Why Africans retain faith in Russia and do not trust the West?

Andrey Konstantinovich Shitov on the results of the first stage of the AECAS media project "Russia-Africa: Creating the Future Together "

Source: TASS

The young Tanzanian Paternus Niyegira passionately told me the other day at the journalistic seminar at the Russian Cultural Center in Dar es Salaam about how useful the past cooperation with the USSR was for his country and how much it was appreciated. In response, I cautiously remarked that he did not even seem to remember those times simply because of his age. "But my mother remembers them well, and she taught me all this from my childhood," my interlocutor retorted. The next day he specially introduced me to a local political scientist, Novatus Igosha, who confirmed that such word-of-mouth communication is the norm in Africa, where the tradition of ancestral reverence is held sacred; according to him, this is also how children are brought up in his own family.

This fleeting episode vividly confirmed to me what I had heard from experts back in Moscow, preparing for my first-ever trip to sub-Saharan Africa. For the inhabitants of the continent, the memory of generations is not an empty word, and it is primarily thanks to this memory that Africans continue to trust Russia and believe in Russia. But they have no such trust in America and the West in general, and not only because of the colonial past.


Unchanged priority
At the recent Russian-African parliamentary forum in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed confidence that "Africa will become one of the leaders of the emerging multipolar world order" because "there are all the objective prerequisites for this". These include the predominantly young population of about 1.5 billion people and "a huge resource base - almost a third of the world's mineral resources.

Recalling the "significant support" of the peoples of Africa by the Soviet Union during their heroic struggle for independence, the Russian head of state stressed that "our country has always given and will continue to give priority to cooperation with African states", that it is "one of the constant priorities of the Russian foreign policy". This was later confirmed in the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation.

Active preparations are now underway for the summit of Russian and African leaders to be held in the summer in St. Petersburg. In particular, the Russian Association for Economic Cooperation with African States (AECAS) and the Gorchakov Foundation for the Support of Public Diplomacy are making preparations for the summit. A. Gorchakov proposed to hold a professional contest for African journalists under the slogan "Building the future together," invited TASS to participate in this project and arranged our trip. At the first stage we visited Ethiopia and Tanzania, afterwards visits to other countries are planned.

By the way, at the same time TASS director general Sergey Mikhailov visited Uganda, where he met with local colleagues and promised them information support, including free access to the news feed of our agency for key African media. And the first deputy general director Mikhail Gusman had an exclusive interview with the president of Uganda Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who confirmed Kampala's strong desire to participate in the St. Petersburg summit and highly appreciated the prospects of cooperation between his country and Russia.

The American Blitzkrieg: Another "reset"?

But unfriendly countries, as they say, do not doze off. Just before we arrived, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Tanzania and also visited Ghana and Zambia. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Ethiopia and Niger in March. U.S. First Lady Jill Biden visited Africa in February (Namibia and Kenya), Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited Senegal, Zambia and South Africa in January, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya in January.

From the outside, all this looks like a kind of diplomatic blitzkrieg. Its goals are quite obvious: first of all, it is to deter Russia and China and to counteract the strengthening of their influence in Africa. The propaganda wrapper is arguments about the confrontation between the forces of "democracy" and "authoritarianism" in the modern world, especially in the context of the events in Ukraine, although even the American press admits that such "lectures on democracy" by Western leaders are a little tired of their African colleagues.

Many commentators, including Politico in Washington and The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, have interpreted Harris' trip as an attempt to "reset" relations between the US and Africa. I will say more about the reaction of Africans to this effort, which I actually tried to grasp for myself during my trip. For my part, on occasion I reminded my interlocutors what an overload for the whole world the 'reset' of American-Russian relations proclaimed by Joe Biden during the Obama administration has turned out to be.

Although Africans know and understand this very well themselves. Americans, too, admit that the task they face in Africa is not easy, and not only because of former U.S. President Donald Trump's infamous derogatory remarks about the continent's countries, which he compared to latrines. In an op-ed on Harris' trip, The New York Times points out, in particular, that the United States "has a difficult time playing ally [to Africa] while at the same time fulfilling President Biden's pledge to take action against foreign governments that promote anti-LGBTI (LGBTQ) laws and restrict human rights." For example, according to the publication, Uganda is already facing American "economic penalties" because of this.

