Vladimir Putin has placed a high premium on rebuilding Russia’s stature as a global power, and these efforts extend to Africa. He first visited the continent in 2006, promising $1bn in investments and making a clear declaration of Russian interest.
If you google “Russia-Africa relations”, some of the first results include news articles about Russia and its “return” to the African continent. What does Russia want from Africa, many ask, and what’s behind Moscow’s recent push into the continent?
You may also see mention of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, the first of its kind, held in Sochi and attended by 43 African heads of state. Several memoranda of understanding were signed at the summit, including between the Russian government and the African Union.
“We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa. We have a lot to offer our African friends,” President Vladimir Putin said at the summit. This too sparked debate about Russia’s growing influence on the continent.
Did Russia ever really leave Africa? That depends on who you ask.
In March 2021, building on previous work, the SA Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) launched a two-year research programme seeking to understand Russia’s strategic engagement and policy impact in Africa. A series of online scoping workshops showed there are vast and varying opinions on the topic.
Sanctions Trigger Renewed Engagement
It’s well known that the Soviet Union provided support to a number of African countries during their anti-colonial struggles. Most scholars agree that in the early 1990s, at the height of the USSR’s transition to a multi- (or one-) party system, and preoccupied with domestic challenges, Russia’s presence in Africa reached an all-time low.
In 1991, the then president, Boris Yeltsin, announced that Russia’s foreign aid policy would come to an end. By 1992, nine embassies and four consular offices were closed, while many cultural centres disappeared.
Since then, Putin has placed a high premium on rebuilding Russia’s stature as a global power, and these efforts extend to Africa too. He first visited the continent in 2006, promising $1-billion in investments and making a clear declaration of Russian interest. By the following year, Russia had written off approximately $20-billion of debt incurred by African countries during the Cold War.
But some argue that it wasn’t until 2013 that material engagements emerged. Putin again visited South Africa, often seen as the gateway to Africa, for a Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) summit. Russia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with South Africa, with provision for cooperation in the political, economic, and defence spheres.
Diplomatic links between Russia and Africa have also increased, with several heads of state visiting Moscow since 2015. Through the UN, Russia has actively participated in aid programmes, providing food and medical assistance to African countries in need. It has also courted African votes on the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly. It’s widely speculated that renewed engagement is linked to economic sanctions placed on Russia in 2014 by the West, due to the Ukraine conflict and the “annexation” of Crimea. Here, two distinct interests stand out.
Military and Natural Resource Interests
Russia is a major supplier of arms to Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Africa accounted for 18% of all Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020, with Algeria being the largest recipient. Defence relationships between Russia and Africa are also growing.
Since 2014, Rosoboronexport – a Russian state-owned agency that exports military products and services – has signed bilateral agreements with multiple African countries, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Sudan. Apart from military equipment, the agreements contain provisions for countering terrorism and the joint training of troops.
Russia also has clear economic motives when it comes to natural resources. Although it boasts some of its own mineral wealth, Russia’s natural resources are difficult to extract, making it easier to import them instead. Notable developments are taking place in Zimbabwe (platinum group metals), Angola (diamonds), and Namibia (uranium).
Several Russian state-owned energy companies such as Gazprom, Rustec and Rosatom are also active in Africa, with key investments in the oil, gas and nuclear sectors in Algeria, Egypt, Uganda and Angola. It’s worth noting that state-led investments are often linked to military or diplomatic initiatives. For example, while an agreement is in place to construct two nuclear power plants in Nigeria, Russia has at the same time committed to countering terrorism there.
Events since 2014 have led to concerns from other countries about the return of the “bear” (in a 2018 speech, the then US national security adviser, John Bolton, singled out the expansionist efforts of Russia and its “influence across Africa”).
And while much attention is paid to Russian movements on the continent, it’s difficult to compare Russian engagement with Africa’s traditional partners like the US, UK and France, or with emerging powers like China, whose involvement dwarfs that of Russia. Interest from Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and others also means African countries can now pick and choose who they would like to partner with. These decisions are informed by a complex web of priorities.
