Russia’s ties to Africa are primarily military and its Wagner mercenaries’ presence is unlikely to silence the guns
As the world marks the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, it has been suggested that Africa needs a common approach to the war.
So far Russia’s aggression has elicited contrary responses across the continent, as evidenced by the equivocal votes on numerous resolutions at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly – including yesterday’s decision calling for an immediate end to the war.
But no attempt at establishing a common position was evident at the African Union’s (AU) ordinary summit in Addis Ababa last weekend. Participants said the subject hardly came up except for a brief discussion about its impact on food insecurity.
Perhaps the leaders considered it too divisive. Or perhaps avoiding the subject expressed the prevailing attitude of non-alignment from what has become something of a new Cold War. But as Leon Trotsky ominously remarked, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Apart from creating food shortages, the war may affect Africa in less obvious ways that could undermine the AU’s ambitions to achieve stable governments and strong democracies, and to “silence the guns”.
One of the topics the summit tackled explicitly was the resurgence in Africa of military coups. Four AU member states – Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Sudan – have been suspended from the AU because of “unconstitutional changes of government”, specifically military coups. And leaders insisted at the end of the meeting that they had “zero tolerance” for such takeovers and would maintain the four states’ suspension.
However, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Bankole Adeoye, told a news conference that the AU Commission was “ready to support these member states to return to constitutional order. The idea is that democracy must take root and must be promoted and protected.”
But how to do that is a conundrum that the AU, Africa’s regional economic communities and the international community have failed to solve. Addressing the rash of coups will take a careful balance of sanctions and measures to strengthen political and governance structures, especially in countries undergoing political transitions.
As important is each country’s security context, especially when a foreign security presence may be a factor driving instability. This seems likely, for example, in the case of Mali where the military junta that seized power has enlisted the services of the private Russian military company Wagner, which is widely regarded as a proxy for the Kremlin.
Certainly, Wagner and Russia more generally rushed into Mali after France was ejected by the junta after relations between the two countries deteriorated, and France criticised the coup. Russia has no such scruples about democracy and is apparently exploiting the vacuum created by France’s exit to thwart Western influence in Africa.
Wagner is also exploiting other opportunities that might arise on the continent such as in natural resources, which the US says is a Russian tactic to fund its war in Ukraine and elsewhere. A new Global Initiative report details Wagner’s operations in Africa and its ties to the Russian state and organised crime.
Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo has warned that Burkina Faso has already done a deal to accept Wagner’s support. It is as ripe as Mali was for such an intervention, as its military rulers have also expelled France and are looking for new friends.
While suspensions from the AU provide some deterrent against coups, their effect is diminished as long as juntas like those in Mali and Burkina Faso can turn to Russia for backing.
Meanwhile in Sudan, support from Wagner and Russia more broadly is slowing the transition towards a civilian democracy. Reports indicate that Wagner first tried to prop up President Omar al-Bashir’s faltering regime. After his ousting in 2019, the group threw its weight behind the military authorities who scuppered negotiations on democracy by seizing military power in a coup in 2021.
Wagner may also be poised to intervene in Cameroon, partly by exploiting the growing tensions and violence between the government and separatist groups in the country’s Anglophone regions. Wagner may also be eyeing Cameroon as a useful gateway to the sea for exporting the natural resources it is being granted in the Central African Republic in exchange for propping up the shaky government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra.
How has the war in Ukraine affected Wagner and Russia’s presence in Africa? It has prompted a flurry of diplomatic initiatives by Russia and Western powers eager to expand their circles of friends in an increasingly uncertain and hostile world. Russia in particular needs allies more than ever to counter the isolation of Western sanctions.
And in extending its ties with African countries, Russia’s offering has largely been in the military domain and arms trade. In a new report, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Priyal Singh notes that Russia’s main economic engagement has long been through the arms industry.
“Russian arms sales are often seen as a key avenue that is leveraged by Russia in order to establish, sustain and expand its political influence within African states,” he says.
Regarding other commodities, Russian trade with Africa is dwarfed by that of the West and China. The ISS report notes that Russia was the continent’s largest arms supplier in 2017-21 (and the second largest globally), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia constituted 44 per cent of all arms imports to Africa – far ahead of the US (17 per cent), China (10 per cent) and France (6 per cent).
Whether the war in Ukraine has affected Russian arms sales is unclear. Western assessments indicate that Russia isn’t making enough munitions to replace the missiles and shells fired at Ukraine, so it has turned to Iran for supplies. Is it also turning to Africa? Stanford University Russian scholar Stephen Kotkin told The New Yorker that Russia was buying back arms from African countries to replenish its dwindling arsenal in Ukraine. Another Russian arms expert is sceptical, suggesting that concrete evidence is lacking.
Overall, Russia’s ties to Africa remain primarily military, with no democratic strings attached – a situation unlikely to advance the continent’s fundamental governance values or silence the guns.
It can be argued that Russia stepped up its military engagement with Africa – including the injection of Wagner – even before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year. But let’s not forget that, as any Ukrainian will remind you, Russia’s war against Ukraine didn’t start on February 24, 2022 but on February 20, 2014, when it invaded and annexed Crimea.
Three months later, ‘Putin’s chef’ Yevgeny Prigozhin established Wagner, initially to infiltrate the Donbas, then spreading its tentacles into Syria and Africa. In that wider sense, Russia’s war against Ukraine has been impacting Africa for some time.
- A Tell / ISS Africa report / By Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria