Is it possible for Africa to learn from Russia as a decolonial or anti-colonial example? This is not a proposition to befriend Russia and ditch the Western world but to view Russia as a decolonial icon. I’m neither suggesting siding with Russia over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Non-aligned remains good enough. But to step back and observe the world from the vantage point of a still-colonised enclave dreaming of not necessarily being free, but engaging in the international space as an equally respected subject actor, who also optimally benefits from their natural resources. How do we liberate ourselves in ways more profound than simply chanting hackneyed Western liberal slogans (democracy, human rights, freedom of speech etc.) as the entire continent languishes in poverty, while at the same time Euro- American corporations (from banks, mineral giants, telecoms, agricultural exporters, and arms dealers) smile their way to the bank after making a kill from the very continent we call ours? Is it possible to admire Russia in this light or is our Western mental colonialism irredeemable? Let me spell out this proposition in more details.
Many Africans are bothered that Africa—with all our land mass (over 30m square km), fresh water bodies in most parts of the continent, and wonderful crop-friendly soils—is being spoken about as risking starving because of the Russia-Ukrainian conflict. When Burkina Faso’s president, Capt. Ibrahim Traore voiced the same sentiments of embarrassment during their Russia-Africa summit in Moscow in July this year, he spoke for the entire continent (only the other presidents he was with would disagree). That grains and fertilizers won’t be coming to the continent, and that Africa risks mass starvation because of the Russian withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative is something that should embarrass Africans collectively. How could we be the richest, most mineral resourced continent in the world, but be trapped in this existential condition of basic livelihood? We are being spoken about as the “most vulnerable” in a conflict thousands of miles away, loafers eternally left for moving around with a begging bowl. I know—and Russia clarified—most of the Ukrainian grain actually ends in Europe and not Africa (and we are being used as the moral bargaining chip). But as the narrative persists, it should be embarrassing that, collectively, we contribute to the narrative of “African eternal vulnerability.”
Undeniably, we are still a colonised continent, and our colonisers new and old are still fighting and harassing us into difficult positions ranging from forced fiscal policies (IMF and WB), selfish trade treaties, climate colonialism, debt trap, open violence by supporting terrorist and rebel groups, open bombing (as happened in Libya and continues in Somalia), and threats of coups. Yes, this fear is alive and well on the heads of any African political and intellectual elite. But this is the challenge of our time: Why have we become content, complacent, and acquiesced to the continued colonialism of this continent that we are happy to simply scrape by? Were these not the same conditions under which our forefathers engaged the coloniser?!
Again, many Africans are embarrassed that African presidents are endlessly shuttled like school children across the Western world and being courted by these warring Western powers, disrespectfully, as one commentator put it, “like they were whores.” Why doesn’t the suitor come to you begging—and crawling the way the Acholi of northern Uganda do it? Look, if our presidents are not in Washington today, they are in Paris the next day, and then Moscow the following day. Not even selling to the highest bidder, but whoever is bidding gets a piece. While appearing to go everywhere makes them look like they belong nowhere—something that would be likened to being non-aligned—being summoned from one capital to another is nothing but absolute embarrassment.
Why aren’t Euro-American presidents making the journeys to Africa, visiting the different capitals? Surely it is not because they give Africa aid—and are therefore our “benevolent benefactors”—it is because they have stolen so much in ways that sitting presidents in these African countries look like children in their eyes. That they have been able to get away with so much has made them lose all respect for their African House Negros. They are the slaves superintending over the enslavement of the continent where over $152 trillion was stolen in unequal exchange since 1960. In 2021, the British newspaper, The Economist, noted that (European) banks in Africa are the most profitable in the world while being least efficient at the same time. They steal our coffee on end. Congo is bleeding for the benefit of Euro-America and China. Libya is a slave market. Somalia has been bleeding for the last 35 years. Ethiopia only recently survived debilitating conflict; Sudan is bleeding. West Africa is still under direct French colonialism. All these conflicts are supported and sustained by “our friend” “benefactors” and “moral mentors” in Europe and North America. (But Russia is a “potential coloniser” and danger for Africa, needing to be resisted and blasted at all costs).
I have to clarify that while I find Russia’s opposition to the Western world—and yes, operations in Africa—a leveller of some sort in that Russia and China give Euro-America competition in exploiting Africa’s resources, again, this position of mine is not a proposition for an alliance with Russia over Euro-America. Neither is it an aspiration to receive perks from Russia as it recently offered tons of free grain and debt write-offs. While I welcome those offers of generosity, they are clearly uninspiring and unsustainable. They sustain a foreign policy of African vulnerability. And simply flirting with Russia without a local decolonial organic stance only sustains the whore position, and risks a return to the Cold War. (I’m sure Euro-America has no qualms about creating more slave markets in Africa, just as they did in Libya).