Conversely, while Putin has named Africa a foreign policy priority, it is not number one on the list. “In terms of overall economic ties, Russia still does much more trade with Europe and Asia than with Africa,” Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies, told SAIIA. This was due to its geographic location, she said.
Plans for the 2022 Russia-Africa summit are well under way, again causing a stir around growing Russian presence on the continent. Rumored to be taking place in either Cairo, Dakar or Addis Ababa, the summit will bring together hundreds of representatives from business and government.
Is this part of Russia’s new Africa strategy or a continuation of its prior involvement? Either way, we should expect incremental growth in levels of engagement.
This article was initially published in the Daily Maverick.
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BBI: Political Tool or State-Building Opportunity?
The Building Bridges Initiative has only opened up the more important discussion of Kenyans coming to terms with their social realities. It cannot be expected to be the silver bullet that will solve the country’s problems.
When the history of Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term at the helm of Kenya’s political leadership is written, it shall cast him in Machiavellian light as a wily fox—a scheming and unscrupulous prince. This history, shall perhaps, at the same time, be magnanimous and laudatory of Raila’s repeated efforts, over the long duration of his career, to demonstrate pragmatism and build bridges on more than three occasions. Indeed, these two politicians, perhaps, shall be looked upon by such an objective history quite kindly for being able, somewhat, to douse the intense fire and latent political violence before and after the 2017 elections. It is undeniable that the private talks, the subsequent highly public political and symbolic “handshake,” and the BBI consultation process was “created by people in the executive to stabilize the state.” However, as contemporary political commentators observed, this initiative has quite a few pitfalls, blindsides, and shortcomings, and this, history shall not forgive. As the constitutional lawyer, and political commentator, Kamotho Waiganjo noted, the BBI shall not “fundamentally solve our problems.” Moreover, the country’s fundamental problems do not lie in the law, but elsewhere.
When put in historical perspective, this political initiative, and the debate around it, only opens the more important discussion of Kenyans coming to terms with their social realities. As Waiganjo stated, citizens must have “an honest national conversation about what ails” Kenya— what takes away our ethos? Why do we celebrate unethical conduct by public servants and officials? Why do we elect people we know are thugs? Why is it that we are corrupt in every sector of our society? According to Waiganjo, that is the substantive conversation that Kenyans ought to have in every sector of society, be it private or public. As such, the BBI cannot be expected to be the be-all and end-all silver bullet that will solve all the country’s various problems (and especially not the two twin tyrannies of ethnic expectation and institutionalized corruption that feed off each other, and are inextricably connected).
As already noted above, while the initiative staved off violence and bloodshed, it largely remains an elite initiative as opposed to being people-led and driven as the protracted constitution-writing process of the 2000s was and, therefore, cannot be as radical, and revolutionary. And, if anything was revolutionary, it was the 2010 constitution, which was the result of a people-driven process. When the account of this process is written, it shall record that this process was, indeed, anything other than “a reform document,” and that, while the report may contain some strains of what could pass as reform, “it is inherently inconsistent with itself.”
As Wanjiru Gikonyo noted, the initiative failed the litmus test of elite accountability and answerability. In Gikonyo’s own words, the two political leaders, and the elite in general, ducked being accountable and answerable regarding the precipitous 2017 events by hiding behind BBI. Neither does the report mention the rampant economic or financial crimes perpetrated against the people of Kenya, and nor does it comprehensively address issues of economic marginalization. As such, the report did not only “fail spectacularly to be accountable to the people,” but it, for the most part, descended into “political theatre”. In the end, it is Kenyans who were had by the political class. “We have been snookered,” as Gikonyo put it. And, given the benefit of hindsight, honest and objective wananchi looking back would say, “No, we needed to get out of this charade. We were snookered. The report cherry-picked this or that carrot for women; another carrot for devolution; that carrot for youth; and put together all these various carrots in an unfathomable framework.”
In observing that BBI was akin to trying to fix fundamental and systemic governance weaknesses and failure using a Band-Aid approach, Gikonyo could not have been more apt: “It is a whitewash process, but this whitewash process is also trying to take us forward by taking us backwards. It is taking us forward from the chaos we have now, taking us back to the coalition government, because . . . without a vision, and failing to have a progressive mind-set, they [pro- BBI politicians] are saying things were a bit better when we had a coalition government. Let us put some . . . Band-Aid on our governance system and go back there.”
