There is a growing audience for Russia’s anti-Western rhetoric and pragmatic approach to foreign relations in Africa and its influence on the continent is set to increase. This can be seen in West and Central Africa, where insecurity and political instability have led to a crisis in confidence in the democratic system, which, when combined with the decline of French influence in the region, has provided Russia with the opportunity to make significant inroads; a development which will have economic and security implications for the region.
In recent years, the West and Central African regions have been beset by presidents running for unconstitutional third terms, disputed elections, repression of opposition parties, societal unrest and jihadist terrorism, all of which have eroded trust in the democratic system of government. Significantly, as detailed on our Africa Integrity Insights blog earlier this year, there are even signs of this erosion in Benin and Senegal, which have long been considered models of democracy and stability in a restive region. This growing trend has led to a return of the military to the political sphere, with successful military takeovers in Guinea, Mali and Chad, attempted coups in Guinea-Bissau and Niger, and an armed rebellion in the Central African Republic (CAR), all taking place in 2021. In the case of Mali, there were two coups in less than a year, raising serious doubts about the country’s transition back to democracy.
This re-politicisation of the region’s militaries has not gone unnoticed, especially as a number of countries look to be increasingly susceptible to such action. This was recently illustrated by Gambian President Adama Barrow, who has asked Senegal to send troops to the country to ensure the security of next month’s presidential election, instead of relying on his own security apparatus. And, importantly, as has been seen in Mali and Guinea, there is domestic appetite for such military interventions; a development which has placed a strain on relationships with Western partners.
This is especially pronounced in the relationship between France and Mali, which has rapidly deteriorated since the coup in May 2021. The coup acted as a catalyst; however, the breakdown in relations between these two countries is due to a broader structural change: the decline in Françafrique. There have been long-standing suspicions about French economic and military involvement in its former colonies in West and Central Africa, which has transformed into rising anti-French sentiment in recent years. This has been evident in protests over the continued use of the CFA Franc, as well as anti-government demonstrations in various countries, including Mali and Senegal. While President Emmanuel Macron has attempted to reform France’s relationship with its former colonies, he has not been able to alter France’s image in the region. Much like his predecessors, he has been accused of hypocrisy and continues to face criticism for his reliance on personal relationships with certain leaders, even if their democratic credentials have been called into question.
Alongside this growing hostility in the region, there is waning support for France’s continued military presence in West and Central Africa from within France. Macron is facing opposition from across France’s political spectrum on this issue and, with a tough election approaching next year, he announced that the French-led military operation in the Sahel (Operation Barkhane) will end in the first quarter of 2022, which will halve the number of French troops in the region and leave a significant security vacuum.
Russia looks set to take advantage of this situation and fill the vacuum left by France. As outlined in our October 2019 newsletter, Russia has strengthened its relationship with Africa in recent years, with the security sector being its primary focus. It is now the largest arms exporter to the continent, and it has military cooperation agreements in place with 30 African countries, a number of which have experienced problems in buying arms from the West because of human rights concerns. Alongside this formal engagement, there has also been an expansion in the activities of a private military company with ties to the Kremlin – Wagner Group – which has been involved in conflicts in Libya, Sudan, Mozambique and CAR, and is close to securing an agreement with the Malian government. The Wagner Group has an infamous reputation and has been accused of committing atrocities in the conflicts in which it has been engaged, where it is often perceived as a destabilising force. This is especially the case in CAR, where the company’s presence has also enabled Russia to gain influence in government circles and helped Russian companies to secure mining interests; a strategy which is likely to be repeated in Mali and elsewhere.
Russia has positioned itself as a pragmatic alternative to Western partners, emphasising its disinterest in democracy and human rights, whilst stoking anti-Western feelings in the region. This has been particularly effective in Francophone West and Central Africa, where it has exploited pre-existing anti-French sentiments through social media campaigns. As the trust in democracy continues to be eroded in this region, military interventions will become more common, increasing the number of autocratic regimes, which are likely to welcome approaches from Russia. As a result, Russia looks set to increase its influence in the region. This will start in the security sphere and will likely have a destabilising effect, before extending into access to natural resources, as has been the case in CAR.
This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s November 2021 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.