Mercenaries in the Sahel: Russia flatters Africa’s coup leaders


As of: April 17, 2024 2:06 p.m

Russia is constantly expanding its influence in Africa. Since the Wagner troupe was renamed the “Afrikakorps,” its importance there has actually increased. A few days ago, around 100 soldiers arrived in the Sahel state of Niger.

By Kai Küstner, currently Rabat

The message could hardly have been clearer: “Down with US imperialism,” shouted the demonstrators who marched through the streets of Niger’s capital Niamey last weekend. The unmistakable demand of the supporters of the Nigerien military regime: The Americans should withdraw their approximately 1,000 soldiers from the country and close their drone base, which is strategically important in the fight against terrorism.

What a contrast to the goodwill that greeted the arrival of the first Russian soldiers in Niger just two days before. Government-controlled state television showed an Ilyushin 76 transport plane unloading material on the tarmac in Niamey at night. And two white men with hats and uniforms who had their camouflage scarves pulled over their mouths in cowboy style: “We are here to train the Nigerien army,” explains one of the men. The aim is to further develop military cooperation between Russia and Niger.

“It was just a matter of time”

So there it was, proof visible and audible to all the world that, after Mali and Burkina Faso, Moscow would now also leave its footprint or military boot print in the third Sahel state ruled by putschists. In Niger, around 100 Bundeswehr soldiers are currently waiting at an air transport base, the future of which has not yet been finally decided.

From the point of view of analyst Nicodemus Minde from the Institute for Security Studies, it was only a matter of time that Russia would extend its influence to Niger: “If you look at the latest studies on Russian disinformation campaigns, the research shows how much Russia has already had influenced the military coup.”

At the end of July 2023, the presidential guard seized power in Niger, meaning that Germany, France and Europe lost one of their supposedly most reliable partners in the Sahel almost overnight.

Russia flatters authoritarian states

An entire region is folding its arms in front of the West – and opening them to Russia. What’s in it for Moscow, which has been trying to free itself from international isolation since the start of the war of aggression against Ukraine, is obvious: “A kind of competition is taking place between the great powers, which is taking place globally, but also here on the continent – between Russia, France, the USA, the European Union and China,” explains Minde.

It is a power struggle that takes place ideologically and economically. Moscow has been active in Central Africa for a long time, as well as in Libya. From Minde’s perspective, Russia is seeking to expand into Africa using an aggressive charm offensive. Recently, it has primarily flattered authoritarian-led states.

Since the coup governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger alienated themselves from their European partners at record speed, the Kremlin obviously saw an opportunity to fill this gap and at the same time take a swipe at the Europeans. But, Ulf Laessing, who heads the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Bamako, Malia, points out: “The Russians don’t do anything for free. Unlike us with development aid.”

Essentially, it is a barter deal that the Russian mercenaries are offering the putschists: We will help you in the fight against the terrorist militias. But above all: We ensure that you stay in power. In return, you reward us with money and natural resources.

Photos recently circulated of Russian mercenaries who secured a gold mine in northern Mali, in Gao – exactly where the Bundeswehr was stationed until mid-December.

Disappointment with the West and the UN

Looking back, the West now faces the unpleasant question of whether it did not, in a certain sense, act as a door opener for Russian forces: “There is a big debate about who actually let whom down,” says Vincent Foucher from the Crisis Group think tank. Even if they ensured a certain degree of stability, the Bundeswehr and the UN peacekeepers were unable to prevent the spread of Al-Qaeda and IS terrorists in Mali.

The Malian army also repeatedly complained that it was neither receiving the weapons it needed nor that UN troops were fighting alongside them in the fight against terrorists. The Blue Helmet mission didn’t even provide for that – but that’s exactly what the Russian mercenaries are doing. With fatal consequences and without regard for civilians: Organizations like Human Rights Watch accuse the mercenaries of massive human rights violations and even systematic killings in Mali.

Does the presence pay off for Russia?

Despite all this, the renaming of the mercenaries formerly known as the “Wagner” troops to the “Africa Corps” after the death of their boss Yevgeny Prigozhin does not seem to have done any harm to Russian activities in Africa. On the contrary – the expansion to Niger with initially around 100 men is the best proof of this.

The fact that the ex-Wagner soldiers are now directly and officially subordinate to the Ministry of Defense in Moscow is an advantage from the Sahel states’ perspective, says Ulf Laessing: “Mali never wanted to have anything to do with mercenaries. The same applies in Burkina Faso “The government only decided to work with the new Afrika Korps when it officially became part of the Russian state.”

However, this also poses a certain risk for Moscow: in the event of new human rights violations, it will no longer be as easy as before to pretend that it officially has nothing to do with the soldiers on site.

A completely different question is whether the new friendship will pay off for the coup governments in the long term: Getting the terrorism problem under control is a Sisyphean task that around 1,000 Russian mercenaries in Mali will hardly be able to manage. And the number of attacks has also recently risen sharply in Niger.

So there is no guarantee that people and governments in the Sahel will not become alienated from Moscow at some point. For now, however, the Russian footprint is expanding at the same rate as the European one is shrinking.

Kai Küstner, NDR, currently Rabat, tagesschau, April 16, 2024 6:00 p.m

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