Even in the turbulent, conflict-wracked Sahel region of Africa, the recent military takeover in Burkina Faso was intriguing. Amid the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation, the decision by neighbouring Mali’s military-led government to invite fighters from the Wagner Group, widely seen as a paramilitary network of mercenaries with Russian connections, is causing growing concern in many western capitals.
Mali’s transitional government faces a rough road to recognition after the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) announced a strengthening of economic and diplomatic sanctions in January in response to the proposal to postpone elections until at least 2026.
Burkina Faso’s Lt Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba is just the latest military leader to grab power in front of Russian flag-waving supporters. It came less than a year after Mali went through its second coup in 12 months, and third in 10 years, while in September a coup in neighbouring Guinea saw special forces commander Col Mamady Doumbouya gain control.
France, the former colonial power in all three countries, faces a monumental task to reassert its authority in the vast Sahel, located south of the Sahara, in the face of rising Russian influence in Africa. It is a region where anti-French sentiment is growing on social media and on the ground, at the same time as popular support rises for the Russians, scuttling France’s efforts to bring peace. This week, the French ambassador has been asked to leave Mali, bringing into question whether Air France, one of the last remaining international carriers operating in the country, will resume its flights to the capital, Bamako, in March as planned.
With tensions heightened over the military buildup on the Ukrainian border, Russia’s expanding presence in Africa should also give the west plenty to think about.
Central African Republic (CAR), another former French colony, is already working closely with the Wagner Group, which the US and the UN accuse of committing human rights abuses in the region. It was while investigating the Wagner Group’s activities in CAR in 2018 that Orkhan Dzhemal, a Russian war reporter known for his critical reports on Russia’s policies, was mysteriously killed alongside two fellow Russian journalists.
But Mali’s leaders continue to downplay the presence of the mercenaries, saying they are simply cooperating with “Russian trainers”. A European military taskforce coordinating the fight against the growing Islamist insurgency in the landlocked country, has confirmed Russian proxy forces are active in Mali.
Mali’s decision to turn to the Russians is already causing a rift between the gold-rich country and its European partners, including the UK and France.
Mali argues that France’s decision to withdraw some of its 5,000-strong force from the west African country has left a huge void. Russia, seizing every opportunity to boost its influence in Africa, has moved in.
The Kremlin accuses the west of sour grapes, and while it has confirmed its support for Mali, it denies links to the Wagner Group.
France, leading calls for EU sanctions in Mali, is changing its strategy, preferring a collective European effort through the European Takuba taskforce. Those plans suffered a setback last week when the military-dominated government asked the Danish troops to leave. Sweden has also confirmed its withdrawal from the taskforce.
The Sahel, home to some of the world’s poorest nations, including Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, is beset by problems ranging from recurring food crises and poorly policed borders to escalating armed conflict.
Human rights violations are reportedly on the rise. There are reports of repeated attacks on civilians in villages and towns near Mali’s borders with Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Russian mercenaries frequently mistake civilians for the jihadist militants marauding across the region and Russians have also suffered casualties in combat with the groups.
To make matters worse, lingering security concerns in northern Nigeria and CAR are pushing thousands of people to seek refuge in other Sahel nations, further fuelling tensions in a region on its knees.
But Russia is going beyond the conflict-ridden countries, increasing its geopolitical influence across Africa. St Petersburg will host the second Russia-Africa summit later this year.
Russian trade and investment in Africa is small but increasing. A deal to establish a naval base in Sudan has boosted Moscow’s military foothold in the continent.
Gaining leverage by supporting isolated political leaders follows the script Russia has successfully used elsewhere, including in Syria, Libya and eastern Ukraine. In CAR, this was accompanied by Russian Valery Zakharov being appointed the country’s national security adviser.
Covid-19 has also offered the Russians an opportunity. Last year, Russia donated more than 300m Sputnik V doses to the African Union. Several African countries have reportedly approved the vaccine, helping spread Moscow’s influence.