How Russia Expands Its Influence in Africa
Wagner Group operations, disinformation efforts, and Western double standards are fueling Moscow’s popularity.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: South Africa’s army chief visits Russia in the wake of a major diplomatic spat with the United States, Sudan freezes RSF bank accounts, and Burundi’s new solar-powered capital city.
The Wagner Group’s Growing Footprint
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Africa has been caught in the middle of a new Cold War. Western anxieties about the Russian mercenary company Wagner Group have marred Europe’s relations with a handful of African countries. Meanwhile, U.S. officials view Moscow’s moves in Africa as an existential threat that benefits the Kremlin to the detriment of Western interests.
“By sending a couple of thousand Wagner paramilitaries, the Russians are taking over there,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren told an audience in Washington last July, referring to the Sahel region. Ollongren’s concerns are shared by the Netherlands’ allies. It’s clear the Biden administration views Wagner’s expansion in Africa as a proxy force for Russian influence. In public remarks at Georgetown University in February, CIA Director William Burns described the group as “a particularly creepy Russian organization.”
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland testified to Congress in January that Wagner’s access to gold mines in Mali and the Central African Republic “directly funds” operations in Ukraine. Wagner operatives are implicated in the alleged smuggling of gold from Sudan to Russia.
Analysts believe that because Wagner now seems to be failing in the war in Ukraine, it could redouble its efforts across Africa. Among a vast global network covering Europe and Asia, Wagner is believed to operate in at least eight African countries, where it largely provides combat services and regime protection to besieged governments—wiping out insurgents without any democratic accountability.
The four countries where Wagner operates unchecked are under a form of autocracy or have a security vacuum—Libya, Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic. The Malian army and what’s suspected to be Wagner forces are accused of the massacre of at least 500 people. In Sudan, Wagner operatives were linked to the training of Sudanese soldiers and the supply of weapons to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). And in the Central African Republic, Wagner mercenaries train troops and protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra from insurgents looking to oust him.
The United States has stepped up sanctions against Wagner, labeling it a transnational criminal organization, but has failed to limit the group’s expansion in Africa. While U.S. efforts may be well intentioned, there is a perception on the continent that, together with an inconsistent policy on democratization, U.S. officials see Africa as a chessboard on which to counter Russia and China.
“Russia is interested in a kind of authoritarian solidarity—transactional, rules-free type of international order, where you can run around invading your smaller neighbor should you see fit,” said Michelle Gavin, an expert on U.S.- Africa relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But I always worry in the context of these conversations that it quickly leads to this notion that U.S. policy should be driven by an attempt to counter Russia as the overriding priority.”
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin has been accused by the U.S. State Department of using Russian disinformation to co-opt pan-African voices to promote anti-French and anti-Western messages. “The Russian propaganda that exists can be seen as an open door for Moscow,” said Nathaniel Powell, Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica.
“Nobody is discounting Russian misinformation,” said Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at Development Reimagined. But portraying it as a “primary driver” of anti-Western sentiment “is as insulting as it is wrong because we’ve had over a decade of French and European-led solutions. Meanwhile Burkina Faso has lost 40 percent of its territory in the same period.”
“The Russians do very opportunistically seize on areas where there have been poor policy results,” said Gavin, who served as U.S. ambassador to Botswana and senior director for Africa on former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “We should recognize how it does present opportunities for actors like Russia when we’re continuing to try policies that just aren’t delivering.”
Russia’s success in Africa is partly driven by tapping into domestic instead of global politics. Western powers ignored horrific atrocities committed by Malian soldiers and affiliated militias. This drove “people right into the hands of jihadists who could then claim to be protecting local communities against a predatory state, and the French were for a long time affiliated with that state,” Powell said.
It’s as important to publicize atrocities committed by Wagner and by state actors. In Burkina Faso, U.S. officials have made various trips to seek assurances that the junta will not employ Wagner, but they have been rather more silent on atrocities being committed by government soldiers.
Chad has become a crucial base for French and U.S. counterinsurgency operations, but its violent authoritarian government is deeply unpopular. “You can kill as many terrorists as you want, but if you are doing it in support of governments whose policies create jihadists then you are just brewing the problem,” Powell said.
In measures to counter Russia, the United States has increasingly shared intelligence with African allies. Leaked documents revealed that the United States shared intelligence with Chadian authorities that Prigozhin was allegedly working with Chadian rebels to assassinate President Mahamat Déby Itno, who seized power in a military coup in April 2021 following the death of his father.
Déby’s rule has been fiercely opposed by pro-democracy groups in the country, leading to a deadly crackdown by the military government. “Just because Russian forces are reportedly trying to overthrow the government in Chad doesn’t mean that others should embrace a government that killed 128 people,” former Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in a tweet in March.
Washington must think creatively about how to counter Russia and Wagner in a way that does not alienate African civil society groups. “We should explain why our position is what it is, why our policies are what they are,” Gavin said, while rejecting the “notion of chastising other societies or suggesting that they need to choose sides.”
It’s important that policies do not inadvertently shore up governments that act against civilians’ democratic wishes, as they have in Sudan and Burkina Faso.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, May 17: United Nations agencies launch a Revised Humanitarian Response Plan and the Regional Refugee Response Plan for Sudan.
Wednesday, May 17, to Thursday, May 18: Sierra Leone’s minister of foreign affairs, David J. Francis, continues a visit to China on a trip that began Monday.
A court in Johannesburg is scheduled to hear South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s application to dismiss a private suit brought against him by former President Jacob Zuma. The private prosecution is in relation to Zuma’s trial for alleged corruption.
