Peace Magazine: Africa Corps Increases Russian Grip on Sahel Region

Peace Magazine

Africa Corps Increases Russian Grip on Sahel Region

• published May 18, 2024 • last edit May 30, 2024

PRIGOZHIN AND HIS WAGNER GROUP ARE GONE. BUT NOW THERE’S THE AFRCIA CORPS.

What had been known as the Wagner Group died with the founder of the organization, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary force has been replaced by a new division of the Russian Defense Department known as the Africa Corps. Like the name of the now defunct “Wagner Group,” which expressed an affinity with Nazi ideology, the new group is named after a Nazi era unit, the Africa Corps, which was led by the German general, Erwin Rommel.

There were a brief five months and three weeks between the deaths of two main foes of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. It was on August 23, 2023, that the founder of the mercenary army, the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin died in the crash of his personal jet in flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, shortly after returning from Africa. He died with other founders of the Wagner Group, most notably Dimitry Utkin. Putin’s democratic foe, Alexy Navalny, died on February 16, 2024 in a Russian Arctic penal colony of what officials termed “Sudden Death Syndrome.”

AN EMPIRE IN THE SAHEL

Prigozhin built for Putin an empire in the Sahel region of Africa in alliance with repressive rulers. This was assembled over a decade. It was built up after his “Little Green Men” played a pivotal war in the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. After the invasion of Ukraine, the organization helped Putin’s regime counter the impact of economic sanctions imposed by most of the democratic world. This was accomplished through the export from Africa of gold, diamonds, other precious minerals, and timber. It later expanded into the sale of Russian consumer goods, notably alcohol.

Prigozhin’s death happened less than a month after the mercenary leader had led a failed three-day-long coup that was carried out with the help of his Wagner Group and dissenting elements of the Russian military. And on February 16, 2024, unexpectedly, the day after he appeared in good health in video images of a trial in his Arctic Siberian prison, Alexy Navalny died at the age of 47.

While their tactics and ideals were quite different, Prigozhin and Navalny were at the times of their death both foes of Putin. Prigozhin was able to induce Russian pilots shoot and kill loyalist troops that threatened to impede his march on Moscow. Navalny designed an app to encourage voters to defeat the strongest candidates opposing Putin’s political machine, United Russia.

In between the two mysterious deaths, Putin consolidated his grip on power in the vast African region known as the Sahel. Most of the 5,000 Wagner fighters, still wearing their official insignia, remain in Africa. Now integrated into the Russian military (Wagner fighters are now considered as part of the Russian National Guard), they have been supplemented in two ways. Russian forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) were doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 through an infusion of new regular troops. There is now, for the first time, a Russian armed presence in Burkina Faso.

On January 24, 2024, a Russian news agency formerly associated with the Wagner Group announced that one hundred Russian troops had landed in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The announcement also disclosed plans to supplement this initial landing with two hundred more troops.

The Russian troops were invited into Burkina Faso by its President Ibrahim Traore. A former 36-year-old captain engaged in battle against Islamic extremist insurgents, Traore came to power in a coup in September 2022. After his coup, Traore suspended civil liberties and closed down the country’s elected legislature. Prigozhin applauded the coup, which immediately followed the expulsion of French troops and United Nations peacekeepers, who had been in Burkina Faso to combat Islamic extremists. Following the coup, civil liberties were suspended and the elected legislature terminated.

The new command for the Russian operation in the Sahel region became evident in a visit of the Russian Military Intelligence General, (GRU), Andrei Averyanov to Bamako, Mali, on September 16, 2023. Here in Mali’s capital, he met with the ministers of defense of three military-ruled dictatorships: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Military rule followed coups that triggered invitations by their presidents to the Wagner Group to send mercenaries.

INSTEAD OF THE FRANC

During Averyanov’s visit, a defense pact between the three military dictatorships of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger was signed and named the “Alliance of Sahel Nations” (AoSS). It commits all three states to come to each other’s defense if any are attacked. The treaty also seeks an economic union between the three states with the goal of a common currency, to be called the “sahel.” It would replace the West African franc, which has served as the regional currency since 1945 before independence of the former French West Africa from France.

The AoSS was triggered by the reaction of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to a military coup in Niger. ECOWAS levelled sanctions and threatened military intervention to restore the ousted civilian democratically elected president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum. His election was the first peaceful transfer of power through the ballot in Niger’s history. An ECOWAS intervention had taken place six years earlier to restore a briefly deposed democratic government in Gambia.

Military intervention to restore democracy in Niger was supported by the strongest state in ECOWAS, Nigeria. It was advocated forcefully by Nigeria’s President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who, during his youth, had taken part in nonviolent resistance against one of the most brutal dictators of African history, Sani Abacha. After Averyanov’s visit and the subsequent AoSS pact’s formation, calls ceased for military intervention in Niger. Tinubu became focused on trying to secure Bazoum’s release from house arrest and exile.

A month after the signing of the AoSS treaty, it became clear that regular Russian troops under the control of General Averyanov would be as ruthless as the mercenaries formerly commanded by the assassinated Prigozhin. The evidence arose when Africa Corp soldiers seized a gold mine in the town of Koki, in the Central African Republic (CAR) Town of Kobi, on October 22, 2023.

Unlike the juntas of the Bamako Pact, the CAR is a democracy, albeit a flawed one. It has opposition members in its legislature and political parties openly compete. Credible international observers have monitored its elections and found them fair.

The CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadera has long been allied with the Wagner Group. After President Touadera invited the Wagner Group to perform, among other tasks, as his personal security force, he abolished term limits for the presidency.

