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Sowing discord: How Russia engages in African revolts to cement its influence

The BBC has obtained internal documents outlining the Russian government’s strategy in Africa. The Kremlin is offering African states a “survival package” for their regimes in exchange for the expulsion of Western companies engaged in resource extraction. The scheme follows the assassination of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin this past August. Rather than scaling back its Africa operations, the Kremlin is transitioning them away from the nominally “private” military company towards direct control by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence organization. The strategy involves the exploitation of rising “anti-colonial” — i.e. “anti-Western” — sentiments in the Sahel region, where the past few years have seen strikingly similar coup attempts in countries including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The Insider chronicles Russia's vested interests in Africa and sheds light on its role in the orchestration of the coups.

Content
  • UN votes and pressure on Europe: Russia's agenda in Africa

  • 2023: Niger

  • 2022: Burkina Faso

  • 2021: Guinea

  • 2021: Mali

  • 2021: Sudan

  • 2021: Chad

Every international player in Africa possesses its own unofficial sphere of influence, according to historian and political scientist Irina Filatova, a distinguished professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Filatova contends that no major power exerts dominant control over the continent, and yet historically speaking, Russia has stood as the primary arms supplier to Africa while also managing a range of energy and military contracts.

In contrast, China wields far greater economic influence in Africa, as noted by Africanist Maxim Matusevich. China's involvement includes the construction of railways and roads, the development of new residential areas, and the provision of substantial loans. Yet Beijing, unlike Moscow, largely refrains from political interference, avoids presenting itself as an ideological alternative, and abstains from extending military support to any political factions on the continent.

Africa's commercial relations with Western nations also tie its prospects for economic development to the democratic world, and according to Filatova, there exists some vocal support for universal values such as a “commitment to democratic principles or pledges to uphold them.”

UN votes and pressure on Europe: Russia's agenda in Africa

In recent months, significant shifts have occurred in the relationship between Russia and Africa. Moscow has taken a clear stance with West African nations, insisting on the continued presence of Russian military assets following the dissolution of the Wagner PMC.

According to Filatova, the transfer of Wagner PMC's former activities to the Russian Ministry of Defense became evident in September during the diplomatic missions of Russian deputy defense minister Yunus-Bek Evkurov to West Africa. Additionally, deputy head of the GRU Andrey Averyanov has been actively revamping former “Wagnerite” units for continuing intelligence operations in Africa. Official negotiations, predominantly held in Mali,were conducted between the Russian delegation and the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, all three of which have recently experienced military coups.

Filatova points out that these nations' leaders have entered into a mutual assistance agreement, symbolizing a unified bloc and establishing an official military alliance with Russia. Concurrently, negotiations also unfolded in Libya with General Khalifa Haftar, leader of Eastern Libya and formerly an ally of the “Wagnerites.” In September 2023, one month after Prigozhin’s death, Haftar even visited Moscow.

The development signifies the formation of an axis of allies of the Russian Federation in North Africa, one encompassing Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Algeria. “I can't say it's a directly controlled zone,” Filatova explains, “but it's undoubtedly a zone of clear allies of Russia.” Furthermore, Russia is now acting through direct military agreements, engaging in active operations and establishing connections through official channels rather than through the “private” Wagner Group.

The leadership of these operations remains uncertain. For example, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who largely disappeared following Wagner’s march on Moscow this past June, recently traveled with a delegation to Algeria. There have been suggestions that he may be tasked with leading what is left of the Wagner PMC in Africa, or at the very least, using it to conduct operations to combat Islamists in the region, similar to his actions against insurgents in Syria, Filatova suggests.

The group’s “humanitarian” and propagandist elements will unquestionably persist, with propaganda proving notably effective. Again according to Filatova:

“The recent efforts by the Americans to engage with West African nations can only offer them a democratic agenda. However, this holds little appeal for these nations. Instead, an anti-colonial agenda resonates far more strongly. It serves to unify the population, as anti-colonial sentiments still linger despite the end of formal colonialism. France's enduring presence in the region reinforces these sentiments. Meanwhile, despite the passage of time, the economic situation in these countries has not improved, further highlighting their struggles with the West, particularly with France.”

