The Africa Summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin last October formalised Russia’s return to Africa as a global power, 28 years after the hammer and the sickle was lowered over the Kremlin.
In a symbolic gesture, on the eve of the summit, two Russian Air Force nuclear bombers landed in Africa for the first time.
With 3,000 delegates and 54 Heads of State from Africa in attendance, the Kremlin had clearly scored a goal in its charm offensive to woe back the continent. This contrasted the cold war period when the then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev categorised African leaders as “bad, misguided and “good” for their susceptibility to Western paternalism.
Putin’s selling point to the leaders among them President Uhuru Kenyatta was that it was only Russia that could help protect the sovereignty of African countries, also reminding them about the role his country played in liberating Africans from colonialism.
While Joseph Stalin the third leader of the Soviet Union was suspicious of African nationalists, Khrushchev who took over in 1953, believed that it was only through working with Africans that Western influence could be undermined.
He therefore exploited the existing hostilities towards the West to support African anti-colonial movements but with the primary aim of establishing the Soviet’s influence in the continent.
Moscow’s support tended to be channelled through individuals in any particular country, chosen not necessarily for their ideology but in the expectations that, with assistance they would achieve power. In sub-Saharan Africa they groomed radical anti-colonialists such as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Dr Felix Moumie of Cameroon, and John Kale.
When American U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while conducting espionage mission over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the three were invited to attend his trial in Moscow as special guests. Unfortunately while Odinga and Moumie made it to the trial, the plane carrying Kale mysteriously blew up over Ukraine killing him at the young age of 29.
Three months later Moumie, also died at the age of 35, in Geneva Switzerland after his food was laced with rat poison. Swiss police blamed the Red Hand, a rightwing organisation operated by French spy agency.
Nonetheless In most African countries that were still under colonial rule, the Soviet focused their efforts on trade unions and political organisations with major mass backing. The primary means by which they sought to establish their influence with the latter was through training which was comprised of political indoctrination and basic military skills.
In Kenya, Kanu youth wingers chosen by Odinga were sponsored to pursue further education ended up also acquiring intelligence, and basic military skills. A significant amount of aid was also devoted to party organisation to ensure their allies such as Odinga were in strategic positions in Kanu.
After internal self government in June 1963, the Russians expanded the scope of their assistance and also began making plans for development projects and trade. A high powered trade delegation led by a Mr C. Bahtov, was subsequently sent to Kenya Just after independence to discuss technical and development co-operation between the two countries.
An agreement which was signed by Mr James Gichuru Minister for Finance and Economic Planning and Mr Bahtov after the talks read,“ The contracting parties agree that all payments between Kenya and the USSR, which result from the present Agreement shall be effected in Pounds Sterling or any other freely convertible currency”.
The agreement had 16 articles in total with the first stating,” The contracting parties shall accord each other most favoured nation treatment in all matters with respect to their mutual trade relations and navigation.”
Coincident with the visiting trade mission, an agricultural mission led by a Mr. N. Shibisnski, was also in Kenya to study the country’s agricultural problems.
Meanwhile Odinga the Minister for Home Affairs was also in Moscow negotiating for more assistance after a successful visit to China. In his speech, he told the Russians about the possibilities of increasing trade and co-operation between the two countries which “imperialists have for a long time prevented.” He had made similar statements in Peking (Beijing).
The remarks prompted the British to lodge a complaint through their High Commissioner in Nairobi. At first Kenyatta was not really keen on meeting the High Commissioner who wrote to London,” Despite constant pressure, am still unable to get appointment with Kenyatta though have vague promises of some time today.”
After meeting Kenyatta he wrote, “I saw Kenyatta 12.00 GMT today, Cabinet Secretary Ndegwa present. I spoke as instructed emphasising one sidedness of Odinga’s speech as reported in the Times. Kenyatta said that he had not seen the Times report so I gave him my marked copy. He said he would not like to comment behind Odinga‘s back since he might not have been properly reported but would speak to him on return tomorrow. He readily assented to my suggestion that he might anyway say publicly something friendly about Britain soon.”
Odinga returned a few days later and held a press conference to announce the vast aid he had secured from Russia. It comprised a gift of a 200 bed hospital, equipped and staffed for free for 2 years. The hospital is currently known as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital or Russia as locals refer to it.
Credit and Technical assistance included a 1000 capacity technical school, a radio station worth £650,000, a cotton textile factory worth £5m, a sugar factory at Mumias, a fish canning factory, and an irrigation scheme at Kano estimated to be around £9m.
To finance these projects the Soviet had agreed to provide a credit worth £16m. On this account, credit goods were to be delivered from the USSR to Kenya and the proceeds from their sales used to finance local expenditures connected with the projects. The credit was to be repaid within 12 years after a substantial grace period.
Most of the projects were, however, never implemented while others such as Mumias sugar development were undertaken by the West. This was due to the growing hostility towards the Russians on allegations of planning subversive activities. A number of Russian diplomats and journalists were deported while Odinga was labelled a communist and isolated politically
It was part of an onslaught orchestrated by the West against the Soviet in strategic countries.
In 1981, after the US State Department expressed concerns about the Soviet’s use of aid to penetrate strategic countries like Kenya, the British, launched a secret exercise code named “Operation Common-sense” to provide briefing on a personal basis for African heads of state and government about various aspects of Soviet policies.
With the end of Cold War in 1991, Russia’ ties with Africa slowly waned for there was no compelling geopolitical or economic reasons to put the continent on the global agenda. However, Putin’s global leadership ambitions and the biting sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea, have now forced Russia to revive its old ties with Africa. In seeking to spur economic development in Africa, it is also looking for export markets and natural resources in the continent.