Behind the Baobab Curtain: Putin’s adventures are reshaping Africa

West Africa is now separated into two blocs with antagonistic ideologies, allied with foreign sponsors on opposite sides of the geopolitical divide.

Vladimir Putin’s neocolonial adventures in Africa are unlikely to appear on the agenda as an example of “modern neo-colonialism practice” at the forum in Moscow this week to be attended by ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula and a delegation from his party.

Russia does not like to draw attention to its imperial meddling in African affairs, and many African commentators often steer clear of the subject, not wanting to stir old-style Cold War paranoia.

But ever since Wagner mercenaries popped up in the Central African Republic in 2017, irregular Russian forces have built an extensive military presence across Africa, mostly displacing the ailing French neocolonialists.

Moscow now plans to formalise these troops into a 50,000 strong Africa Legion.

But first, they need to clean up Wagner’s image of thuggish mercenaries rampaging through the continent killing Africans in exchange for gold and diamond mines.

Though technically a covert operation of Russian military intelligence, Wagner grew into a freelance criminal enterprise which turned on its sponsor Putin when Yevgeny Prigozhin marched on the Kremlin on 26 June last year – and, to no one’s surprise, died in an air crash exactly two months later.

Wagner’s African mining and business operations are being peeled off into other companies explicitly registered for that purpose.

The Russian business newspaper Vedomosti quoted the Ministry of Defence as naming the countries where the African Legion will operate as: Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. After President Mahamat Idriss Déby’s recent visit to Moscow, there is speculation that Chad might also join the club.


None of these has been invited to this week’s forum, indicating a move to run relations with the “global south” on two tracks – one political, and one military.

Their purpose in Africa, as quoted in Vedomosti, sounds remarkably like this week’s shindig: “Countering Western influence, strengthening Moscow’s position and supporting countries wanting to free themselves of neocolonialism and the Western presence.”

The first 100 Russian troops arrived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 25 January a few days before the military regimes of Mali, Burkina and Niger declared that they were divorcing “without delay” from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

A big bang

The most profound schism in West Africa since the formation of Ecowas in 1975 might not have happened but for the geopolitical divide that has inserted a “Baobab Curtain” * between military rule in the central Sahel and the largely democratic remainder of West Africa.

The juntas accused the Ecowas states of being under the influence of “foreign powers” (aka the West) and condemned them for moving away from the “ideals of its founding fathers and Pan-Africanism”.

The reality is stark: West Africa is now separated into two blocs with antagonistic ideologies, allied with foreign sponsors on opposite sides of the global divide.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken found time in late January to visit the West’s major Atlantic coast partners including Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, a clue if any was needed that the region is now part of a larger great game.

Blinken uttered not a word about competition with Russia and China.

Cameron Hudson, an associate at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, believes this is because, “It angers Africans to think that Washington only cares about Africa because we’re just trying to checkmate other geopolitical powers.

“Two, I think they’re afraid of ascribing too much importance to what the Russians are doing, but the fact of the matter is in half a dozen countries, Russia is eating our lunch, you know, displacing Western powers and Western interests in rapid succession.”

Before the Ecowas break-up, Niger’s Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine travelled to Moscow and Istanbul to agree on military arrangements.

On Friday, 26 January, he was in Tehran signing deals with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who spoke of a common bond between Niger and Iran, both suffering from the cruel sanctions of the Western “domination system”. Two days later Niger left Ecowas.

The split was a blow to Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who became chairman of Ecowas only five weeks before the 26 July coup in Niger.

Tinubu has strong feelings about military rule: in the 90s he was jailed for his opposition to the Nigerian strongman General Sani Abacha. As chairman, Tinubu was keen to reinstate Ecowas’ authority as a defender of democracy in the region.

Nigeria has long supplied the muscle for peacekeeping or when Ecowas leaned on recalcitrant leaders who refused to accept electoral defeat.

Of all Africa’s regional bodies, Ecowas was the one that put the most fight into defending democracy – in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia.

Tinubu initially called for tough measures, including sanctions and the threat of a military intervention to reinstate democratically elected President Mohamad Bazoum, who is still being held captive in Niamey.

