By Dr. Diana Rangaves, PharmD
The geopolitical landscape of Africa has undergone significant shifts in recent years, with Russia emerging as a major player in the region. Through strategic agreements and partnerships, Russia has strengthened its influence in North Africa, expanded its presence in the Sahel region, and deepened its engagement in the Central African Republic.
In this deep dive into geopolitics, we will explore Russia’s increasing influence in Africa, examining the motives behind its engagement, the key countries involved, and the potential consequences for regional dynamics and global power balance.
Russia’s influence in Africa.
Despite its military struggles in Ukraine, Moscow has not scaled back its aspirations in the Global South. Over the past year, Russia has paid more attention to the Sahel, a difficult region of Africa that approximately runs from Senegal to the Red Sea. Moscow is inserting itself in nations like Mali and Burkina Faso through the Wagner mercenary group and profiting from Western policy blunders, rising anti-European sentiment, and persistent failures of international and local actors to address the underlying causes of regional instability.
Despite the attention paid to Moscow’s agents in Africa, the influence of Moscow there is neither particularly deep nor wide. But due to the intensifying violence in the Sahel, Washington has expressed concern over Moscow’s growing role there.
The Wagner Group is a recognized Kremlin-linked private military company founded by Russian tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin. It originally appeared in 2014, following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and has since spread to Syria and at least a half-dozen African countries. It is reported to have 5,000 members stationed across Africa, comprised of former Russian military, prisoners, and foreign nationals.
Where does Wagner group operate?
The countries where Wagner is most active include the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan. These nations all have shaky relations with the West due to colonial legacies and inherent political differences. It has frequently offered security services, paramilitary aid, and disinformation campaigns for weak regimes in exchange for resource concessions and diplomatic support.
Wagner’s clientele, have varying needs, including rebel groups and regimes, and the company receives funds in various ways, including direct payments and resource concessions. African countries have used Wagner troopers to support military operations against insurgency groups. Approximately 1,000 Wagner troops entered CAR in 2018 to defend President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s administration amid rebel attacks on the capital, Bangui. In exchange, the Wagner subsidiary obtained unrestricted logging rights and management of the profitable Ndassima gold mine.
Since 2017, Wagner has been operating in Sudan, educating Sudanese security personnel, safeguarding natural wealth, and quashing opposition to President Omar al-Bashir’s administration in exchange for gold exports to Russia. Wagner’s assistance is frequently reinforced by official Russian military assistance, notably in Mali, when the armed forces received combat and observation planes from Moscow.
Impact of the Wagner Group in Africa
Wagner’s status as a PMC reduces the financial costs of Russian participation. It grants the Kremlin plausible denial, enabling it to use Russian military resources while hiding soldier casualties from the Russian people.
Wagner troops fighting alongside the Libyan National Army in the 2019 Tripoli campaign have been accused of unlawful executions and placing landmines in civilian areas throughout Libya. Wagner troops also operate in the same regions as the U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR, jeopardizing the U.N.’s capacity to defend civilians.
Russia’s low-cost hybrid warfare in Africa and its competition with the United States and its allies extend beyond the military realm and into misinformation methods. Disinformation propagandists strive to incite social discord among countries and weaken support for democracy in Africa and elsewhere worldwide, including the United States, in the 2016 presidential election. For example, they attempted to influence Madagascar’s 2018 presidential election. In Mali, The IRA accused French counterinsurgency efforts of being a ruse to exploit local uranium resources.
Washington penalized persons and entities associated with the Wagner group to respond to their questionable conduct, and the E.U. followed suit. However, like with penalties imposed on Russian government personnel, these measures have not resulted in any significant changes in behavior.
Why the Sahel is unstable?
Despite its natural wealth, the Sahel region has a long history of political instability, military rebellions (particularly in Mali and Niger), and poor governance. Since achieving independence in the 1960s, countries in the region have faced state- and nation-building challenges.
Islamist rebel groups, who struggle with locals and government forces for resources, control much of the territory. Civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire. Despite persistent international and local attempts to repress rebels, armed groups in the region are expanding.
The chief of the United Nations office for West Africa and the Sahel, said in January 2023 that violent conflicts have exacerbated human misery and pushed millions to migrate. The United Nations estimates, around 2.7 million people have been displaced, and 1.6 million children are malnourished. Since 2020, there have been two military coups in Burkina Faso and Mali, one in Chad and another in adjacent Guinea.
When France, the Sahel’s former colonial power, started Operation Serval in Mali in 2013, it employed a standard anti-terrorist approach to the region. However, the subsequent Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014, had a broader scope for the Sahel region. The Barkhane deployment peaked at roughly 5,100 troops, which was insufficient to stop the spread of jihadist authority and retain fervent public and regional government support for the conflict.
The Wagner group, encouraged by the Kremlin and doing its bidding, is highly likely to remain in Africa despite U.N. and Western criticism of its behavior and threats of financial penalties for African governments that employ the Russian security company and permit it to commit human rights and civil liberties violations. Sanctions are not likely to change that. The results of Russia’s actions in Africa will have broad ramifications for security and governance standards. However, given its intrinsic flaws and the bad outcomes of its actions, the Wagner organization may soon lose some of its appeal to African nations.
Groups like Wagner frequently use erroneous methods to take advantage of regional instability, which usually worsens the security situation for citizens and damages Russia’s reputation abroad. This fact needs to be brought to light, especially for the sake of the civilian populations who have grown weary of the deteriorating situation and are bitter about France’s colonial past.