The newspaper reminds us that the U.S. has historically focused on so-called "anchor states" in Africa, i.e. "large or financially influential countries that are vital to regional stability. Beijing, in contrast to Washington, "diligently pays diplomatic attention even to small African countries," building relations of "sustainable strategic diplomatic and economic partnership" with them. It is no coincidence that China's Foreign Minister has paid his first visit to Africa after the new year for more than three decades.

Such political consistency is paying off. According to The New York Times, for all three countries Harris visited, China is "either the first or the second largest trading partner, far ahead of the United States. Tanzania, in particular, has already reached the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership with the PRC. This was the result of last November's visit to Beijing by African President Samia Suluhu Hassan and her meetings and talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, when major new trade and economic agreements worth billions of dollars were announced.

True, the Americans are now also promising Africa $55 billion over three years. However, as Bloomberg agency says, this sum includes $21 billion in the form of loans from the International Monetary Fund. That is the money not only from the U.S. and the collective West, but also from other countries, including Russia and China, though the Americans announced them with pomp at their own December summit with African leaders. In politics, too, they primarily pursue their own goals: thus, according to the same New York Times, the African tour was a way for Harris to rebuff domestic critics who refuse to recognize her leadership qualities; and Jill Biden's trip attracted the most attention in the United States, almost as a direct confirmation that her husband intends to run for a new presidential term.

How the goldfish are caught

However, it's time to return to the story of my own experience with Africa. It is said that the first impressions are often the most correct ones, so I will allow myself to share them. And the most important of these impressions are the people we met on our trip, whom I now inwardly perceive as good friends.

By the way, when I say "we", I mean me and my TASS colleague Irina Mandrykina, and also the project manager from the side of AECAS, Galli Monastyreva, and also the pilot-cosmonaut, Hero of Russia Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. His participation in the trip aroused great interest in the local media and he used this opportunity not only to remind African youth on the eve of April 12 about the glorious space history of Russia, but also to strengthen business ties with colleagues, including heads of the Ethiopian Institute of Space Research and Technology and leading technical universities in Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam. And Ethiopian Airlines, whose flights we used, did not fail to remind us of its status as the largest airline on the continent and to give us a tour of its well-equipped corporate flight training center, which also works not only for its country, but for Africa as a whole.

As for our new acquaintances, the Russian ambassadors to Ethiopia and Tanzania - Evgeny Terekhin and Andrey Avetisyan - personally participated in the key meetings in both countries. But still, our main support was the heads of the Russian Centers of Science and Culture - Vyacheslav Konnik in Addis Ababa and the spouses Maria and Rifat Pateyev in Dar es Salaam. In fact, these people deserve a special mention. The praise they received in absentia from the Foreign Ministry and the Academic Institute for Africa in Moscow is worth a lot on its own, but even that pales in comparison with the chanting of "Mama Moscow!" to Maria Vladimirovna at the local market. And full houses at the meetings and the invitation of our cosmonaut to the popular TV programs of Dr. Brook Hailu Beshah in Ethiopia and Faida Ngaga in Tanzania are also entirely due to our Rossotrudnichestvo centers.

My past long experience in the "corridors of power" in Washington - from the White House and State Department to the IMF and the World Bank - has accustomed me to the idea that getting comments from officials in developing countries is not difficult. But at home, as one might expect, they proved far less accessible. Despite requests made in advance through embassies and our Foreign Ministry, in Ethiopia it was immediately explained to me that no one would give any comments to the foreign press without approval at the highest level. In Tanzania, the head of the Metropolitan Institute of Technology (DIT), Prexedis Ndomba, said that he was in charge of "politics" at his university, but when asked about Russia's competitive advantages, he replied only that his country pursued a policy of non-alignment and strictly adhered to it.

