As Kremlin scrambles for Africa, Moscow university eyes soft power

As the Kremlin seeks to boost ties with Africa, a Moscow university that was a training ground for the continent's elite during the Cold War is once again working to bolster Russia's soft power. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 October 2019

As Kremlin scrambles for Africa, Moscow university eyes soft power

  • Russia’s interest in Africa declined and the institution briefly became better known for skinhead attacks on its students
  • Moscow prepares for the first Russia-Africa summit on October 23-24

MOSCOW: As the Kremlin seeks to boost ties with Africa, a Moscow university that was a training ground for the continent’s elite during the Cold War is once again working to bolster Russia’s soft power.

The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, created in 1960 to improve Soviet ties with developing nations, counts among its alumni top politicians in Rwanda, Uganda, Mali, Chad, Angola, Botswana and other African countries.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s interest in Africa declined and the institution briefly became better known for skinhead attacks on its students than for building bridges with the continent.

Now, as Moscow prepares for the first Russia-Africa summit on October 23-24, rector Vladimir Filippov says the university is reviving its status as a top destination for young Africans.

“Our task — and the task of Russia as a whole — is to revive the system that we once had during the Soviet Union” for the advanced training of Russian and foreign students, he said.

Filippov, a former education minister, told AFP he welcomes two African university delegations a month, on average, seeking to develop ties with the institution.

Around 1,200 African students are enrolled in the university, which is spread across several campuses in a southern district of Moscow.
During the Soviet period it was known as Patrice Lumumba University after the Congolese independence leader. Today it goes by the Russian acronym RUDN.

In a hall of the grey, Soviet modernist main building, Russian and foreign students mingle as members of the Guinean society dance to traditional music.

Filippov says the university’s aim is not simply to attract African students to Russia, but also to export Russian expertise to the continent and vice versa.

Of RUDN’s cooperation agreements with 49 African universities, more than 20 were inked in the last two years.

In addition, RUDN has established Russian language centers in Namibia and Zambia.

The rector acknowledged that this increased activity was tied up with Moscow’s aim to develop its presence in some African nations.

“Of course it’s always a question of geopolitical interests and economics,” Filippov said.

The university is meanwhile hoping that some of its Russian students will spend time in Africa after they graduate. At the end of this month, RUDN will host its first “I Want to Work in Africa” careers fair.

The Soviet Union maintained a strong presence in Africa as part of its ideological war with the West, backing liberation movements and sending tens of thousands of advisers to former colonies that had gained independence.

Touting military cooperation, arms deals and investment, Russia is making a comeback on the continent and seeks to rival European countries and even China, analysts say.

Chimuka Singuwa, a 23-year-old Zambian who is working toward a master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy at RUDN, said he had the opportunity to study in Russia or China.

He chose Moscow on the advice of his grandfather, who was a student at RUDN in the 1970s.

Singuwa said he had no regrets about passing up on a Chinese education. “I’m kind of against the ‘takeover’ of Africa by the Chinese,” he said, pointing to the debt Zambia has accumulated with China, its main investor.

Singuwa will travel to the Russian resort town of Sochi to work as a volunteer at the Africa summit, which he described as a “great opportunity” for the regions to develop their relations.

RUDN hit international headlines in 2003 with a dormitory fire that killed 43 foreign students. Arson was never ruled out, and witnesses and rights groups criticized what they said was a slow response to the blaze.

At the time, foreign students also told media of racially motivated attacks. But Singuwa said he had encountered little racism in Moscow.

“In some remote areas in Russia, where there’s one foreigner, that’s kind of difficult,” he said. Ousmane Setibaye Sou, a 25-year-old undergraduate from Chad, told AFP he had come to Moscow expecting racism but had not experienced any.

He said he would like to help develop cultural relations between Russia and his home country.

“There are many people there who speak Russian,” he said, adding that dozens of Chadians had been coming to Russia to study every year since the 1970s.

“Even our former prime minister (Yusuf Saleh Abbas) was a student” at RUDN, he said.


Pompeo: Anti-Daesh coalition should shift focus to Africa

Updated 20 min 37 sec ago

Pompeo: Anti-Daesh coalition should shift focus to Africa

  • Saudi Arabia’s FM and Pompeo discussed joint efforts in confronting terrorism
  • Pompeo urged members of the coalition fighting against Daesh to take extremist detainees back to their countries

LONDON: There is growing concern about the Daesh threat outside of Iraq and Syria, and the coalition fighting the terrorist organization should focus on west Africa and the Sahel region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

Pompeo also urged members of the coalition fighting against Daesh to take extremist detainees back to their countries and step up their funding to help restore infrastructure in Iraq and Syria, parts of which have been severely damaged by conflict.

"Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody, and impose accountability for the atrocities they have perpetrated," Pompeo said at the opening of a meeting of foreign ministers from the global coalition to defeat Daesh.


Pompeo vowed that the United States will keep fighting the extremist group, and reassured worried allies convened in Washington.
"The United States will continue to lead the coalition and the world on this essential security effort," Pompeo said as he opened a day of talks in Washington.

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan headed the Kingdom’s delegation at the meeting on Thursday and also met with Pompeo.

 

The foreign minister said that two officials discussed “the strong ties” between their countries and “the joint efforts in confronting terrorism in the region and the world.”

Daesh has lost almost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria. Former leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed in a US raid last month, but the militant group remains a security threat in Syria and beyond.
Some 10,000 Daesh detainees and tens of thousands of family members remain in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria guarded by the Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States. Washington is pushing European countries to take their citizens back, but so far they have been reluctant to do so.
(With Reuters)