Russia has multiple objectives in the region. These include expanding its influence within the United Nations by securing the votes of African states, along with spreading its anti-Western ideology globally in order to reshape the international power dynamic. As Filatova explains it:

“Putin's pursuit of global reorientation towards multipolarity aligns with Russia's successful promotion of its ideals on the African continent. The emphasis on authenticity and national values resonates strongly. For these nations, democracy is not a priority; they prefer autonomy in decision-making. They reject international interference and sanctions, favoring sovereignty.”

Moreover, by controlling migration flows from Africa, it is possible to exert significant pressure on Europe, as Africanist Maxim Matusevich acknowledges. The influx of migrants often sparks serious political discord within E.U. countries and bolsters the popularity of far-right parties. The Kremlin's interest lies in destabilizing Europe, and such a destabilizing scenario is perfectly in line with its objectives. Matusevich notes that Russia developed a strategy for creating refugee flows during the bombings in Syria. Now the Kremlin may employ a similar approach in the Sahel. In this context, Russia faces minimal risk while reaping political dividends from the deliberate creation of chaos in the countries it claims to be assisting.

By controlling migration flows from Africa, it is possible to exert significant pressure on Europe

Another significant Russian interest on the continent is tied to uranium. Both Russia and Niger rank among the top ten global exporters of the radioactive element. Should uranium shipments from Niger to Europe cease, a deficit would arise, potentially dissuading France from imposing sanctions on Russia, suggests Matusevich.

Filatova notes the challenge of determining the relative importance of countries in Africa and their respective positions. “A lot depends on the region. Russian influence has significantly grown in West and North Africa, but they haven't succeeded in Mozambique. Wagner tried to operate there, but it didn't work out. In South Africa, Russian policy is extremely active now because the local government has very close, very good relations with Russia.”

The Somair uranium mine near the town of Arlit, Niger, is operated by the French company Orano. In August, security concerns prompted the evacuation of some personnel
The Somair uranium mine near the town of Arlit, Niger, is operated by the French company Orano. In August, security concerns prompted the evacuation of some personnel
Orano

Russian interests in Africa are often intertwined with the recurring coups on the continent. “Anti-colonial” sentiments are also on the rise, leading to the emergence of leaders with closer ties to Russia. Military coups have become commonplace in the Sahel region in recent years, with similar patterns emerging across different countries.

2023: Niger

Niger, with a population of 25 million, ranks among the world's poorest nations, with 40% of its budget reliant on foreign aid. Despite its wealth in uranium (ranking fifth globally in production), gold, and other minerals, Niger faces severe constraints in developing its resource base.

The presence of uranium in the country features prominently in discussions of Russia's interests. By expanding its influence in Niger, Moscow could deepen global dependence on its nuclear energy sector. Although Russia stands as the sixth-largest uranium producer globally, it commands around 45% of the world market for uranium conversion and enrichment.

In the aftermath of the July 2023 coup, images of rallies flooded global media, showcasing protesters brandishing Russian flags and pro-Putin slogans, including “Down with France.” Local tailors even reported receiving requests to craft Russian flags, as well as flags from neighboring nations like Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, each of which also experienced coups.

The July military takeover marked Niger's fifth coup since declaring independence from France in 1960. The military apprehended President Mohamed Bazoum in his residence, proclaiming its seizure of power. General Abdurahman Chiani, formerly the head of the presidential guard, declared himself the nation's new leader. While Western nations and official Russia denounced the coup, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow cautioned against external interference in Niger's affairs, deeming it potentially counterproductive. Meanwhile, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner PMC, openly voiced support for the events unfolding in Niger.

