Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 47

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s three-day visit to Moscow this week, which included talks with President Vladimir Putin, followed what has of late become a common script in meetings between Russian and foreign leaders: an emphasis on boosting bilateral trade relations and, at least equally important, on promoting Russian arms sales.

But Obasanjo’s visit, the first by a Nigerian leader to Russia, appeared also to be seen in Moscow as an opportunity to raise Russia’s diplomatic profile in Africa. There have been intimations in the past that Russian foreign-policy makers consider this to be a worthwhile goal–particularly in light of the close ties which existed between Moscow and a handful of African governments during the Cold War–but the Kremlin’s failure thus far to follow through on the notion is evidenced by the fact that Obasanjo remains one of the few African leaders with whom Putin has met personally.

Obasanjo’s visit appeared nevertheless also to provide the Kremlin with an additional and related opportunity: to express Nigerian and Russian solidarity on the benefits of creating a “multipolar” world order. Multipolarity is an idea, one aimed at countering alleged U.S. global hegemony, which had in recent years become one of the stock formulations underlying Russian foreign policy. Although talk of uni- and multipolarity has been heard much less frequently from Moscow in recent months, it could serve as a useful framework from which to critique the negative effects of globalization and to exploit Third World dissatisfactions with this modern phenomenon. Perhaps because of its own fervent hope of winning entry into the very international organizations that are driving globalization, however, Moscow has to date only nibbled at this sort of critique.

But Putin appeared to play on the notion in his meeting with Obasanjo. He agreed to include in a Russian-Nigerian joint declaration a positive reference to the nonaligned nations movement and to the Group of 77. The latter is a UN grouping of Third World nations (now actually numbering 133) which have joined to articulate and promote the economic interests of developing countries. The appearance of this statement in the declaration may very well prove to be of no long-term significance. But it could also foreshadow an eventual effort by Moscow to try to rally growing international opposition to globalization. Such a move would serve the Kremlin’s goal of seeking to counter U.S. global dominance and, in conceptual terms at least, would neatly reprise the sort of messianic role that Moscow assigned itself in battling international capitalism during the Cold War. Given Putin’s obvious nostalgia for the Soviet period, such a policy might sound pretty good to the Kremlin.

The Russian president’s talks with Obasanjo were, however, probably focused on more immediate issues. In substantive terms, the two countries signed the declaration on principles of friendly relations and partnership, and an intergovernmental agreement on military-technical cooperation. The declaration contained standard pledges to boost bilateral understanding and cooperation and to refrain from actions that would harm each other’s security. In addition, Nigeria agreed to help promote the expansion of Russia’s cooperation with other African countries. The declaration also included the references to the desirability of multipolarity and to the importance of the Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement, and reiterated Moscow’s now standard call for strengthening the security of the UN Security Council. And, for whatever it might be worth, Moscow won Nigeria’s support in a statement reaffirming the importance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. In a statement made during a joint press conference after their meeting, Putin said that he and Obasanjo had agreed to boost the volume of annual bilateral between the two countries to about US$500 million over the next four to five years. Trade levels have reportedly fallen to about US$50 million from an earlier peak of US$200 million.

As has been the case in Russia’s dealings with a number of other countries of late, the military-technical cooperation agreement–which was signed by Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma–appeared to be a statement of intent which included nothing about specific arms dealings. Russian military experts were quoted as saying that approximately 30 percent of the Nigerian army’s existing weaponry is Soviet-made and was delivered to Nigeria before 1991. Russian weapons deliveries to the African country have fallen significantly since then, but the two sides reportedly agreed to resume dealings starting this year. The Nigerians are reportedly most interested in modern types of aircraft, armor, air defense weapons system, firearms and ammunition. Russian military specialists are expected to be sent to Nigeria to train servicemen there in the operation of Russian military hardware. Russian-Nigerian military cooperation, Sergeev was quoted as saying, “will in large part promote stability in the Horn of Africa and around the world as a whole” (Russian agencies, AFP, March 6-7; Reuters, March 6).

Moscow’s hopes of negotiating new arms sale agreements with Nigeria reflect a broader effort by Russian arms dealers to target Africa. That effort brought some criticism down on Moscow last year when it was accused of helping to fan the flames of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea by selling arms to both belligerents. But Russian arms makers and government officials have long been aware that far too high a percentage of Russian arms are sold to two countries–China and India–and that the long-term health of Russia’s defense producers depends upon diversifying its client base. The Russian-Nigerian talks are part of Moscow’s effort to do just this. In many cases, however, Russia is trying to deal with countries–some of them former Soviet client states–which are themselves cash-poor. That fact has complicated arms sale negotiations, and has at times put Moscow in the unwelcome position of having to consider payment arrangements which include barter. Russia’s arms exporters have likewise been hamstrung by their own inability to offer attractive credit arrangements to prospective arms buyers, a problem which has only been partly surmounted by the country’s recent improved economic fortunes.