“BBI was akin to trying to fix fundamental and systemic governance weaknesses and failure using a Band-Aid approach.”
Lastly, it is also worth observing that, while widespread grassroots “consensus” was sought, the process was not necessarily greeted with enthusiasm. A survey conducted by Tifa, a polling firm, at the beginning of 2021 revealed that only a paltry 29 per cent of registered voters said they would vote for the BBI proposal or referendum to amend the 2010 constitution. Conversely, 32 per cent of Kenyans said that they would vote “No” to oppose constitutional changes suggested by the BBI. Another computer-aided telephone survey conducted at the end of January 2021 by Radio Africa Group revealed that the BBI referendum appeared to be on shaky ground. This poll found that 43 per cent of wananchi did not support the process compared to 21 per cent who were pro-the process. However, there was, according to this poll, “a potentially high swing vote as 25 percent say that they ‘do not know much about BBI,’ while 11 percent ‘don’t care either way.’” Furthermore, 40 per cent said they would not vote although 60 per cent said that they would. Without a doubt, the BBI process, like the electoral process historically, is quite divisive, which in Kenya, can only forebode trouble of a terrible kind.
The irony of the BBI process is that, while it was intended to stabilize the state, to build bridges between perceived rival ethnic groups, and to cohere the nation by healing past divisions, it appears to have succeeded in re-sowing seeds of old tribal hatreds across the country. As in the past, Kenya perches on delicate tenterhooks thanks to the “building bridges initiative.”
Obstacles on the way to Canaan: can Kenyans afford the democracy they crave?
This also is a key question. Indeed, it has enjoyed a lengthy history in Kenya, particularly regarding the issue of federalism or majimbo. A criticism raised against such schemes from the 1940s through the early 1960s was that federalism was too expensive for Kenya. The right-wing European politicians (e.g., the Federal Independence Party) who advocated devolution of powers to settler-controlled provincial or district councils sought an exclusionary political, economic, and social order that would keep political control and land in the White Highlands in the hands of the European minority while maintaining racially segregated schools and hospitals. Critics pointed out that such a system of government would be very expensive. For these federalists, exclusion had to be maintained no matter what the cost, especially in the case of schools.
Without a doubt, the BBI process, like the electoral process historically, is quite divisive, which in Kenya can only forebode trouble of a terrible kind.
KADU’s proposed majimbo scheme that emerged in 1961-62 also drew criticism as to potential cost from colonial officials and members of the public in addition to the leaders of KANU. This criticism focused on the creation of regional governments and duplication of functions. Peter Habenga Okondo, one of the architects of KADU’s federal proposals and a principal spokesperson for federalism, answered such criticisms bluntly. He wrote in November 1961, “If we want to preserve individual liberty what is the cost?” No cost was too high, he asserted, if Kenyans wanted to maintain a system of separation of powers and functions and “maintain the democratic process of government” that he claimed Kenyans longed for (East African Standard, 23 November 1961). The argument that no cost is too high to pay for civil liberties and representative government has since that time been reiterated during the debates surrounding the adoption of the 2010 constitution and by some of those supporting the constitutional changes called for in the BBI reports.
Yet these supporting arguments leave unmentioned issues that in the past have proved controversial and difficult to surmount. Two economic issues that raised concerns of cost during the transition to independence have yet to be confronted and put to rest. These are the issues of land ownership and labour mobility under a devolved system of government. At about the same time Okondo was advocating for regional governments with control over land and the government work force in their areas, civil servants at the British Colonial Office expressed concern that if regional assemblies were given the right to allocate land to owners and tenants, this would go against British proposals for a free market in land. The officials feared that KADU’s proposed system was “a reversion to the old tribal concepts from which we have been trying to get away in the new policy of regarding land as an economic asset” open to purchase or lease by any Kenyan. Jobs might be reserved only for individuals born in the devolved unit of government (British National Archives: CO 822/2242).
