In 2018, the candidates lined up at the Bangui stadium to compete for the title of Miss Central African Republic (CAR). As they paraded, a new powerhouse on the regional scene was also doing its best to woo onlookers. With walls adorned with Russian flags, the Kremlin’s sponsorship of CAR’s first beauty pageant in three years marked a showy attempt by President Vladimir Putin to extend Russia’s soft power on the continent.
While the focus remains on Ukraine after Moscow’s invasion, Africa has for some time been a second front in Putin’s confrontation with the West and cannot be ignored. With 17 African countries abstaining and 1 voting against the March 2 UN resolution condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine, the scale of Putin’s decade-long charm offensive becomes apparent. . A new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change shows how Russia is rekindling Soviet-era ties with African states to extract resources from the region and, in return, become a security provider. Putin now seems to view Africa as an arena for his imperialist ambition and hopes to steer the continent away from Western influence.
Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and abounds in natural resources. But the challenges facing much of the continent – poverty, inflation and deep inequality – overwhelm many governments’ abilities to serve their people, leading to instability. African leaders are seeking various avenues of support, with Russia emerging as their versatile new ally.
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It is a relationship based on paradox. Russia has a vested interest in the deployment of private military contractors (PMCs) in the region. So, instead of bringing peace, it feeds on instability in African states and volatility among African leaders.
Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russian PMCs have deployed in at least 19 African countries. One of them, the Wagner Group, has been tasked with operations ranging from protecting business assets and fighting Islamist terrorists to suppressing anti-government uprisings. In Sudan, at least 500 Wagner men were deployed in 2017 to train the infamous Rapid Support Forces, as well as to fight rebels who opposed President Omar al-Bashir. In Libya, Wagner provided military support to General Khalifa Haftar in his bid to oust the Western-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Wagner also formed a group of mercenary rebels who last year killed Chadian President Idriss Deby.
PMC’s operations are related to the extraction of natural resources. Following Wagner’s support of al-Bashir, gold mining licenses were awarded to a company believed to be linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s alleged founder. In a similar vein, the CAR granted gold and diamond mining licenses to another of Prigozhin’s companies, after Wagner deployed to train his army and provide personal security for embattled President Faustin- Archangel Touadera. (Prigozhin has regularly denied any connection to Wagner.)
Protesters hold a banner reading “Merci Wagner”, the name of the Russian private security company in Mali, during a celebration of the French military withdrawal, Bamako, February 19, 2022.
FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images
The Russian Threat to Democracy in Africa
With the American and French military withdrawal from Africa, Russia is seeking to prove itself as an alternative. Its deployment to Mali in December 2021 demonstrated the rapid support that Moscow is able to offer struggling regimes. But Russia also exerts influence from within. Since Putin’s embrace of the region over the past decade, political strategists have been dispatched to African governments, including those of CAR and Madagascar, to advise their leaders. Funding pro-Russian TV stations in Africa, election interference – even, indeed, sponsorship of beauty pageants – are other methods of influencing sentiment among Africans.
The receptivity of some African leaders to Russian overtures is a threat to liberal democratic reforms. The growing trend of seeking PMC support to address security challenges, as Russian influence grows among African societies, is a clear indicator of a growing authoritarian footprint on the continent.
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The West must take this into account. China has long overtaken Western countries to become the largest investor in Africa, while the presence of Western troops in conflict-affected countries has not been sufficient to ensure Africa’s peace and security. The region needs sustained support, militarily and economically. If the West cannot supply it, it will lose ground.
African abstentions in the UN vote to condemn Russian action in Ukraine show that the West must not take its engagement with Africa for granted. Romanticism of democracy is not enough; in-depth and long-term political action and relationship-building with African states is essential. As Africa and Russia reassess their place on the world stage, now is the time for the West to renew its commitment to the continent. Contests are not won by wallflowers.
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