Suspicion, and materiality
Especially because Russia is involved in conflict with Ukraine-western world powers, the recentness of its example makes it a good point to work with. (But there could be more examples in the Middle East and South East Asia, that simply resisted IMF-World Bank colonialism of structural adjustment, and where foreigners and foreign businesses enter their countries on their terms). Russia reminds us about what it means to not just be free, but also engage with the world as an equal and respected actor. There are two lessons for me here.
Russia reminds Africa and the entire subaltern world—especially the public/ intellectuals and political elite—that the childlike naivety that another country dealing with you is doing so because of love for you or because of some “shared mutual interests” is dangerous infantilism. Consider that Europe and America, in an absolute act of terrorism, bombed a Russia-Germany co-investment project of €9.5b (Nord Stream II), which was meant to carry cheap Russian gas to Germany. Ironically, the same people are also presently fighting terrorism across the Muslim world, for which they have killed millions in the process. Yes, Russia reminds Africa that the world powers—including themselves the Russians, but more specifically Western Europe and America—have to be engaged with eternal and committed suspicion. Indeed, as a method, suspicion ought to be at the forefront of all foreign policy engagements.
Secondly, Russia also reminds us that to honestly and effectively have a conversation on decolonisation in our time, you have to start by defining colonialism in our time! Why do you need to decolonise now—if colonialism ended in the 1960s? Yes, it is because that one phase ended (of colonial outposts, and flags and soldiers in short khakis), and we entered another phase of the same thing—but subtle, disguised, more technocratized, and almost invisible—and ought to be defined, described and made visible. The problem with most decolonial initiatives especially in the scholarly community are obsessed with discourse, representation, and the production of ritualised practices that mimic freedom (and belonging to the community of the developed world). Things like ritual democracy, ritual human rights rhetoric, world bank ranking and a great deal of sloganeering. But there is limited engagement with the ways in which colonialism manifests in the present.
Part of the problem for Africa is that while we have a huge industry talking decolonisation, we have no investment in understanding colonialism as it exists today in a material sense. It is a shame that our discussions on decolonialisation are still stuck to the old forms of colonialism, and while acknowledging its continuity, exhibit little engagement with its materiality. (This, I think, explains an obsession with discourse, and rethinking approaches of scholarship, rather than engaging in actual activist campaigns. It explains why scholars of decolonisation nowadays don’t double as public intellectuals involved in community organising and actual politics as their forefathers).
Who owns but who benefits?
If colonialism meant the exploitation of our resources, it also meant the lack of ownership over the resources by the Natives. And with ownership, it actually meant the four agrarian questions: (1) who owns the land/resource (2) who uses the land/resource (3) what is the land/resource used for, and (4) Who benefits from the land/resource? These questions, rooted in agrarian studies, are actually central to the question of independence (and colonialism on the other hand). To be truly free, independent—and empowered—it meant owning the land/resource, using it yourself, and directly benefiting from it. Not owning it but others being the beneficiaries as continues across so-called independent Africa. Or not owning it through others who determine what to do with it, and cook up figures and stats and laws on how the owner would benefit. Being truly independent, meant being able to determine what the land/resource is used for, and this ought to be meant for the direct benefit of the owner. Even if there were changes in land/resource use, the owner was the ultimate determinant and beneficiary. While this is the case in Russia, it has been a different story in Africa.
What has happened across Africa is that we neither own nor benefit from our resources. While many resources are still located on our continent, and carry our names, these resources—including human being labouring on these sites of these resources—are not owned by Natives. We own nothing, and since we own nothing, we are not the beneficiaries. Dan Gertler and Glencore Plc. own most of the mining site in DRC, South Sudan, Central African Republic, etc. France in addition to controlling 14 African countries through the CFA currency has all its companies from Total to Avil mining oil, uranium and other resources across the continent. European banks (with Board members from the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Norway) own and control economies in East and Southern Africa. What should I say and not say? This list is long. Africa has been taken for a ride for too long—through stupid fictions such as value addition, quality assurance, quotas, market forces of demand and supply, autocracies don’t deliver growth, etc.—and you’ll find many African political and academic elite regurgitating this stuff whole sale.
I have not stopped wondering how Russia would have survived—or if even would have had the balls to stand up against Euro-American bullying and imperialism—had its flagship gas company, Gazprom been owned by a foreign (mostly Western European or American) investor. Consider that while Russia overnight became the most sanctioned country in the world, Europe still sent it €850 million on a daily basis to buy its gas. They sanctioned it but still needed it. This is a lot of money for any economy coming in as daily income. Can you imagine, Russia would even turn these sanctions around and demanded its sanctioneers have to pay for their gas in their own currency, the Rubble. Yes, they did, and after much huffing and puffing they found a way of obliging without embarrassing themselves. But the fact is Russia’s currency has never been stronger after being sanctioned, and the sanctioneers are feeling the weight of their own sanctions. With most of Africa’s major minerals owned by foreign companies, I have never stopped wondering what would happen if Euro-America wanted to squeeze life out of DRC, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, or Nigeria when the economies of these countries actually thrive on their terms. No wonder, they treat Africa like a jungle.