These concerns were allegedly laid to rest after the demise of KADU and the scrapping of majimbo, but the ethnic clashes of the 1990s and the 2007 post-election violence indicated that such was not the case. Do the BBI constitutional amendments promote a constitutional and legal environment that finally “solves” these issues? This is a key question yet to be definitively answered.
Not All Gloom and Doom: A Rebuttal to Mehari’s “Elections? What Elections? Abiy Is Counting on A Military Victory”
The plethora of political, judicial, economic and military reforms for the betterment of the People of Ethiopia and beyond that were introduced by PM Abiy since he came to power are still in place with an ever-increasing vitality and returns, to which the people of Ethiopia and other persons of common sense could attest to.
On 02 August 2021 your esteemed outlet The Elephant published an Op-Ed by Mehari Taddele Maru entitled “Elections? What elections? Abiy is Counting on a Military Victory”. In this regard, we would like to point out the fact that the piece was deliberately misleading, obviously biased and entirely fictitious. The distorted allegations against the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – that it has “failed to deliver on all three counts” i.e., political democratization, further economic liberalization, and what the author conveniently termed a ‘post-ethnic’ Ethiopian politics is not only misleading but also utterly misinformed. The plethora of political, judicial, economic and military reforms for the betterment of the People of Ethiopia and beyond that were introduced by PM Abiy since he came to power are still in place with an ever-increasing vitality and returns, to which the people of Ethiopia and other persons of common sense could attest to.
The author’s fallacious and twisted characterisation of Ethiopian politics as “bitterly polarised along ethnic lines”, against all odds, is a stale argument. First and foremost, conjuring up fictitious, non-existent “ethnic split” within the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) could only serve the propagandist agenda of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), let alone being a solid argument based on facts on the ground. Brazen declaration of Ethiopia as having “two armies” – the ENDF and Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF) is not only utterly preposterous but a flat out attempt against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Equating a terrorist organization such as the TPLF with the
Government of Ethiopia, in the same token ENDF with TPLF, by itself constitutes the disinformation campaigns of the latter. As such, it is emblematic of complicity with the hypocritical junta that is hellbent on wreaking havoc not only in Ethiopia but also the entire of Horn of African region. On the other hand, interpreting the fight of the people of Ethiopia, in whom the sovereign power of the government lies, against a clique that threatens the national security, peace and calm of not only Ethiopia but also its neighbours, as a war against the people of Tigray is a morally flawed statement. The Government of Ethiopia, has made it time and again abundantly clear that the war being fought is against the terrorist cell that is TPLF, not the People of Tigray. The government firmly believes that the People of Tigray must be liberated from the tyranny of this insatiable cabal that on a daily basis rains brimstone on the People of Tigray and threatens peace of the country in their name. Hence, the Tigrayan people have been the perennial victims of the TPLF clique’s unorthodox, evil rule that deprived them of descent living, development and prosperity. Mutatis mutandis, Ethiopia only has one army and that is the Ethiopian National Defense Forces.
Speaking of economic liberalization, it is of grave importance to pay due emphasis to the myriad initiatives instituted by the leadership of PM Abiy under the rubric of A Homegrown Economic Reform Agenda: A Pathway to Prosperity and Ease of Doing Business since 2018. These pioneering tools of economic reform geared towards a prosperous Ethiopia, contrary to the author’s misreading, not only stimulated Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) but also heartened robust Kenyan companies such as Safaricom to venture into the untapped telecom industry of the Ethiopian economy.
On the political democratization front, discrediting the recently conducted historic General Elections in Ethiopia as lacking in participations and competitiveness in itself amounts to discrediting the collective will of the Ethiopian People. Deeming a historic election, the People of Ethiopia conducted in a peaceful, fair and democratic manner, while effecting a new political dispensation, as discriminatory as the author boldly claims, while accusing the Prime Minister of devising “ways to effectively exclude the real contenders with any chance of defeating the incumbent”, could more or less described as a total disregard for the will of the Ethiopian people. Technically speaking, putting a genuine critique of what really transpired during the 6th General Elections aside, the author is engaged in astroturfing in favor of the TPLF junta and character assassinations ad hominem against the Prime Minister. Professional journalism at least requires that the consent of the governed be logically analyzed and criticized based on distinct merits and that scapegoating of all sorts be put aside.
