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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED

With the signing of an ‘all-for-one’ pact, Russia’s new African empire starts to take shape

With the signing of an ‘all-for-one’ pact, Russia’s new African empire starts to take shape
Burkina Faso's junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traore . (Photo by Sergei BOBYLYOV / TASS Host Photo Agency / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / TASS HOST PHOTO AGENCY / SERGEI BOBYLYOV”)| General Salifou Mody.(Photo: Wikipedia)| epa08671373 Assimi Goita president of the Mali.( EPA-EFE/CHRISTIAN THOMPSON)|epa10875145 Russian President Vladimir Putin.(EPA-EFE/SERGEI BOBYLEV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL MANDATORY CREDIT)

The signing of a mutual defence pact between the military leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger this week effectively creates two antagonistic blocs in West Africa, raising the risk of conflict between states and scuppering hopes of a return to democratic rule any time soon. It also comes as Russia moves to reassure allies that the Wagner group is now under the control of the Russian defence ministry and will continue to protect the interests of its African clients.

Like the Three Musketeers, the military leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger met in Bamako last weekend to sign a mutual defence pact, the Liptako-Gourma Charter, establishing an alliance of “all for one, and one for all”.

The idea of the pact first emerged in response to a threat by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to use military force to restore civilian rule after the 26 July 2023 military coup in Niger that overthrew the government of President Mohamed Bazoum, who is still being held hostage in his palace.

But any fears of military action by Ecowas have long faded.

The three nations are in genuine danger from a collection of jihadists and insurgents – Isis, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Azawad Tuareg nationalists, bandits, smugglers and camel thieves in the Sahel – who have made startling gains in recent months in Mali and Burkina.

But this is not really what the pact addresses. It effectively creates two antagonistic blocs in West Africa: the military juntas against the other mostly democratic states.

Rinaldo Depagne, the west African project director for the International Crisis Group, told Daily Maverick that the pact reduces the possibility for broader regional cooperation. “Is this for regional security or consolidation of power?” he asked. “The fear is that this could trigger conflicts between states.”

Must Niger, for instance, be forced to choose between its Russian-backed military allies, on the one hand, and Ecowas, in particular Nigeria, who have been negotiating about moving to a transition period to return the country to civilian rule?

Something bigger at play?

Perhaps the alliance could be the opening to something bigger.

The Three Musketeers – Assimi Goïta (Mali), Ibrahim Traoré (Burkina Faso) and Salifou Modi (Niger) – signed the agreement after days of meetings with high-ranking Russian officials.

These included the Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov and Major General Andrei Averyanov, head of clandestine operations at Russian military intelligence (GRU), a man accused by western intelligence of being behind foreign assassinations and of the air crash in which Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was blown out of the sky on 23 August 2023.

Yevkurov and Averyanov have made multiple trips to Africa during the last month to reassure allies uncertain of the fate of Wagner without Prigozhin.

They have been sending the message that the Russian defence ministry, more specifically the GRU, now controls Wagner and will continue to protect the interests of its African clients.

Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Daily Maverick: “I see a very strategic effort under way by Russia since Prigozhin’s death to not only bring the Prigozhin empire under their umbrella, but to consolidate and expand it and to create some kind of cohesiveness across all of these states.

“There is a more deliberate effort from Russia right now to create, for want of a better word, a federation of Russian client states.”

The most surprising recent Russian visitor to African shores was General Sergey Surovikin, who resurfaced last weekend as a member of a Russian military delegation to Algeria days after being released from jail.

Surovikin vanished from public life after the 23 June 2023 abortive putsch and march on Moscow, suspected of conspiring with Prigozhin in the mutiny.

It was while he was commander-in-chief of Russia’s “special military operation” last year that Kherson was recaptured by Ukraine, and he was demoted in January.

Sources close to Wagner say the “boys” in Africa have been told that Surovikin is likely to be their new commander to replace Prigozhin, with a more professional operation than the rag-tag groups scattered across four or five countries, bent as much on filling their pockets as fighting terrorists.

Surovikin’s association with Wagner means he could command the loyalty of the rank and file. Furthermore, as one Russia watcher in Europe put it: “Surovikin is in debt to the boss [Vladimir Putin]. He made a major mistake; he should be dead by now.”

Surovikin has experience in crushing jihadists. He earned the nickname “General Armageddon” because of his part in the destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo, in which more than 20,000 civilians died, and his brutal treatment of Isis prisoners.

Wagner’s original selling point in Africa was that there was a security vacuum, and it was willing to take on the jihadists when no one else would. But the group’s fighting skills have not always been up to the task: they were chased out of Mozambique and have suffered major defeats while fighting with the Malian army.