Tinubu was supported by the rest of Ecowas, especially Presidents Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire and Nana Akufo Addo in Ghana.

Instead, massive anti-French and anti-Ecowas protests exploded in Niamey, forcing Ecowas to backtrack.

It soon sunk in to those in Abuja supporting a military strike that two-thirds of the people of Niger are Hausa, kin to 40% of the people of Nigeria, and there would be serious blowback if they went to war against their brothers and cousins.

‘These people are not our friends’

Many in the region resent the fact that outside powers, for their own agendas, are once again encouraging splits in Africa. Sane voices, even in the breakaway countries, are urging Ecowas not to give up on diplomacy.

Prominent Nigerian historian Toyin Omoyeni Falola said: “We need to tell our people that Russia is not your friend. China is not your friend. The West is not your friend. France is not your friend. If they are not your friends, we must find a diplomatic solution to this crisis.”

The Ecowas leadership did reach out to Niger, telegraphing through backchannels of religious leaders and others that they were open to recognising the junta and lifting sanctions as long as there was a pathway and a timetable to return to civilian rule.

But leaving Ecowas relieves the Sahelian military rulers from having to even pay lip service to Western-style democracy. All promises of a return to civilian rule are now off the table.

The military leaders see themselves as torchbearers of decolonisation and Pan-Africanism, “democrats” in the real sense.

Even Niger’s General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who led a palace coup that social media somehow transformed into an anti-French revolution, holds himself up as a revolutionary after decades of loyal service to pro-French governments.

The liberal democracy proposition is somewhat undermined when the crowds on the street and at rallies are cheering the soldiers who have overthrown liberal democracy.

And let’s face it, the West has a lot to answer for. The ousting of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011 unleashed chaos in the Sahel. According to the Global Terrorism Index, deaths in the Sahel jumped from 1% in 2007 to 43% of all deaths at the hands of terrorists in 2022.

France continued to dominate Francophone Africa for 60 years after formal independence, propping up local elites and sending in the military when they were challenged. This was usually to the benefit of French business interests who are now having to get on without benefactors.

The economic shocks and cost of living increases since COVID-19 have pushed the urban and rural poor, and popular discontent, to the edge.

Anti-Western propaganda, much of it fake news fanned by Wagner’s bot farms and pro-Russian social media influencers, is proving inspirational to the restless youth.

Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group, said that while the Sahelian countries were in a state of violent disorder, they were winning politically.

“The ideas of sovereignty, back to African roots and down with the West, are receiving very strong support from a large part of the population. And they are influential throughout West Africa,” he said.

The new Sankara

The most dynamic persona in this saga is the 35-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traoré, a dapper and charismatic figure in military fatigues with a carefully cultivated image modelled on the assassinated Burkinabe revolutionary Captain Thomas Sankara.

He is followed around by hundreds of supporters and is viewed as a rock star all the way down to South Africa.

Like populists elsewhere, he rules with a jackboot. Under cover of a “general mobilisation” against terrorists, he has normalised dictatorship.

Traoré’s Burkina has adopted a unique way of dealing with its dissidents.

Plainclothes “national police” abduct journalists, human rights activists, opposition politicians and even businesspeople and send them to the front line to fight the “terrorists”.

Among those to suffer this fate is the 70-year-old former Foreign Minister Ablassé Ouédraogo, who, after criticising the coup leaders’ retreat from democracy, was kidnapped by “national police” the day before Christmas and dispatched to the front.

“You don’t have a lot of protests against that,” said Depagne. “If you look back when (former leader Blaise) Campaore was hard on people and opponents, the Catholic church and civil society would protest. Now nobody says a word.”

Traoré has denied that the Russian troops that are arriving are going to be used in combat. They are there to form a presidential guard for Traoré, who claims that he has been the target of seven assassination attempts.

He has used these as a pretext to purge rivals in the security forces.

The popular former chief of staff of the gendarmerie, Lieutenant-Colonel Evrard Somda, was taken from his home on 14 January. His wife Djamila Somda described how he was violently arrested without a judicial warrant or an explanation, by unidentified armed men, in front of their children, and taken to an unknown destination.

She has not seen him since, and even though there has been no trial, social media posts have declared him guilty of being behind the coup attempts.