Reuters
Reuters

The coup came at a time when Niger was finally making progress both economically and politically. Bazoum's victory in the 2021 elections appeared to mark a turning point for the country towards democratic values. The new president advocated for girls’ education, aimed to reduce the birth rate (the world's highest), and transitioned the economy from stagnation to growth: prior to the coup in 2023, Niger’s GDP was forecasted to grow by 7%. Additionally, Bazoum served as a pillar of support for Western nations. Niger hosts approximately 1,100 American and 1,500 French military personnel, as well as several drone bases.

After the coup, Bazoum himself stated in a column for The Washington Post that the insurgents could invite the Wagner PMC into the country, potentially placing the entire Central Sahel — Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — “under Russian influence.” Predictably, the junta that seized power has already taken steps to sever ties with the West, announcing the termination of military agreements with France and blocking broadcasts from French outlets France 24 and RFI.

Niger's neighbors expressed mixed sentiments about the coup. Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which recently experienced coups themselves, supported the junta. Their authorities stated that they would view any foreign intervention in Niger's affairs as a declaration of war against them. Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which comprises 15 countries, threatened military intervention in Niger if the junta did not restore power to Bazoum. In response, the insurgents declared that in such a scenario, they would kill the president. Nigeria — Niger’s much larger neighbor — stated that it would not allow coups to occur one after another and took concrete action by ceasing its supply of electricity to Niger.

Before the death of Prigozhin in late August, the junta reportedly sought assistance from the Wagner Group. Washington took notice, with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland engaging in “difficult” negotiations with junta representatives in early August. Nuland warned that the U.S. would cease providing military support to the country if the junta refused to hand over power to the legitimate president. Officially, Nuland stated that the insurgents were not inclined to accept Wagner Group mercenaries into the country, as she said that the new powers-that-be in Niger understood the risks such a decision posed to the country's sovereignty.

Not only Washington was taking notice. On August 1, Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podoliak accused Russia of involvement in the military coup in Niger: “This is a standard Russian tactic — to divert attention, seize the moment, and escalate the conflict.”

However, Moscow denies any involvement in the coup in Niger, and some experts have doubts about Russia’s actual involvement. For example, former Bloomberg correspondent Javier Blas believes that the Kremlin is not directly connected to the coup, even if its propaganda machine has certainly fueled anti-French and anti-American sentiments throughout the Sahel region.

Political analyst Filatova also weighs in on the matter:

“They were indeed largely behind the coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, but the situation in Niger is somewhat different. Here, primarily personal motives likely played a role. As far as I understand, former President Mohamed Bazoum was planning to carry out military reforms, as a result of which the head of his guard, General Abdurahman Tchiani, was supposed to be removed from his position.”

A similar viewpoint was expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “I think what happened, and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but...they tried to take advantage of it. Every single place that this Wagner group has gone, death, destruction and exploitation have followed.”

What happened in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner but they tried to take advantage of it

2022: Burkina Faso

In 2022, Burkina Faso experienced two military coups. The first occurred in January, when the army ousted the president, citing his failure to address militant threats. Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba assumed leadership at the same time Russian flags were appearing on the streets. However, discontent resurfaced in September, leading to another coup. This time, dissatisfaction was directed towards the interim president for his inability to combat jihadist groups. Ibrahim Traoré, a former Cobra special forces commander supported by the Wagner Group, emerged as the new leader. Under Traoré's rule, Nordgold, a company owned by Russian billionaire Alexey Mordashov, obtained rights for gold mining in Burkina Faso. Additionally, French military forces withdrew while Russian military instructors were deployed.

2021: Guinea

AFP
AFP

The coup in Guinea followed protests against constitutional reform. Alpha Condé, the country's first democratically elected president, who had been in power since 2010, sought a third term by amending the constitution and imprisoning opposition members. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, a former member of the French Foreign Legion, led the September 2021 coup, ousting Condé.