Touadera dismissed Justice Daniele Darlan by decree in October 2023, following his refusal to legitimize the end of term limits through constitutional amendment. Before he was dismissed, the Russian ambassador to CAR attempted to coerce Darlan into resigning. [10]

Touadera has paid for Russian security services through concessions in mining and timber. The Koki incident by Averyanov’s Africa Corps involved the massacre of about fifty civilians to obtain control of a gold mine. Touadera rescinded the mining license for the Nadassima gold mine from the Canadian company Axim. He subsequently awarded it to Midas Resources, a Russian company linked to Prigozhin.

In 2021 Wagner mercenaries began targeting artisanal miners who worked in the Nadassima area, a bleak treeless landscape of holes torn out of hills. After control passed to Averyanov in the Sahel region, the company expanded its operations.

While 30 corpses have been identified, the bodies of some victims were burned. Africa Corps solders flew helicopters dropping bombs on miners. They also fired from above on people trying to escape. Russian troops tried to prevent escapes, blocking exits. The slaughtering continued for five days. Some victims were killed and more tortured. Homes and shops used by the artisanal miners were destroyed. Miners and their families who escaped death and injury were made homeless.

The way that the democratic governments have been subverted in the AoSS bloc is well described by the example of Burkina Faso in an essay by Torianna Eckles for the American Foreign Policy think tank, the Wilson Center. She vividly captures how “Russian disinformation operations across West Africa have led to an unprecedented rise in popular support for Russia, citizen demands for Russian interventions, and in some cases, new military partnerships between African countries and Russia.”

Burkina Faso’s degeneration is especially tragic since between 2014, when it emerged from a 27-year authoritarian dictatorship, and 2022, it had experienced needed political reforms and democratic gains. During this period, it was regarded by Reporters Without Borders as “one of Africa’s success stories regarding freedom of the press.”

What subverted democracy in Burkina Faso were disinformation campaigns. These glorified Vladimir Putin and spread fake news through social media. A common technique was to disparage the effectiveness of United Nations Peacekeeping Forces used against Islamic extremists. Journalists who challenged disinformation became targeted by Wagner Group supporters to discredit them. Supporters of fake social media accounts were invited to join private messaging groups for more extreme forms of disinformation.

The lies disseminated by Wagner Group in Burkina Faso were exposed by later developments. The scale of violent conflict in Burkina Faso got worse after French troops and UN Peacekeepers were replaced by Russian soldiers. More civilians came in violent contact with soldiers, stimulating recruitment for Jihadists. Wagner’s ruthless inflamed, rather than tamed Islamic insurgency.

A new plague of extra-judicial executions of children emerged as Wagner mercenaries replaced United Nations Peacekeepers. An outrage took place involving a massacre of 156 civilians. Following coup, the number of people killed by jihadists tripled. Soon 2.1 million people in Burkina Faso were displaced from their homes. A quarter of the schools in the country were forced to close. Opposition to the government was channeled into armed insurgency since visible critics such as journalists, civil society activists, and opposition party members were conscripted into the military.

To restore subverted democracy in the AoSS block, Eckles advocates measures to empower citizens to increase their resistance to jihadist recruitment. She urges investments in civil society organizations and social services. The most urgent measure is support of local media, most notably the development of fact-checking capacities, to counter Russian propaganda [16]

Russian propaganda subverting democracy is in many instances cruder than its central point of maligning soldiers from democracies as opposed to the glories of the Africa Corps. Russian soldiers are glorified through animated videos, which portray them as fighting nobly, whereas French soldiers are Zombies. A popular high-production film glorified Russian African interventions.

One illuminating aspect of Russian influence is the development of branch plants in the CAR for beer and vodka, to challenge French competitors. Competition between French and Russia brands of alcohol is turned into a field for both propaganda and violence. This however, points to the potential for public health education to counter disinformation about the benefits of alcohol, whatever the nationality of the producer.

While since Prigozhin’s death Russia has consolidated its control over much of the former French colonial empire in western Africa, the same cannot be said for Sudan. This in the past was a colony jointly ruled by Egypt and Great Britain. Wagner mercenaries entered Sudan in 2018 to stabilize an existing dictatorship, one based on the imposition of Islamic Sharia law. Before the government that it supported was ousted, the Wagner Group secured gold and diamond mining concessions.

SUDAN SUFFERS

Sudan is now gravely wounded by civil war. Both parties clash with the nation’s nonviolent democratic movement. Supported by soldiers who refused to kill peaceful demonstrators, it ousted the Islamicist dictatorship of Omar-al-Bashir. He is subject to an arrest warrant for genocide by the International Court of Justice for seeking to suppress an insurgency in Darfur. Bashir was ousted by the military after weeks of massive non-violent protests on April 16, 2019.

Russia has ties with both parties in the Sudan’s civil war, which erupted five months before Prigozhin’s death. The leaders of both factions, General Adbdel Fattah al-Burhan, and General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (“Hemedti”), both had ties to Prigozhin. The country’s horrific chaos is a consequence of the obstruction by both in Sudan’s failed democratic transition after the overthrow of Sudan’s 30-year-long ruling dictator, Omar al- Bashir.

Sudan’s descent into violent civil war in the wake of the overthrow of Bashir shows basic hypocrisy of Russian rhetoric to justify its interventions in Africa. Russian intervention into Sudan was done to stabilize an actually existing Islamist dictatorship. The Bashir regime, which Putin supported, is identical to the Islamic extremists he is opposing in other parts of Africa.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.2 Apr-Jun 2024
Archival link: http://www.peacemagazine.org/archive/AfricaCorpsIncreasesRussianGri.htm
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