Zombie Pan-Africanism

Traoré has mobilised up to 100 000 “Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland”, some of whom have participated in massacres against Fulani people who have been stigmatised as Jihadists.

While it is hard to get an accurate reading of the state of the war against Al Qaeda and Isis affiliates, some accounts say that the army has lost control of between 40% and 60% of the territory of the country.

Andrew Harding, a celebrated author and one of the UK’s most experienced foreign correspondents, has written that the military rulers of West Africa can only lay feeble claim to the Pan-Africanist programme championed by such legends WEB Du Bois, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah.

As France equally bears little resemblance to the country that it was in the time of General Charles de Gaulle, he writes: “this is an impasse without reliable interlocutors who can agree about the past. It could well turn out to be a case of zombie anti-colonialism revolting against a zombie predator.”

Surveys such as Afrobarometer repeatedly find that, despite the big shows of support, Africans still prefer democracy – even when this enthusiasm is tempered by governments that succumb to corruption and cronyism.

“The message for Ecowas,” said the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times in an editorial this week, is “good governance and an economy that works for all are the guardrails of any democracy.

“In case there are still doubters around, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Taoheed Lagbaja, gave all community citizens immense pride when he uttered these words: ‘The solution to problems with democracy is more democracy.’ ”

The dirty war

While the arc of Russia’s militarily aligned allies extending almost from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the Red Sea might look impressive on a map at defence headquarters in the Kremlin, Russia could end up paying a bloody price for its geopolitical trophies.

The reason why official Moscow left Wagner to its own devices was Russia was reluctant to put boots on the ground and in harm’s way.

Now the Africa Legion will be embroiled in half a dozen low-intensity wars that they have already been suppressing with varying degrees of brutality.

On the morning of Friday, 26 January, Malian government soldiers and Wagner mercenaries surrounded a small Fulani village called Wellingara in Mali, close to the border with Mauritania.

Intelligence apparently indicated that it was a hotbed of insurgents belonging to the Al Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) that had attacked and killed soldiers at a nearby base.

They went door to door arresting about 25 men and boys, blindfolding them, and driving them a few miles down the road where they shot them and slit their throats.

The atrocity, which was recounted by Radio France International, was based on interviews with local sources and was unique in that it was reported at all.

Since the military junta under Colonel Assimi Goïta came to power in an August 2020 coup, and since the French troops and embassy, and the United Nations stabilisation mission, Minusma, have been shown the door, information from the wars in the Sahel has been vanishingly hard to get.

Depagne, of the International Crisis Group, says that “there is a blackout on information from the rural areas of Mali and Burkina Faso and you have fewer western diplomats that are working there and who can speak.”

‘Bring them to justice’

Volker Turk, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, wants those responsible to face justice.

Good luck with that. In one infamous massacre in March 2022, Wagner mercenaries and Malian troops executed about 500 civilians, including women and children, in the central Malian town of Moura.

The killings and the rapes of dozens of women and girls were corroborated by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN, but no one has been prosecuted.

The rounding up of villagers, use of torture, summary executions and disappearances are not aberrations. It is the strategy Malian troops and Wagner are deploying to win their wars.

It has arguably allowed them to successfully turn the tide against Tuareg separatists in the north after they recaptured the strategic desert town of Kidal in November.

Turkish Bayraktar drones have been bombarding the Tuareg fighters and communities to devastating effect in the flat open desert landscape.

How many civilians are getting killed on a regular basis is anyone’s guess.

One source who has done extensive research on Wagner operations in Mali told Daily Maverick that the higher level of bloodshed was due to rookie Wagner troops who had arrived from Russia in December to replace the older Wagners who refused to work under the new chief Andrey Troshev, a former Wagner commander who had defected to another mercenary operation.

Like the Americans in Vietnam, what they have yet to understand is that there is a political element to these wars that cannot be bombed out of existence. The Tuareg regard themselves, like the Palestinians and the Kurds, as stateless people whose fight is to finish the business of decolonisation.

As the Russians find themselves embroiled in wars across Africa, they have put a large bull’s eye on their backs.

Ukraine released a video last week showing a Russian soldier, captured in Sudan fighting alongside the Rapid Support Forces, being interrogated by a Ukrainian intelligence officer. The world is becoming one giant battlefield.