Despite Moscow's official condemnation, Russian delegations engaged with the new Guinean authorities shortly after the coup, according to The Africa Report. Facing criticism from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the suspension of military aid from the United States, the junta agreed to transition power to a civilian government within two years.

Despite Moscow's official condemnation, Russian delegations engaged with the new Guinean authorities shortly after the coup

2021: Mali

In August 2020, Mali witnessed widespread anti-government protests, leading to a military coup. Following the coup, the junta pledged to transfer power to a temporary civilian government. However, the transition did not materialize as expected. By May 2021, Assimi Goita, the country’s then vice president, alongside military forces, overthrew Malian leader Bah Ndaw. The transfer of power to civilian officials was postponed for several more years. In December 2021, the French government announced the arrival of “Wagnerites” in the country.

The junta claimed that the Russian nationals were only serving as military advisors, while Russia denied any association with the group. Wagner PMC mercenaries were accused of extrajudicial killings, human rights violations, and looting. The presence of these “advisors” strained Mali's relations with France, the European Union, and Canada. Consequently, Paris withdrew its troops entirely, Germany suspended its mission to the country, while the Malian junta demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers.

Wagner PMC mercenaries were accused of extrajudicial killings, human rights violations, and looting in Mali

2021: Sudan

Reuters
Reuters

In April 2023, Sudan witnessed armed conflict between the de facto president, army commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the head of the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (or Hemetti), as the two generals failed to agree on how to integrate the RSF into the regular army. This conflict arose despite the fact that, in 2021, Hemetti and al-Burhan had orchestrated a coup together, pledging to transfer power to a civilian government after taking power. Hemetti has condemned the 2021 coup, and the junta still has not relinquished control in Khartoum.

Wagner played a role in the unrest that led to the 2021 coup. In 2019, amidst protests, al-Burhan and Dagalo turned against their former ally, then President Omar al-Bashir. The United States claimed that “Wagnerites” had been hired to help him stay in power. Al-Bashir had visited Moscow in 2017, seeking Putin’s protection against his purported American adversaries and promising to become Russia's key to Africa in return. There were even discussions about the possibility of establishing a Russian military base in Sudan. Russia also obtained the right to mine gold through the company M Invest, which the U.S. Treasury called a Wagner PMC front.

Interestingly, the position of the “Wagnerites” in the country appears to have been unaffected both by the previous coups and by the junta leaders’ infighting of 2023. For his part, former Wagner PMC head Yevgeny Prigozhin publicly supported none of the generals, instead proposing to mediate between the conflicting parties. However, CNN reported that Wagner PMC nevertheless supplied Hemetti's fighters with surface-to-air missiles. Meanwhile, both sides in the conflict denied any connection with the “Wagnerites” while accusing one another of having such ties. Prigozhin also denied ties with the RSF. However, BBC sources referred to Hemetti as a Wagner PMC agent, stating that he had offered heads of African countries the services of “Wagnerites.” Additionally, Hemetti’s RSF fighters trained and fought alongside “Wagnerites” in Libya.

Political analyst Filatova also speaks about the support of the RSF by the “Wagnerites”:

“In Sudan, the ‘Wagnerites’ have positioned themselves very well to profit from the gold deposits located in the area controlled by the Rapid Support Forces.”

2021: Chad

Chad is another country that witnessed a military coup in 2021. In April, rebels based in Libya breached checkpoints and advanced into the country on the day of the presidential elections. Just days later, President Idriss Déby, who had won his sixth consecutive term in office, was killed in the ensuing conflict. While the constitution mandated that the speaker of the parliament assume the presidency, the military dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution, and installed General Mahamat Idriss Déby, the late president's son, as interim president.

The unconstitutional transfer of power led to unrest in the capital, but this was swiftly quelled by the military. Reports from The Times indicate that the rebels received training from the Wagner Group. Additionally, sources from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal highlighted the rebels’ ties to the Wagner Group. According to these sources, in 2023 U.S. intelligence alerted the acting president to a planned rebel coup involving the Wagner Group.

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