There is also no mention of the unconditional unilateral declaration of ceasefire by the Federal Government on 28 June 2021 aimed at enabling humanitarian assistance that is being hampered by the TPLF’s sabotage and continued harassment. The use of child soldiers by the TPLF is also nowhere to be found in the article. It is however surprising to witness the author’s meditative misinterpretation of the unilateral ceasefire as not only a scenario of capitulation- in the authors words, “defeat and withdrawal of the Ethiopian army from Tigray” but also of “Ethiopia…losing its army.” The withdrawal of the ENDF troops was not recognized by the author as a welcome gesture geared towards ensuring the wellbeing of our people in the Tigray Region, who are being held captive by the TPLF junta. It rather portrays the Government as an entity that capitalizes on what the author carelessly claims “legitimacy hanging on military victory.” To the contrary, the Government strongly believes that its legitimacy emanates from the collective will of the People and that there are not victories to be won in the efforts to save our People in Tigray from the mouth of a wolf pack in sheep’s clothing that is the TPLF.
Losing Our Minds: Brain Drain of Africa’s Psychiatrists Is Costing the Continent
Many of the continent’s most highly trained mental health professionals migrate outside Africa. The result, sadly, makes global inequalities in access to mental health, worse.
The brain drain of medical professionals from African countries to rich countries in Europe, North America, and the Middle East has been particularly pronounced since the 1980s. As Bibilola Oladeji and Oye Gureje have noted, as of 2011, there were more than 17,000 African physicians practicing in the US alone, over two-thirds of whom had been trained in African medical schools. Of this group, two-thirds were trained either in Nigeria or South Africa, the two countries with the most extensive medical training systems on the continent. Psychiatrists have also made up a significant piece of the larger medical migration, drawn by higher salaries, better facilities, opportunities for professional development, and prospects for long-term stability to seek jobs outside of the continent.
The brain drain has become a commonplace terminology to describe the emigration of highly skilled labor from developing countries to highly industrialized states in the post-colonial world. The concept has been particularly valuable for understanding persistent underdevelopment in sub-Saharan African countries as related not so much to deficiencies in African expertise as its redirection primarily for the benefit of wealthy countries. Similar to the “brawn drain” of the Atlantic slave trade or the natural resource depletion that characterized European colonialism in much of the continent, brain drain has had long-lasting impacts on African countries’ internal development and position in the global economy.
The impact of the brain drain on mental health care in Africa can be seen through the example of Nigeria, one of the few sub-Saharan African countries with university hospitals providing accredited medical training in psychiatry. Nigeria’s first trained psychiatrist of indigenous background was Thomas Adeoye Lambo, who studied at Birmingham and the Maudsley Hospital in the UK before returning to Nigeria to practice at the newly founded Aro Mental Hospital in 1954. Lambo and his acolyte, Tolani Asuni, developed much of the infrastructure of Nigerian psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s, and several Nigerian universities began producing psychiatrists by the 1980s. The purpose of developing such programs was to produce a qualified mental health workforce for the country. Students from other countries in West Africa also trained in psychiatry at Nigerian institutions. Nigeria’s mental health care workforce grew slowly but surely from only three psychiatrists in 1955, to 25 by 1975, and 100 by 2001. But the brain drain has had a major impact on Nigerian psychiatry. Today, there are roughly 250 psychiatrists in Nigeria to serve a population of approximately 190 million. At the same time, a study from 2010 found that there were 384 Nigerian psychiatrists practicing in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, a number 50% higher than the estimated total practicing in Nigeria.
The effects of this psychiatric brain drain have been significant. Beyond the worsening of the psychiatrist-to-population ratio, this phenomenon has the potential of severely weakening ongoing reproduction of this limited resource as more freshly qualified psychiatrists and senior residents are being enticed/encouraged to relocate on the guise of training opportunities abroad, from which they never return. In addition to psychiatrists, mental health nurses are also leaving the continent in droves, with packages designed to make emigration easy and more likely to be permanent. The rate of migration far outstrips the rate of production, leaving a huge deficit in human resources, one of the major pillars of a health system, according to the World Health Organization.
