From Russia with love

THE Russia-Africa Summit which took place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi recently has come and gone. And from all I gather, it was a successful event, aided no doubt by the sumptuous signature caviar, washed down with the best of vintage from the Crimea.

But to be transparently honest, I had my doubts. Not about Russia itself, but about the method. I am not comfortable with the idea of all the Heads of State and Government of the African Union being, as it were, ritually “summoned” by world leaders to their capital for the sole purpose of being wooed as a suitable bride. It leaves a sour taste.

Let me make myself clear: I have always been partial towards Russia. I have never for once been taken in by the propaganda of the EU, NATO and the West. Perhaps I have read too much Dostoevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Or it may be the fault of the religious thinkers Vladimir Soloviev and Vladimir Nikolayevich Lossky whose works I devoured as a teenager in the library of the missionary Reverend (Dr) Johann Boer in Jos. Or perhaps it’s because of my patron Saint Seraphim of Sarov. And my love for the poets Pasternak, Gumilev, Akhmatova and the immortal Mandelstam.

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My vision of Russia has always been shaped by the idea of Holy Russia and its Orthodox saints and wandering holy men. The Philokalia is one of the great spiritual texts you will never find me without, in addition to the Imitation of Christ and the medieval homilies of St Bernard of Clairvaux. Lying at the heart of the Eurasian landmass, I believe Russia’s destiny is to be the missionary to both Asia and Europe, and, indeed, the world.

Russia is not only a nation; it is a civilisation. It is the largest country on earth by size; with a sprawling landmass of 17 million sq. km. It has a population of 146 million and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$1.283 trillion and a per capita income of US$12,000. It is a middle-ranking economic power. But she is also a nuclear power, but a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It has the world’s largest gas reserves,in addition to humongous deposits of petroleum. Russia indeed possesses an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s total natural resources, including iron, copper, aluminum, gold, chromium and silver, phosphates, diamonds, coal, and amber.

Despite Chernobyl, the country is a world leader in nuclear science. Russian scientists and mathematicians are among the greatest in the world. One of such leading men was the young mathematician, Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman, who has made original contributions to Riemannian geometry and geometric topology. In August 2006 he was awarded the Fields Medal, widely regarded as the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. He astonishingly turned down the US$1 million prize, saying “I am not interested in money or fame… (and) don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo.” Russians are in some ways ahead of even the Americans in ICT, aerospace and avionics. Their Achilles Heel is commercialisation, marketing and international trade.

The relations between Africa and Russia go back a long way. A few Africans know, for example, that poet-laureate of Russian civilisation is Alexander Pushkinwas, the great grandson of an Eritrean former slave that was brought up in the royal courts of Emperor Peter the Great. Pushkin was a genius who became the Shakespeare and Baudelaire of the Russian language. Hestupidly perished in a duel with a French nobleman, who tried to seduce his wife, Natalia Pushkina, in January, 1837.

Russia was never a part of the infamous nineteenth century European Scramble for Africa. They had no colonies here. Philosophers of history will continue to debate the spiritual meaning and legacy of Soviet communism from 1917 to 1989. Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield wrote approvingly of the role of Providence in history. Providence might have chosen the Soviet Union as the liberator of Africa. Without the support of the Soviet Union and their Cuban allies, the liberation of Southern Africa would have been much more difficult. The soviets also trained thousands of African doctors, engineers and scientists through generous scholarships and l and technical cooperation programmes. They also stood by the Federal Government during our tragic civil war. At a time when all the Western powers and their development finance institutions refused to support our economic ambitions, they took up the gauntlet with regards to Ajaokuta Steel. Some would argue that the Soviets were not being altruistic by their actions. It was the heydays of the cold war and our continent was in many ways the battlefield not only for hot wars, but for the relentless quest to win friends and influence peoples.

Today, a new Russia is emerging. She may not exactly be a democracy as understood in the classic liberal western sense of the word. I have always made the point that the country has never had anything remotely resembling a liberal minded leader from Catherine the Great to Tsar Nicholas II, to Stalin and Yuri Andropov. The only leader in the recent past who tried to reinvent himself as a liberal reformer, the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev, failed woefully. The country is much too vast and its social structure much too complex to allow for liberal traditions of governance and leadership. Indeed, providing security and defence against covetous neighbours in an open-plan country with vast natural resources has always been a nightmare for succeeding generations of leaders. This explains their instinctive paranoia. It also partly explains why Russian citizens seem to have a collective preference for alpha men as leaders. Any display of weakness makes you fair game.

Vladimir Putin fits the bill. A former KGB operative, he is a man of action rather than words. He is also a deep thinker who understands the world and Russia’s place in it. He has dealt brutally with the Islamists. He does not take prisoners and certainly does not negotiate with terrorists. A recent convert to the orthodox faith, his reign is marked by a renaissance of spirituality among the Russian people. A few years ago he made the pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece, indisputably the holiest sanctuary of Christianity in the world. Vladimir Putin has taken a firm moral stand against same-sex marriage. A classical scholar recently remarked that even among the Greeks and Romans where homosexuality was widely practised, they were wise enough not to legitimise same-sex marriage. Putin would insist that allowing people of the same-sex to marry and extending that privilege to the right to marry one’s dog and cat is to spell doom for civilisation as we have always known it.

But Russia faces several daunting challenges. Africans and Russians virtually parted ways since 1989. We would have to relearn each other’s ways all over again. It is in the nature of human friendships that they atrophy and die if not watered continually by gestures of love and affection. Some of the most virulent forms of anti-black racism are prevalent in the new Russia. It is an irony of history that millions of Russians died defending their country from Nazism only to find themselves surrounded by home-grown neo-Nazi skinheads. Russia is also sitting on a demographic nightmare. The family institution is in crisis while the population is aging and rapidly shrinking. We are told that millions of blue-eyed Siberian blondes are living lives of quiet desperation because there are no men to marry them. The population is forecast to decline from 146 million to 111 million by 2050. Perhaps it was for this reason that the government recently granted asylum to 5,000 South African Boer farmers that are being resettled in the agricultural farmlands of Southern Russia. Overdependence on fossil fuels has weakened Russia’s economic position to a status that is only marginally better than a third-world country. The biggest challenge by far is translating human capital and innovation into diversified products and services for world markets.

We warmly welcome Russia’s efforts to reintegrate herself into the ranks of civilised nations, even if this means courting Africa as the most suitable bride. Having suitors ranging from the EU to China and Japan strengthens our diplomatic bargaining position. We understand that the Nigerian delegation, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, has struck some important business deals, including allowing Russian oil companies to take a stake in our oil sector; amemorandum of understanding (MoU) on resuscitation of Ajaokuta Steel; and, most importantly, inviting Russia to help us develop nuclear energy for electricity. I have always been a strong advocate of nuclear energy for our country.

The nuclear option seems to me the most viable for ensuring electricity for all in our country, especially as our population is forecast to reach 410 million by 2050. We have enough uranium in our country and in neighbouring Niger Republic to successfully accomplish this ambitious project. We could also make them an offer for subsidised uranium in exchange for free electricity. It will also require us setting up an elite National Institute of Technology to train at least 10,000 nuclear scientists and engineers. We should model it as the pre-eminent university of science and technology in our country at par with the Indian Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If Buhari could solve this one challenge alone, Nigerians might forgive him the agony of misrule they have endured.

Nigerian Tribune

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