Surovikin’s visit to Moscow’s strategic partner Algeria, which has a strong military and a long experience of fighting terrorism in the desert, could have been tied to this new strategy in the Sahel.

But Surovikin really came to discuss eastern Libya, where more than 11,000 people are believed drowned, mostly in the city of Derna, after torrential rain from Storm Daniel caused two dams to collapse on 10 September 2023.

Eastern Libya, or Cyrenaica, is controlled by Wagner’s ally General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, and is a critical rear base and supply line for Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is fighting a civil war in Sudan, where it has been accused of war crimes.

A contingent of Wagner troops is stationed at the Al Jufra airbase in central Libya.

General Michael Langley, head of US Africa Command, met Haftar in Benghazi on 21 September 2023 to discuss “forming a democratically elected national government, reunifying the Libyan military, and safeguarding Libyan sovereignty by removing foreign mercenaries”. The US is opposed to the partition of either Libya or Sudan.

But none of these objectives is likely to fly.

Haftar was all smiles while greeting Langley, but he is unlikely to give up his power base or abandon his Russian, Emirati or Sudanese friends, while Russia is intent on hardening this eastern Libya/Sudan coalition.

The US’ failure so far to gain traction in Libya was matched by its inability to convince the president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, to boot Wagner out of its strongest base in Africa.

Touadéra told the Washington Post last week that Russian fighters would remain in his country and continue to provide security against rebel groups in the countryside.

Hudson says Russia’s advantage is that it is transactional. “It comes with things people need – intelligence, hard armaments, political cover.

“Washington comes in and says: We want you to reunify, or to do this because it will help your people, it will improve governance, it will improve livelihoods.

“You know, all of these things that are important to us, but which are not that important to leaders like Touadéra or Haftar.”

The US, despite its high-minded talk about democracy and values, has cut a deal with the coup plotters to allow it to continue operating its drone bases in northern Niger and to maintain its intelligence programme in the Sahel – rather than just forfeiting it to the Russians.

“It’s like the Mike Tyson quote,” said Hudson. “Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the face. The fact of the matter is Washington’s been punched in the face.

“Washington, I think, is really caught between its kind of interests and its values.”

Cold War zero-sum game

Which means that we are back to a kind of Cold War zero-sum game.

This game gained another dimension this week with reports that 14 Ukrainian drones were fired on RSF headquarters in Omdurman, Sudan.

Whether or not the alleged attacks were just staged propaganda, Ukraine has decided that Russia’s African comrades-in-arms are fair game, especially if they are involved in war games.

Maybe the Ukrainians heard that Surovikin, a hated figure in Ukraine for his brutality, was in Libya talking to Haftar and the RSF.

Either way, Russia’s African allies have learnt that there are complications to the relationship that they hadn’t considered before.

Someone said only last week that the US is losing to Russia because it brings a knife to gun fight.

No one imagined that the Ukrainians would just send a drone. DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get Unscrambled by signing up here. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla Africa.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bryan Bailey says:

    Am I crazy or not. It seems that states which are in “dictatorships” are all in the Russian (“east”) camp and that all states which are in “democracies” are in west camp.
    There are exceptions of course like the South African ANC government, but not its citizens.

    • Francoise Phillips says:

      Agreed.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      You’re not crazy at all. The ANC is delighted at the developments in the Sahel, Libya and CAR as its key funder slaughters its way across the continent. The ANC and human rights are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, a few short years after Madiba declared that all policies would be centred on human rights.

    • Ben Harper says:

      The anc doesn’t want democracy, their policies and mandates have their foundation in Marxist communism. They want ultimate power and control of the country

  • Willem.ivo says:

    Let’s see what Russia’s geopolitics do for these countries. Defence Pacts create stability, not wars. To insinuate that the US should bring guns instead of a knife implies that it is okay to have violence in Africa if it brings more Western influence in Africa. But what track record does the west have over the past few hundred years? Only now the French leave their colonies. Libya is a mess after France and the US (excuse me, the UN) “liberated” it from a dictatorship. Rwanda is a dictatorship and much more functional than SA or Libya. I’m not saying the eastern block is any better: the Chinese are destroying local economies by treating them as their dumping grounds. Russia has developed very little prosperity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the west is not much better with its vast war machine and track record of colonialism and interference in other countries. We need strong and functional local governments who lead their countries to improve the fate of their people. Let’s keep an honest view on what is happening, rather than writing from a prejudiced viewpoint, that’s all I am saying. That requires dealing with complexity, because reality is complex. “There are simple solutions to complex problems. And they are wrong.” As citizens we need newspapers that can report on complexity.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Russia’s geopolitics in that region is VERY clear – support the local warlord and capture the resources, that’s what Putin’s Wagner Group have been doing there for years

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