Sharing the sandbox

The central Sahel was never a region of much interest to the US. During the Cold War, it was left to France to safeguard its former colonies.

But now the French have been driven out of the central Sahel, though about 1,000 troops are hanging on in N’djamena, Chad, which is not an Ecowas member.

US troops are still in Niger with two military compounds and a drone base near Agadez that cost $110-million to build. Its purpose is ostensibly to monitor the vast desert spaces between the Sahel and the south of Libya for counterinsurgency purposes and to combat human, drug, and gun running in the Sahara.

Molly Phee, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, visited Niamey recently to reiterate that despite the coup, the US would continue to support Niger in the fight against insurgents.

According to Cameron Hudson, she basically said, “We’re going to accept the junta and we’re going to do business with you because we have interests here and we have a base here.”

This was pragmatic Washington speaking, but it was before Niger announced that it was reviewing all its military relationships and Russian troops would soon deploy into Niger. Will the junta now kick the US out?

“I think the bigger conundrum now for Washington is how do you share the sandbox with Russia?” says Hudson.

Cohabiting with Russia poses a different challenge to that of China: despite the hype, the two economic superpowers have coexisted in Africa for decades. The US’ answer to China is that it does not tell Africans who to partner with.

But neither China nor any of the other new investing countries ever attempted the kind of primitive sprint for resources, political influence and territory that Wagner undertook, reminiscent of the early scramble for Africa by the colonial powers.

There’s also the question of what happens if Donald Trump wins in November. He’s already shown only contempt for Africa’s “sh*thole countries” and the Sahel would feature at the bottom of that list. He would be happy to let Putin have it.

Europe has a more consistent interest, intent as it is on stemming the flood of migrants across the Mediterranean from the Sahel.

As the French, unpopular through much of the region, draw down from Africa, the tricolour is being replaced with that of the European Union’s ring of stars.

What the US, Europe and the leaders of the Atlantic coast countries fear most are the Sahel’s toxic exports: military coups, Russian mercenaries, insurgent groups moving south, populist propaganda finding fertile ground among the youth, and the prospect of more governments falling to the military.

What does Russia offer?

On their own, the Sahel states are not a huge loss to Ecowas, even though sanctions are creating hardship for people living on either side of the borders.

Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger together constitute less than 8% of the GDP of the Ecowas countries, and only 15% of Nigeria’s GDP. It’s like Albania and Bulgaria choosing to opt out of a union with Germany and France.

In these three states, according to the UN’s Inter Agency Committee, 17 million people – one-fifth of the population – are already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Russia does not have much to offer these nations, which are described by the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times as “poor and derelict”. In the absence of development, said the paper, they will always “gravitate to Russian guns, bombs, drones, mercenaries and nuclear power”.

To see what might be expected from Russian engagement one need only look at the Central African Republic where Wagner paramilitaries have been a dominant power since 2017.

A survey conducted by a team from Columbia University and Democratic Republic of the Congo, led by the Congolese scientist Karume Baderha Augustin Gang, found that 5.8% of the population of the Central African Republic – that is six out of every hundred people in the country – died in 2022 mostly from diseases related to conflict.

Putin did make a PR show of giving hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wheat to Mali, Burkina, and the Central African Republic in January.

Still, most of the emergency aid that is feeding the needy, even in anti-west countries like Mali and Burkina, comes from the US and the European Union.

But the West is going to have to do a lot more if it wants to prevent Africa from being seduced by populism.

Premium Times said in an editorial this week that “Europe and America seem impervious to the fact that they hold in their hands the access to world markets and capital markets that comes with membership of Ecowas and partnership with multilateral agencies.”

The developed world should be helping African states recover not just to where they were before the pandemic and the economic shocks, but to a completely new level of economic development with manufacturing and agri growth and better integration into the global supply chains.

It is no accident that the most stable country in the region is the pro-western Cote d’Ivoire which has weathered the economic shocks better than the rest and is on course to have the highest growth in Africa this year.

Mbalula and his team would have done better to go to Abidjan to see how it is done, rather than going to ideological gabfests in Moscow with loser nations like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. DM

Related Topics