Who owns "our everything"?
In general, practice has shown once again that no fish is caught without work, and perhaps especially not in Africa. But if you put the effort, much is possible. By the way, in Tanzania not only Pushkin's "Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish" was translated into Swahili, but also a musical was staged based on it. By the way, both "Tsar Saltan" and "Bujan Island," according to Pateyev's version, were inspired by Zanzibar. In Ethiopia, Pushkin, with his Abyssinian roots, is a native; he even looks similar to the locals, and there is a monument to him in Addis Ababa.

Although, by the way, the French have recently tried to appropriate "our everything" to themselves: they began a series of lectures about their culture for inhabitants of Central Africa with Pushkin. Apparently, believing that under Pushkin there was no national culture of their own in Russia, but only borrowed French culture. Perhaps a more blatant example of cultural imperialism could not be found.

In the bookstore in Dar es Salaam we saw other translations of Russian classics published by Rossotrudnichestvo. Rifat Pateyev is a recognized expert in Swahili, who knows the language almost better than his local colleagues. For many years he has been presenting his author's program on local radio. By the way, at our meeting with the management of the DIT, I arranged an impromptu blitz poll about where people mainly get their information from: of the two dozen people present, almost no one voted for newspapers, almost no one voted for television, all voted for network sources, and almost all voted for radio. So much for the choice of the African technical intelligentsia.

U.S.A. vs Russia

When it comes to political commentary, there is no end in sight for the bureaucrats. Many things we simply saw and heard for ourselves, such as Putin's portrait behind the window of a commuter bus or the chanting of "Russia! Russia! Russia!" in the street at the sound of Russian speech. Locals say that both are quite typical.

Or, another example: cab driver Hilal, who drove us in Dar es Salaam, first asked if we were Germans (in former German East Africa, white people we met on our way were often Germans). And on hearing the answer, he immediately burst into a passionate monologue about how good Russians are for not letting America down, for defending the weak and generally standing up for justice. He claimed that all his acquaintances were of the same opinion. However, he did not explain the source of such views, though I asked him about it.

The publisher and co-owner of the bookstore, Walter Bagoya explained his position by saying that the Americans "killed [Patrice] Lumumba" (i.e. the former leader and national hero of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who became one of the symbols of the struggle of African peoples for independence), and also "supported racism and colonialism", went to Libya and many other countries, organized "color revolutions" and now impose "the LGBT agenda" on the world.

He also added that this is why, no matter what promises Kamala Harris and others like her might make to come to Africa, America will not and will not be trusted there. And he willingly agreed for me to quote him. For me, it echoed the stories I had heard the day before about the conservatism of Africans and their family values, handed down from generation to generation.

For the sake of the common good

In Addis Ababa we also had a clear demonstration of how Africa knows how to keep grateful memories. The owner of the Blue Sky Hotel where we stayed, Getachew Gebries, is a graduate of the Timiryazev Academy in Moscow. He and his son Samuel looked after us like family and, together with Connick from Rossotrudnichestvo, organized a meeting of the local club of Soviet and Russian graduates. I am far from business, but, in my opinion, apart from nostalgic reminiscences there was a lot of useful information for today's and tomorrow's relations between our countries and peoples. And personally I also have someone to thank in Ethiopia.

Having said all this, I do not at all want to give my readers the wrong impression that everyone in Africa is just dreaming - and selflessly so - of having Russia back there. Yes, people remember the past, but you can't live off memories, and life takes its course. More than once I have heard the opinion that we have missed a lot in Africa since the Soviet era; I asked the Ethiopian political scientist and TV host Hailu Beshah about it (he invited our cosmonaut for an interview, but actually his program is called "The Diplomatic Corner"), and he answered that for Russia "the train has not yet left," but it is already running out of steam.

There is an Eastern wisdom: the master was asked how long to wait for change for the better, and he replied that if you wait, you wait a long time. No one in Africa is going to wait for us. People are busy with their own immediate needs, especially since in both Ethiopia and Tanzania, as we were convinced at every step, there is still a lot of development problems to be solved.