Wednesday, May 17, to Friday, May 19: Regional bloc East African Community convenes a meeting of its technical working group on climate change in Bujumbura, Burundi. The meeting began Sunday.
Trial of former Rwanda police officer Philippe Hategekimana continues in Paris, France. Hategekimana is accused of taking part in the Rwandan genocide.
Monday, May 22, to Friday, May 26: Annual meetings of the board of governors of the African Development Bank and the African Development Fund takes place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
What We’re Watching
U.S.-South Africa spat. The South African rand fell to a record low against the dollar on Friday after U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accused the country of supplying weapons to Russia. Brigety said he “would bet [his] life on the accuracy of that assertion.” The dispute escalated quickly, with one South African minister suggesting to public broadcaster SABC that South Africa could not “be bullied by the U.S.” and its “megaphone diplomacy.” “They must not drag us into their issues with Russia,” Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, a minister in the presidency, told SABC.
South Africa’s foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain himself, after which Brigety seemed to walk back some of his comments, posting on Twitter that he was “grateful” to speak with South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, “and correct any misimpressions” but stopped short of retracting his claims. The U.S. State Department released a vague statement that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with Pandor, during which he “underscored the importance of the U.S.-South Africa strategic partnership.”
In a statement that sounded like a cooling off, Ramaphosa said on Monday his government would not take sides in what he said was “in effect a contest between Russia and the West.”
South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, said in a statement posted on Twitter that Pretoria had not approved any arms sales to Russia and Ramaphosa had launched an independent inquiry. He did not clarify whether an unapproved consignment could have taken place. Adding fuel to the fire, South Africa’s army chief went ahead with a pre-planned bilateral visit to Russia shortly after the spat over the shipments. According to Russian wire services, the delegation discussed “issues relating to military cooperation and interaction.”
The governing African National Congress (ANC) often cites its historic ties with Moscow because the then-Soviet Union supported anti-apartheid movements while the U.S. government designated the ANC a terrorist organization. But in the present day, being Russia’s friend comes with few benefits. South Africa is Africa’s largest U.S. trading partner. And if the country is found to have violated U.S. sanctions against Russia, Washington could impose sanctions on Pretoria or suspend the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act preferential trade program.
Sudan conflict. Sudan’s army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has frozen bank accounts of the rival paramilitary RSF in an escalation of the conflict between the two parties. Following talks mediated by the United States and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, Sudan’s warring generals agreed on May 12 to protect civilians and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the deal did not amount to a cease-fire.
“The absence of any civilian voice at the table in Jeddah makes it another closed-door deal between the two parties who started the war,” Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, former assistant chief of staff to Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, wrote in the Africa Report. The United Nations said the fighting has displaced close to one million people.
Nigeria elections. Five residents in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, have filed a petition at Nigeria’s Federal High Court asking to stop the inauguration of President-elect Bola Tinubu. The petition argues that Tinubu was illegally declared the winner because he failed to win at least 25 percent of the votes cast in the capital territory. They said their petition is on behalf of all Abuja residents. It’s the latest in a series of court challenges to the governing All Progressives Congress’s win. Nigeria’s presidential election outcomes are regularly challenged in court, but none have yet been overturned. Tinubu’s allies have warned protesters not to disrupt his inauguration on May 29.
This Week in Tech
Burundi now has the world’s only capital city, Gitega, powered 100 percent by solar energy during the daytime. (In 2019, the country moved its capital from Bujumbura to the city of Gitega.)
Burundi has pledged to double the capacity of its Mubuga solar farm, which opened in 2021 as a 7.5 megawatt power plant, providing the first solar energy source from an independent power producer to be connected to the Burundian grid.
The plant was built by Gigawatt Global, and when first drawn up in 2015, Mubuga, a village in Gitega province, had never had electricity. The power station is in part a product of international financing—supported by a consortium including the U.K. government, the Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries, and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.
Burundi ranks as one of the world’s least electrified countries, with almost 12 percent of the population as of 2020 having access to electricity, according to the latest World Bank data. Modern energy remains inaccessible across the country’s rural areas, as much of it is consumed in cities.
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- Russian Guerrillas Are Trying to Violently Overthrow Putin. by Anchal Vohra
What We’re Reading
South Africa’s misguided anti-imperialism. In Africa Is a Country, William Shoki argues that South Africa’s professed nonalignment stance and pivot to the East is neither coherent nor materially beneficial. The ANC government should instead prioritize its efforts on removing domestic inequalities. “Even after colonialism has ended, at least in the form that existed when the ANC’s mission was first conceived, Africa’s oldest liberation movement continues to define itself ideologically and politically as contributing to anticolonial struggle,” he writes. “Support for Russia is the outcome of the ANC’s commitment to a narrow version of nonalignment informed by its own, internal conception of global power relations, one that fixes the U.S. and the West into a transhistorical adversary of liberation.”
A health worker exodus ban? In Context News, Bukola Adebayo reports on a significant rise in locally trained nurses from across Africa leaving to work in the U.K. public health system, resulting in dire shortages in their countries of origin.
The two countries most affected are Zimbabwe and Nigeria. According to Nigeria’s nursing union, more than 11,000 of its 150,000 members had left the workforce since the COVID-19 pandemic to seek better pay abroad. More than 4,000 doctors and nurses have left Zimbabwe since 2021. One cancer nurse specialist who was emigrating said her monthly Nigerian salary was 100,000 naira ($135), which was hard to live on. But she has been recruited to work in the United Kingdom, where she could earn 20 times that amount.
The Zimbabwean government is looking to criminalize foreign recruitment of its health care staff. Meanwhile, Nigerian lawmakers are considering bills to withhold licenses from health care professionals until they have practiced in the country for at least five years.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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