Several reasons have been proffered for the exodus of medical doctors from Africa to the economically developed world. Oberoi and Lin classified these reasons into endogenous and exogenous factors. Endogenous factors include poor working conditions, poor remuneration, and lack of job satisfaction and job security with little or no opportunities for career development. Exogenous factors include social pressures from relatives, preponderances of civil unrest, and armed conflicts with attendant high levels of insecurity. Ironically, the factors that push mental health care workers to relocate abroad are the same ones that likely contribute to rates of psychological distress in their communities of origin that, in turn, require more and better mental health care.
Since the late 2000s, the “global mental health” movement has sought to ameliorate this “treatment gap” in mental health services in developing countries, including Nigeria and others in sub-Saharan Africa. In most cases, reducing the treatment gap relies heavily on training lower-qualified workers to perform the duties of highly-skilled practitioners, a set of practices known as “task shifting.” Task shifting in international public health has existed for a long time, and has been employed extensively in the field of HIV/AIDS diagnosis and treatment in many environments. But it’s use in psychiatric care is somewhat more controversial. Most notably, global mental health has been critiqued as potentially socially and culturally insensitive, importing knowledge and practices from western industrialized countries that might not adequately reflect local cultural beliefs or social determinants of health, while simultaneously marginalizing indigenous health systems.
Task shifting has also been proposed as a strategy for alleviating the effects of the brain drain on the health care sector. In a review of policies to address brain drain in sub-Saharan African countries, Edward Zimbudzi has identified some areas of possible intervention. These include ethical recruitment, brain drain tax or compensation for source countries, increasing investment in training more professionals, improving remuneration of health workers and working conditions in general, importing more staff, ensuring political stability, and encouraging remittances. However, the review concluded “that there is considerable consensus on task shifting as the most appropriate and sustainable policy option for reducing the impact of health professional brain drain from Africa.” While some studies have concluded that task shifting has effectively filled the treatment gap, others have indicated that it is by no means a comparable substitute for professional mental health care due to lack of proper supervision and training of lower level workers, among other factors.
But we would like to offer a different critique of the task-shifting discourse: it’s tendency to normalize the brain drain of health care professionals. Global mental health has always emphasized practicality over ideology: anything that can be done to fill the “treatment gap” is presumably better than not doing it. The origins of the medical brain drain are not really global mental health’s concern, but its consequences are a large part of the foundation of the movement’s argument for “scaling up” the health care workforce to address the “treatment gap,” which is effectively the primary justification for the movement’s existence. However, in making the case for immediate action, the discourse on task-shifting in global mental health replicates the long history of ignoring the long-term exploitation of African resources in order to focus on short-term, externally funded, non-state interventions to provide what Africa supposedly “lacks.”
Promoting task shifting to lower cadre health care workers as the best way to scale up mental health services in low- and middle-income countries indirectly suggests that these countries cannot hope for better, even as billions of dollars are lost by African countries from investment in training highly qualified health workers who go on to treat patients in wealthy countries. Meanwhile wealthy countries acquiesce to helping train up less-qualified caregivers to fill the “treatment gap” created in part by this brain drain. It also implies that African countries can get by on less than wealthy countries. Indeed, severe mental illness continues to be neglected under the “task shifting” model that does little to increase specialist capacity to handle such cases. While this rather popular principle in global mental health appears practical, it inadvertently panders to the notion that some lives are more important than others, and calls to question the relative value placed on the health and lives of citizens of the developing countries of Africa compared to the developed world. It reinforces and normalizes global inequalities.
Mitigating the psychiatric brain drain must ultimately be about much more than filling “treatment gaps.” It must also be about addressing the geopolitical and macroeconomic conditions that have produced the gap in the first place. Developing equitable and sustainable mental health services for all Africans is a political, economic, moral, and ethical issue of contemporary urgency and historical significance.
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