human resources capacity, noting that out of 35,000 African students in Russia right now, “more than 6,000 receive Russian government scholarships”.
Putin pointed out that Russia is taking part in debt relief efforts for African countries and that Russia has written off a total of $23 billion in debt. Also, at the request of African countries, Russia allocated over $90 million more for these development purposes.
Even today, Russia magnanimously supports Africa with economic, military, social and cultural support that no other country can speak of.
So, it is not that Russia has suddenly discovered Africa or that it has suddenly fallen in love with the African continent.
These few historical facts prove that the former Soviet Union and later Russia has provided entirely altruistic support to Africa at the time of its dire need. These relations are positioned to thrive.
*Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer who worked in UN organizations (IAEA, FAO & UNESCO since 1973), was a Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995 and a Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Plenary session of the Russia–Africa Summit. Credit: Pavel Bednyakov, RIA Novosti
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