Putin courts Africa, offers to mediate Nile dam dispute

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, top, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sits next during a plenary session at the Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Valery Sharifulin, TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to expand Moscow’s clout in Africa by touting military aid and economic projects Thursday at the first-ever Russia-Africa summit. He even offered to help mediate a growing water dispute between two of the continent’s largest powers, Egypt and Ethiopia.

The two-day summit in the Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi underlined Russia’s renewed bid for influence in resource-rich Africa and was attended by the leaders of 43 of Africa’s 54 countries.

As African leaders roamed through an expo center displaying Russian military hardware, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin addressed the contentious dam issue with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in separate meetings on the sidelines of the summit.

Peskov didn’t say whether Egypt and Ethiopia accepted Putin’s mediation offer — and offer that the United States also extended in recent days after talks on the dam collapsed this month.

Some pro-government media in Egypt have cast the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as a national security threat that could affect Egypt’s share of water from the Nile River and could warrant military action.

For his part, Abiy, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, declared this week that “no force” could stop the dam’s construction.

El-Sissi and Abiy met Thursday and an Egyptian spokesman said they agreed on resuming technical talks “immediately” to reach a “final proposal” on filling and operating the dam. The statement made no mention of mediation offers or plans.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, said the two African leaders met about “issues of common concern” but did not elaborate.

Putin hailed the Russia-Africa summit as historic.

“Summing up its results, we can immediately say that this event really opened a new page in relations between Russia and the states of the African continent,” Putin said in closing the summit.

Putin emphasized that developing stronger ties with the continent ranks among Russia’s top foreign policy priorities, noting that African nations have emerged as “one of important pillars of the multi-polar world.”

Russia’s annual trade with African nations has doubled in the last five years to exceed $20 billion and Putin voiced confidence that it could double again “as a minimum” in the next four or five years.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided generous economic and military aid to many African countries amid its global rivalry with the United States. Moscow’s influence withered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is now still far behind the West and China in trade and investment in Africa, but it has capitalized on Soviet-era ties to widen its role in the continent’s affairs.

The Russian president emphasized Thursday that Russia and African nations should expand their cooperation in combating extremism, including exchanging information between their security agencies.

Russia is Africa’s largest arms supplier, and Putin noted that Russia now has military cooperation agreements with more than 30 African nations. He added that Moscow could expand its training of military and security personnel from African nations.

“We hope that … you will help us, in particular, to build up our armed forces,” said Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of Sudan’s transitional Sovereign Council, according to a Kremlin account of his meeting with Putin. He spoke in the wake of an August power-sharing agreement between Sudan’s army and a pro-democracy movement following the overthrow of autocratic former President Omar al-Bashir.

The president of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, agreed to renew a lapsed military cooperation agreement with Russia that is expected to lead to more direct procurement of military equipment, President Muhammadu Buhari’s office said.

Nigeria also said it and Russia would work to improve the efficiency of Abuja’s all-important oil sector by establishing a framework for a joint venture between Nigeria’s state-owned oil company and Russia’s Lukoil that will include prospecting for oil “deep offshore.” The countries also agreed to solidify the venture between the state-owned oil company and Russian gas giant Gazprom.

Other African leaders expressed warmth over Russia’s revived interest in the continent.

“What stands Russia in good stead in the eyes of many African countries is that Russia was never a colonial power,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said, according to his spokeswoman.

He spoke shortly after a pair of Russian nuclear-capable bombers landed in his country on an unprecedented visit to the continent, reflecting Moscow’s new push for clout.

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Anna reported from Johannesburg. Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.

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