As Russia’s Wagner mercenaries expand over Africa, the continental air smells of Cold War again
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trips this week to Bamako and Khartoum, putting a diplomatic veneer on alliances forged on the ground by Wagner mercenaries, have raised the stakes in what is now seen as the second front in its war with the West.
Wagner, in the words of the renowned French historian Gerard Prunier, is eating the carcass of Francafrique, France’s declining neo-colonial empire. Just last week, French troops were ordered out of another former stronghold, Burkina Faso.
The United States is growing edgy as it sees Wagner potentially morphing into a genuine geopolitical threat — a swathe of anti-Western regimes under military rule bisecting Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
The US Department of the Treasury on January 27 designated Wagner a “transnational criminal organisation”, arguing that it has been operating “a systematic network of summary executions, rape, torture and other physical violence” in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).
The US is trying to get Wagner expelled from Libya, where it fought on the side of rebel General Khalifa Haftar, and Sudan, where it has allied with the number two in the junta, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemeti”, in mining operations and cross-border warfare.
There is a growing realisation in Washington that Wagner is more than just a pack of adventurists fighting jihadis and exploiting minerals. It is Russia — as exemplified by Lavrov’s second African safari this year (although Lavrov’s Africa travel schedule also reflects the fact he is no longer welcome in the global capitals he used to frequent).
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is now a warlord on three continents (if you add Syria), a once small crook has now been propelled to great heights of power and celebrity by his brutal willingness to take the fight to the enemy by feeding tens of thousands of convicts into the Ukrainian meat grinder. Some believe he could even become the big boss in the Kremlin, or at least the kingmaker should Vladimir Putin meet a nasty end.
Pope Francis has just concluded a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, two countries afflicted by endemic conflict. What a turnout he got — more than a million people gathered in Kinshasa to hear his message of peace. Pilgrims walked for eight days to receive the blessing of the Holy Father in Juba. These are societies where the Catholic Church remains the only organisation with credibility, national reach and a message of hope — together with the Anglicans in South Sudan.
The Pope won the hearts of the people, but as the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin quipped when he was urged by Winston Churchill to seek the Vatican’s input on the Allied carve-up of post-war Europe: “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”
Which might be the point. Wagner is winning because it brings guns and helicopters and military manpower to parts of Africa where civil order is collapsing and old colonial borders are defunct, leaving a void that is being filled by jihadis and bandits.
‘Kill the French zombies’
Wagner’s attack on the French in Africa is accompanied by a propaganda and social media campaign fanning hatred against the former colonial power by depicting the French as predatory invaders out to steal Africa’s riches and enslave its people.
One video widely circulating on social media and Russian telegram shows a giant snake wearing the French tricolour announcing it wants to conquer all of Africa while creepy skeletons declare themselves to be demons sent by French president Emmanuel Macron. Wagner’s valiant combatants come to rescue African soldiers from this terrible fate.
Alongside his “private” army and his legendary St Petersburg dining hangout for mobsters and oligarchs that earned him the sobriquet ‘Putin’s chef’, Prigozhin is the proprietor of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) a troll farm that has been responsible for sending fake news and divisive bullshit into more than a dozen African countries. He was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for gaslighting the 2016 US election on behalf of Donald Trump.
The propaganda offensive is proving effective, especially amongst the youth in West Africa, because it is not without foundation. It dredges up atrocities committed by the French decades ago but not forgotten in Africa.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
Speak to any French-speaking West African intellectual these days and you will soon hear about the murder of former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara in October 1987, allegedly with French complicity, or the 1968 coup in Mali that toppled the socialist Mobido Keita, who died in prison.
Even the comically awful “Emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the CAR witnessed his father being beaten to death for opposing French forced labour in the forests and his mother starving herself to death as a result.
In recent years bitterness has resurfaced over the fate of the tirailleurs, African troops who fought in the trenches for France in the First World War but were largely forgotten when the war ended. The French CFA monetary zone is commonly condemned as a vestige of imperialism.
But Russia’s information warfare while preying on this history is also pumping out conspiracy theories that have created a widespread belief that Islamist terrorists in West Africa are being sponsored by France and the US.
It is rich that an organisation like Wagner, which styles itself on the most primitive features of colonial exploitation and has committed well-documented atrocities against African villagers, can claim the moral high ground. This is a group that filmed, and released on social media, one of its own members being executed with a sledgehammer.
What it does mean, however, is that France is on the retreat. The troops evacuated from Mali were given sanctuary by president Mohamed Bazum of Niger, who is himself under pressure, and unwilling to accommodate fresh refugees from Burkina.
Wagner’s propaganda seems to indicate that its next target is Cote d’Ivoire, the economic powerhouse of French-speaking Africa, where president Alassane Ouattara will be term-limited out in 2025. Wagner is also courting Denis Sassou Nguesso in Congo Brazzaville. A step into either place would move Wagner from the Sahel down to the Atlantic coast, closer to the oil riches of the Gulf of Guinea.
France’s scramble to keep pace with this onslaught has led to a search for new allies, including president Paul Kagame of Rwanda, an old enemy who accused France of enabling the 1994 genocide. President Macron is going to Kigali in the next few weeks.
Rwanda can offer a disciplined African force that has had success in combating jihadi terrorism — and would thus negate Wagner’s biggest selling point. Can Kagame be persuaded to take the gap in Burkina to keep Wagner out after the French depart?
As one astute African academic observed: “Prigozhin is badass. But there is one bigger badass in Africa.”
Sudan at the crossroads
As a prize, Sudan is a step up from the embattled countries of the Sahel: an Arab nation at the crossroads between Central Africa, the Horn and the Middle East, and a critical partner of Egypt.
In October 2021, the civilians who were moving the country towards democracy were kicked out by a military junta which is now divided between its leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leans towards Egypt and the US, and its deputy leader Hemeti, who is allied with Wagner and the United Arab Emirates.
Hemeti is a former camel trader who commands a militia known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an offshoot of the Janjaweed militias from Darfur. He has been in the thick of recent fighting over access to diamond mines in the Central African Republic.
The RSF is a bit like Wagner: alongside its fighters, it does business and makes a lot of money. RSF have crossed the CAR border with Wagner forces and are now seen to be threatening Chad, which is undergoing a rocky transition since the killing of its leader Idriss Déby in 2021.
All of this has led to an intense round of diplomatic wrangling.
The leaders of Chad, CAR and Sudan met last week to discuss the deteriorating situation on the tri-border area where Western Sudan (Darfur), Chad and the CAR meet. Item number one on the agenda was whether to involve Wagner.
Sudan’s Military Intelligence Chief Mohamed Subir, a supporter of Burhan, was in Washington in January, meeting with members of Joe Biden’s team to deliver a warning about Hemeti and Wagner. This was followed by the US demand that Sudan should expel Wagner.
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi travelled to Khartoum on 21 January. Even the Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was there last week, though he did meet with a token protest.
Now comes Sergei Lavrov to Khartoum, looking to open a naval base.
You can bet that none of these discussions were about human rights or restoring democracy.
It really does start to smell like the Cold War again. DM
Van Niekerk is editor of the new weekly DM newsletter, Africa Unscrambled.