Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Russian Wagner Group, expressed on a Telegram channel on 27 July that the recent military coup in the West African state of Niger was good news, saying that “what happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers… Colonisers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and keep them in the state that Africa was in, hundreds of years ago.”
Not only does Prigozhin’s statement raise questions, but the raising of the Russian flag as a means to denounce France, as has happened since the coup in Niger, also raises several issues. What significance does Africa hold for the Wagner Group? Is there a connection between the Wagner Group and the events unfolding in Niger? And why is the Wagner Group apparently expanding its presence in Africa in exchange for a French withdrawal?
Prigozhin’s message demonstrates Wagner’s interest in Africa and indicates that Niger holds a prominent place for it as it steps in to replace traditionally influential countries, such as France and Britain, in Africa.
Russia’s presence in several African countries, particularly those experiencing armed conflicts like Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and Niger, has been notable. However, direct interference by Russia in the affairs of these countries has been limited due to international law, as well as the complex dynamics of the other international powers involved in the conflicts.
The Wagner Group has emerged as an instrument for Russia to advance its political interests and establish relations with various African nations from multiple perspectives, such as by providing security, military support, and economic services.
According to a 2021 report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Wagner Group’s activity has increased seven-fold, expanding from operating in four countries in 2015 to 27 in 2021.
Its presence has become more prevalent and widespread across Africa. Western intelligence reports suggest that there are over 15,000 Wagner fighters openly deployed in six African countries: Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Madagascar, and Mozambique.
The Wagner Group gained prominence after the rebellion against the Russian military leadership in June, displaying its increased ambitions. This was further supported by a report on the US Website Stratfor on 19 July, which mentioned that Prigozhin, in a video clip, had outlined his group’s new path in Africa.
Despite the group’s failed rebellion in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, its activity in Africa continues.
According to the Stratfor report, the Wagner Group’s presence in Africa has expanded, with an increase in the number of its forces observed in three African countries: Mali, the Central African Republic, and Burkina Faso.
The report also speculates that the group might enter Ghana and Cameroon in the near future. It is possible that its presence in Libya alongside General Khalifa Haftar could create complications, aiming to divert the efforts of the Western powers. It may do more to support the extension of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Hemedti (Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo) in Sudan, with the intention of prolonging the conflict and potentially gaining access to the Red Sea.
The Wagner Group’s establishment served a deliberate purpose – to facilitate Russian ambitions in Africa across the political, economic, and military spheres. Politically, it aims to break free from European and US constraints in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, while also seeking a respite from the pressure of Western sanctions against Russia through a pivot towards Africa.
Russia has held two recent summits with the African nations – one in Sochi in 2019 and another in St Petersburg in July this year. These summits have been complemented by frequent visits from Russian officials to various African countries. The BRICS Forum, set to convene in South Africa this August and bringing together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, has attracted interest from several African nations eager to join its ranks, including Egypt, Senegal, Algeria, Nigeria, and Morocco.
Conversely, during a UN vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s actions in the Ukraine conflict, 15 African nations abstained. Eritrea and Mali aligned with Russia by rejecting the resolution. No African nation has advocated anti-Russian sanctions at sessions of the UN General Assembly.
African markets have emerged as viable alternatives for Russian goods, particularly energy exports. According to the US ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, Russian oil exports to Africa have surged 14-fold compared to pre-Ukrainian war levels from early 2022 to the end of the first quarter in 2023. Russian exports to Africa reached approximately 18 billion euros in 2022.
Russia is also the primary arms supplier in Africa. From 2010 to 2020, Moscow established military cooperation agreements with 19 African nations, including Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, and Mali.
Collaboration between Russia and the African nations also extends to the realm of food security. With Russia being the world’s foremost grain exporter, it continues to engage with African countries in this crucial domain. A significant commitment was made during the African-Russian Summit held in St Petersburg in July, when Russia pledged to provide free wheat to six African countries while also offering preferential pricing to others.
Niger’s strategic location renders it important to Moscow. It serves as an extension of Russian influence across the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Algeria, countries with which Russia has previously forged agreements. Moscow seeks to counteract French influence in Niger, viewing this as a crucial trade-off for addressing the French and Western stance in the Ukrainian conflict.
For France, Niger has a pivotal role as a base for French forces withdrawing from nations like the Central African Republic, Mali, and Burkina Faso, where French military bases were stationed. Additionally, Niger’s strategic location empowers France to address issues such as illegal immigration originating from the Sub-Saharan African nations towards European shores.
It also allows France to effectively monitor Niger’s borders with Libya, a significant source of weaponry for extremist groups. French nuclear power plants heavily rely on Niger for about 40 per cent of their uranium supplies, which are crucial for their operations.
The US media dismissed any involvement of the Wagner Group in the events unfolding in Niger on 31 July. However, there is evidence that suggests the potential role of Wagner in the situation in the country.
Activities orchestrated by Wagner in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic appear to have played a significant role in shaping the events in Niger. The leadership of the Niger military seems to have drawn inspiration from these prior instances and applied similar tactics on their own soil.
Reports indicate that Niger’s military leadership is engaged in communication with the newly established military leaderships in Mali and Burkina Faso about coordinated strategies for unfolding developments.
The French response to the desire of these countries to see French forces withdraw from Niger without causing unrest raises suspicions. Despite being aware that Wagner forces have been introduced as replacements for the departing troops, France has allowed such withdrawals to proceed. France exited Mali and the Central African Republic in 2022 and Burkina Faso in 2023.
Wagner employs a multifaceted approach to achieve its goals, including covert operations, disinformation campaigns, propaganda dissemination, agent recruitment, and establishing extensive networks of contacts among military, economic, and political leaders.
For the new military leadership in Niger, Wagner is a valuable tool that it can wield to its advantage.
This is especially true since the country’s leaders have openly acknowledged utilising Wagner’s expertise to carry out various security and military tasks. The moral support extended by Burkina Faso and Mali, both of which have replaced French forces with Wagner forces in analogous situations, further emboldens Niger’s leaders to use it.
China and Russia, allied powers, are actively expanding their influence across Africa through economic, political, and military avenues. This expansion aligns with their efforts to counter the dominance of Western influence, particularly that of the US.
This broader geopolitical context suggests that the situation in Niger is not merely an isolated internal conflict, but rather a manifestation of external manoeuvring with internal agents also at work.
The recent attack on the French Embassy in Niger, followed by the raising of the Russian flag, exemplifies the complexities of these external influences impacting internal dynamics.
The writer is a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly