To Counter Russia In Africa, America Should Rethink Its Own Role
Retired Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks and Gen. Sembé Bobo don’t have a lot in common. Hicks led U.S. Special Operations Command, Africa, from 2017 to 2019. Bobo, on the other hand, commands 3R, an armed militia in the Central African Republic. Nevertheless, the two men are on record raising similar concerns about one thing — Russian influence in Africa. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Hicks declared that a “twenty-first century ‘scramble for Africa’ is underway.” “Russia and China,” he and his co-authors wrote, “are ramping up economic and military activity on the continent at the same time as the United States is scaling back.” A few weeks later, Bobo argued, “We know that the Russians will destroy everything before they leave. A country invaded by the Russians never recovers.”
Hicks and Bobo represent opposite ends of the geopolitical power spectrum. Nevertheless, both use the threatening narrative of “Russia in Africa” to acquire political support, legitimacy, and economic resources. Both collapse multiple “Russias” into a one-dimensional foe to advance their own goals — for Hicks this was greater U.S. engagement in Africa, for Bobo it was potential U.S. support for his forces.
Russia’s role in Africa is by no means benign, and Washington would do well to counter some Russian activities on the continent. But to do so effectively, policymakers should understand that relations between Russians and Africans are far from monolithic and that no single Kremlin “playbook” for Africa exists. Certain Russian individuals, often with ties to government, help undermine good governance, rule of law, and human rights in certain states. But many Russian companies are attracted to African markets for the same reason as other foreigner investors. Ultimately, Russia’s Africa policy is as, if not more, driven by elite interests as it is by geopolitics.
The United States, therefore, should reject the impulse to see a state hand behind all Russian-linked mercenary and economic activities, or worse, imagine Russians where they are not. It should also recognize that countering Kremlin policies in Africa will require more than just criticism. If Washington chooses to counter Moscow’s “return” in countries like the Central African Republic or Libya, it should prioritize engagement with citizens, not local elites. Russian activities in these countries undermine human rights. The U.S. government in turn should offer citizens economic investment, conflict resolution, more student visas, support for civil society, and a vocal defense of independent journalists.
Ultimately, none of these measures will be enough to counter Russia’s overall presence in Africa if the United States doesn’t also work to correct its own inconsistencies, especially its support for authoritarian governments in the fight against jihadist insurgencies. This means paying more than mere lip service to democracy and human rights. The U.S. government should instead reconcile its own efforts to combat violent extremism in Africa with the values it promotes to counter Russia’s illiberalism. With its current approach, the United States cannot “win” both great-power competition and the “War on Terror” in Africa.
Before trying to counter Moscow’s involvement in Africa, it is important to understand the range of motives behind it. Elite interests, both from private individuals and the leaders of state-owned enterprises close to President Vladimir Putin, draw Russia to Africa. These business opportunities provide both revenue for large state-owned companies — good for elites — and support for jobs back home — good for Putin’s popularity. Western sanctions have also helped drive Russia’s return to Africa, even if African markets do not make up for lost European ones. Moscow is eager to tout its return to Africa as a sign of renewed great-power status. But the fact remains that as a means of placating sanctioned elites and providing jobs to ordinary citizens, Russia’s return to Africa is a sign of Moscow’s political isolation and economic weakness, not a sign of strength.
For local African elite the arrival of well-connected Russians offers many benefits. First, it provides an opportunity to diversify economic partners. In the words of one observer, many African governments are “slowly waking to the realities of China’s murky lending, and long aware of the West’s conditional, and ever scarcer loans.” Second, Russian military equipment is “relatively cheap.” Deals with Moscow aren’t “held up by human rights concerns,” and shipments can occur quickly. Third, and most importantly, new geopolitical rivalries allow local elites to consolidate power domestically and increase their own wealth — a phenomenon scholar Jean-Françoit Bayart labelled extraversion.
The case of the Central African Republic perhaps best illustrates how individual Russian interests, narratives about Russia’s new assertiveness, and local elite extraversion come together. Following the withdrawal of French forces from the Central African Republic in 2016, and U.S. special forces in 2017, country expert Nathalie Dukhan noted that President Faustin-Archange Touadéra was “deeply vulnerable to threats of coup and lacked support on the national, regional, and international political scenes.” Moreover, the country was under a U.N. arms embargo. Russia stepped in, securing an exemption and approval for military trainers. Those trainers came from the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Now Wagner facilitates Touadéra’s consolidation of power through presidential protection, security, and training, and receives mining concessions in exchange. Valery Zakharov, Touadéra’s new Russian advisor, denied a U.N. report that he is a Wagner commander.
What About Wagner
Inevitably, Wagner is at the center of any conversation about Russia in Africa. The group is indeed involved in a number of African countries, including Libya, Sudan, and Mozambique. But the relationship between private military commanders like Wagner and the Russian state is fluid. To a large extent the company’s role in Africa reveals the limits of Russian engagement there.
Russia’s official military doctrine, for example, makes no mention of Africa. It focuses instead on countering NATO in Europe and returning to the Middle East. In these regions, and the former Soviet Union, which Moscow considers within its traditional “sphere of influence,” the Russian military itself is Moscow’s preferred means of engagement.
In African countries, by contrast, Moscow’s “military presence” is largely limited to contractors and has enjoyed decidedly mixed success. In December 2020, the Russian government struck a deal with Sudan to establish a small naval base in the country: four ships and 300 personnel. But on April 29, Sudan’s transition government reportedly suspended the agreement. Last year Russia gifted the Central African Republic 10 old BRDM-2 armored vehicles. Three broke down during their inaugural parade. And Prigozhin’s election interference activities in Madagascar were often comically ineffective.
The overwhelming use of private military contractors in Africa shows that the Russian government is interested in Africa so long as its involvement is cheap and if private individuals take the initiative. In the Central African Republic, Wagner finances itself through mineral concessions. This “for-profit self-financing arrangement” lets Russia engage at no cost to the Kremlin. If the Central African Republic were a higher priority for Moscow, Wagner wouldn’t have to support itself.
Analyzing the Wagner Group’s activities in the Central African Republic is useful not because it unveils Putin’s new strategic objectives, but rather because it reveals their limits. The Kremlin tolerates the reputational risk of giving Prigozhin free reign, and in exchange Prigozhin’s opaque operations help reinforce Russia’s preferred foreign policy narrative. This is the concept of derzhavnost, or “great-power status,” which political scientist Seva Gunitsky defines as “being a great power and being recognized as such by others.” The United Nations, where African states represent a quarter of the General Assembly, is one important venue for displaying derzhavnost. But Moscow gets even more benefit from Western media coverage of “Russia in Africa.”
Narrative here takes precedence over substance. As Valery Zakharov told CNN in Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, “We were present in many countries during the time of the Soviet Union, and Russia is coming back to the same position.” This statement is steeped in the ideology of great-power status and provides the narrative scaffolding for various individuals — like Zakharov and Prigozhin — to pursue their interests in Africa. In return, the Kremlin benefits when Western journalists reify Russian derzhavnost in their coverage of Wagner in Central African Republic, arguing that: “Russia is tightening its grip on Africa.”
As the “Russia in Africa” narrative gains power, journalists and analysts risk creating a new boogeyman in Africa, suggesting that behind each unexpected event lurks Russian “influence.” But Russia lacks a plan for Africa, and many of the most destabilizing events in the region have been own-goals on Washington’s part. Therefore, to counter Russia’s multi-dimensional presence in Africa the U.S. government should begin by taking stock of its own policies on the continent, and those of its ally France.
The death of Chadian President Idriss Déby is only the most recent event to call into question Washington and Paris’ choice of partners to promote “stability.” Indeed, extraversion has long defined the U.S. and France’s relationship with Déby’s authoritarian government. Déby made himself an indispensable ally in the War on Terror, and in return, Chad’s allies gave him and his army a free hand to commit human rights abuses. After Déby’s death, Washington’s U.N. ambassador wrote, “Today we remember a leader and a partner who dedicated his life to the fight against violent extremism.” “Absent,” reporter Robbie Gramer remarked, “was any mention of Déby’s checkered human rights record over the course of his three decades of rule.”
Similarly, in the Central African Republic, Russia is not the first international actor to intervene in a destructive way. Both Russian and French proxy wars are a major source of instability in the country, which is currently fighting an active rebellion in the countryside against armed groups with historic ties to France’s ally Chad. Most recently, reports have leaked that France has decided to withhold traditional budgetary support for Touadéra’s government because of Russia’s growing influence within it. Paris is aware that this would potentially send the country into a fiscal crisis at a time when almost one in three Central Africans is displaced. If the United States plans to effectively counter Russian influence in countries like this, it should understand the colonial and post-colonial context. Russia has been popular among many Central Africans because they judge Russia in relation to France.
How Should the United States Respond?
What would a better set of policies look like in practice? First, rather than lure local elites and authoritarian governments away from Russia — which only fuels extraversion — Washington should seek positive engagement with African societies at large. Instead of helping the Kremlin line the pockets of local elite, the United States should promote small to medium-sized investment in Africa. Instead of assessing barriers, Congress should create legislation that incentivizes partnerships between African and U.S. companies. With the African Continental Free Trade Area coming into effect, Gyude Moore and Bogolo Kenewendo argue the Biden administration has a unique “opportunity to strengthen its strategic partnership with Africa by driving investment toward” the treaty.
Second, America can capitalize on Russia’s role in propping up unpopular regimes ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe’s. In the Central African Republic, just a few weeks after his reelection, Touadéra’s government shut down two important media outlets; local journalists suspect the move was in response to coverage of Wagner’s activities. The U.S. government can provide crucial support — grants, advocacy, and training — to the independent journalists and outlets battling disinformation and keeping governments accountable.
Third, Russian mercenaries inevitably commit human rights violations and become unpopular over time. The United States should continue to monitor, and sanction, Prigozhin’s activities. But America should go beyond sanctions. In fragile states like the Central African Republic, the U.S. has a great opportunity to focus on the drivers of conflict. Indeed, investment in conflict resolution and more effective aid is the best way to show that “America is back.”
Ultimately, the United States and its allies cannot have their cake and eat it too. They cannot effectively “counter” Russia’s (or for that matter, China’s) illiberal presence in Africa while pursuing status quo, War on Terror policies to combat Salafi jihadist insurgencies. Correcting these inconsistencies means making deeply difficult, and uncomfortable, changes to policy: sacrificing short-term “stability” — as seen from Washington at least — in favor of democracy’s inherent uncertainty. But it is in the U.S.’ long-term interest to do so. By now Washington should be well aware that “what sows the seeds of extremism and instability in the long run are corrupt, autocratic governments.”
The discourse surrounding “Russia in Africa” is more potent than the reality. But the reality of many Russian actions — violating human rights, undermining good governance, and prolonging conflict — requires a U.S. response. That response, however, should not come at the expense of the values America promotes. Rather, countering Russia in Africa should be an opportunity for the United States and its allies to double down on their own. If the “Russia in Africa” narrative results in positive engagement and rethinking the gaps between rhetoric and practice, then the discourse’s potency may not prove such a bad thing.
For now, however, the “Russia in Africa” narrative risks creating the wrong response. A Chadian citizen holding a painted, pro-Russia sign on the streets N’Djamena is not a sinister omen of future Russian designs. Rather, it is a justifiable display of anger at both the French and U.S. policies that continue to support authoritarianism in his country. The greatest danger is that “Russia in Africa” has already spun a narrative web which can catch and connect these small, disparate events and serve, like the threat of jihadism and Communism before it, as a new excuse for sacrificing human dignity on the altar of superficial stability.
John Lechner is a former financial analyst, now a freelance journalist. He writes on the politics and languages of the former Soviet Union, Turkey, and Africa, with a special focus on the Central African Republic. He speaks Russian, French, Turkish, Georgian, Chechen, and Sango Twitter: @JohnLechner1.
Image: President of Russia