Has Africa become a new cold war battle ground between the Russian Wagner mercenaries and western armies?
This is a question that African experts tried to answer during an online discussion on Twitter Spaces recently.
“One of the serious medium and long-term challenges facing Africa and the African Union is the proliferation of foreign military armies and bases established on the continent by alien powers. These have the potential to threaten national and continental sovereignty, and provoke international conflict on the continent,” said Cameroon’s foremost political scientist, Immanuel Tatah Mentan in an interview with Timescape Magazine.
“There has been a substantial increase in the size and extent of foreign military presence in Africa after 9/11, largely because of the self-seeking actions of foreign powers and their eagerness to project influence on the continent. However, their presence is clearly indicative of important gaps in Africa’s responses to prevailing peace and security challenges, especially threats originating from groups impatient with the tendency toward strongman repressive rule,” he explained.
While French troops have been chased away from countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Wagner-the Russian mercenaries, is taking up the space, and expanding its presence in several African countries, including Cameroon, the CAR, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
1,890 so-called “Russian instructors” are supporting the CAR government troops in the ongoing civil war, according to the Russian Ambassador.
The group is also found in Lybia, with its 1,200 members there fighting on behalf of rebel leader Khalifa Hifter.
In Mali, hundreds of Wagner fighters, backing the military junta, have, however, been accused of gross human rights violations.
But the Wagner Group’s presence in Africa extends much further, experts say.
“Wagner itself has developed over time as an organization that’s gone from being a purely private military contracting entity into a multiplicity of business alliances and relations, and a network of companies. Some of them front companies across the countries in which they operate on the African continent,” analyst Julian Rademeyer said in an interview.
The group’s presence in Africa has been both welcomed and loathed by experts across the continent.
International Relations expert from Burkina Faso, Lassane Oedraogo said during Friday’s Twitter Spaces that his country is more than ready to welcome the Russian paramilitary force.
“… we are fighting and doing everything for the government to bring them [Wagner] as soon as possible. We are tired of crying every day, we are tired of mourning every hour that passes, because of what’s happening.”
He said French troops in Burkina Faso as in Mali had failed and it was time to turn to Russia.
That enthusiasm builds from what is perceived as Wagner’s successes in countries where they have established. He said Wagner had reduced hostilities in Mali in significant ways, far overshadowing the French who were rather complicit in the terrorist attacks in that country. Wagner is also seen to have largely succeeded in ending the conflict in the CAR.
But there is a price to pay. One expert from Zimbabwe said that “Russia has become the last standing option for this desperate African continent which has exhausted all their loans and their lending ability. Nobody wants to lend them money and today they know they have to make a deal with the Devil. And it’s unfortunate that the people who are doing these deals are not considering us in the equation.”
But Wagner has faced a wave of criticism. It stands accused of gross human rights violations. But Ismail Lutta of Kenya believes it’s not enough reason to crucify them.
“When we are talking about private military security, we had Black Water in the US which was fighting in Iraq and did a lot of atrocities. I’m not yet convinced that WAGNER has arrived at that level of notoriety characteristic of Black Water. So, let’s give it time and observe, but the good thing is that Africa can choose its military partner that it can work with, because the French were taking it for a ride.”
The recourse to Russia by many African countries is, however, seen as an escape route by African dictators who don’t want Western scrutiny of their misbehavior according to rights defender, Sage Mkali.
“The dictators, tossed by the West now want to switch camp to both the Russians and Chinese because they will never tell them anything about human rights; they will never bother them about all the corruption and the mess they are causing in their own countries. It’s very convenient for them to side with the Russians and Chinese in order to stay a bit longer.”
But for some experts, the presence of western armies and Wagner in Africa has less to do with security, and more to do with the economy. They say the military interventions are meant to blind public scrutiny of the theft of Africa’s natural resources by the West. Besides, the presence of military forces are just the trees that hide the forest, according to Oyitte Emmanuel – a Lawyer from Uganda.
“There are groups which are more dangerous than the Wagner group. There are soft powers-we are looking at the Coca-Cola and the Pepsi. These guys control the economy in Africa. I remember at one time, Obama called the African leaders and told them that he is going to give them assistance through Coca-Cola-just one company called Coca-Cola, and that shows you that Coca-Cola might be bigger than Sub Saharan Africa in terms of its big economy and global impact. That is why they will continue to poke their nose in our elections, and they will always direct how you must handle your internal affairs.”
The experts, however, agree on one thing: that Africa’s salvation won’t come from dependence on foreign armies or mercenaries. It’s incumbent on the African Union to take up its responsibility by coming up with a strong stand-by force that should intervene anywhere trouble brews across the continent.