It would be presumptuous of me to judge why this is so. But it is clear even to me that blaming everything on the grave legacy of colonialism is wrong. Tanzania, which seemed comparatively more prosperous, was freed from colonial oppression in the early 1960s; what I find most compelling about its contemporary experience is its use of a kind of checks and balances. Ethiopia is justifiably proud of the fact that it has never been a colony at all. But when I was touring the new research center in Addis Ababa - a complex of buildings just built by a Chinese company - I asked what they expect from Russia, they told me: equip the laboratories with modern equipment and provide them with trained scientists, and we will name it all after you. And it seemed to me that it was said seriously, without a hint of irony.

Although the exchange, including scientific, may be mutually beneficial. Taking advantage of the participation of a real expert in our project, I asked Kud-Sverchkov what real benefits Russia could get from cooperation with Africa in the space field. He instantly gave me a whole range of reasons: from geopolitical to geographic and commercial. For us, it is important to expand the circle of not only friends, but also of partners and customers of our goods and services. For their part, Africans are interested in cooperating with us, in particular in launching their own satellites; they talked about this during the meetings.

East or West – home is best

As an African neophyte, I will share my last impressions of everyday life. The first of them upon arrival in Addis Ababa was the unexpected coolness of the morning - as if it were summer in a dacha outside Moscow. By the way, a local plant with purple flowers reminded us of a lilac. Though everything was normal afterwards and the sun was beating down mercilessly in subequatorial Tanzania. But we didn't need raincoats and umbrellas, though we were warned about the rainy season. During the entire time we got into the car only a couple of times, when it rained heavily.

I don't think anyone inquired about our yellow fever vaccinations in Moscow. On the advice of experienced people I bought a remedy for malaria in place, although I had never seen or heard any mosquitoes in my life.

We rubbed against mosquitoes with tincture of lemon grass, which has an amazing smell. In general, African aromas are a separate song. My suitcase now reeks of natural coffee, which is native to Ethiopia (can there be a more refined, well-known and popular global brand?). And next to my work computer, right under my nose, there is a bowl with two fragrant guava fruits, picked in Tanzania right off the ground.

There, by the way, I once ate two huge avocado fruits and ate a delicious papaya to sweeten them. We ate the juice and pulp of coconuts, and I even composed a parodic line: "My homeland gave me generous coconut juice"... The rest of the food did not impress me much, except that in Ethiopia it is incredibly spicy and stinging. They say it helps to keep away some local parasites.

We did not see any African fauna, because we did not get to the world's best reserves. Partial compensation was the abundance of birds, including marabou, in the Ethiopian lake at the mouth of a volcano, and a dozen cobras and other snakes in a tiny private zoo in Tanzania. On the one hand it is a shame, but on the other - we ourselves often joke about other people's stereotypes, that bears do not roam around on Red Square in Moscow...

The Africans for the most part seemed to me to be open, sincere, friendly and welcoming people. Political scientist Igosha, whom I mentioned at the beginning, told me that respect for others, the ability to take into account their interests, is instilled in children from their youngest nails, along with a sense of dignity. The Pateyevs later confirmed that this manifests itself in everything, from behavior in public places (rudeness and swagger are condemned by society) to appearance, cleanliness and neatness. The streets of African cities are usually clean and often swept. At the DIT campus I saw a booth with a detailed explanation of the dress code there.

True, according to our veteran Africanists, there is no word for "conscience" in Swahili or Amharic, but I haven't yet figured out what that means or how it manifests itself in practice. The proverbial "Hottentot morality," according to which stealing a cow is good and losing it by theft is bad, has nothing to do with reality. The golden rule of morality, to treat others as you would have them treat you, also applies in Africa. People there, the vast majority, to put it mildly, are not rich, but, by all accounts, are generally at peace with themselves and their lives, do not grumble about their fate, and know how to be content and grateful. Again, primarily due to strong family ties, where, for example, spending two days on the road to attend the funeral of a great-uncle in a distant village is considered a matter of course.

All in all, Africa was good. But it was still better at home. It was a very encouraging experience for me to be back in my native land. Before, I often recalled the caustic remarks of our classics that Russian people are not usually happy to meet their compatriots abroad. But here Russian speech began to sound like music to me even at the Ethiopian airport, and at home this feeling intensified.

I think it's worth a trip to any country for the sake of that alone.