"Russia Is Only Interested In Colonialism": What is Russia's interest in Africa?

Moscow aims to expand its global influence by finding new export markets and accessing natural resources. Africa, with its rich resources offers an ideal opportunity, challenging the long-standing influence of the U.S. and France

by Sededin Dedovic
"Russia Is Only Interested In Colonialism": What is Russia's interest in Africa?
© Voice of America / Youtube channel

After top American officials confirmed the presence of Russian security forces at the same airbase as American troops in Niger on May 3rd, a popular Telegram channel, purportedly run by Moscow officials, posted a message with an audio recording of a Soviet-era rock band.

The 1985 cult song by Nautilus Pompilius, "Goodbye America," was highlighted, noted Eromo Egbejule, the Guardian's correspondent from West Africa. Two weeks later, American officials and Nigerian leaders agreed on the gradual withdrawal of U.S.

forces from Niger, to take place as soon as feasible in the coming months. The message from the Telegram channel served as an update on recent events: the exodus of Western armies from the Sahel paired with the expansion of Russian influence.

"Russia has effectively gained an advantage in the geopolitical arms race in the Sahel and secured committed, albeit fragile, allies in the region," said Ikemesit Efiong, head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based consulting firm.

West Africa, he says, is now divided into two: mainly pro-Western coastal countries and more "Russophile" landlocked Sahel states, a name given to the vast, coup-prone zone stretching across the continent from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

Moscow seeks to expand its sphere of influence globally, find further export markets, and access natural resources. Africa represents a perfect opportunity to implement these ideas, some observers say. The influence is channeled through an umbrella entity run by the Russian Ministry of Defense called the African Corps, believed to be named after the German unit in North Africa during World War II.

Wagner African Corps© Warographics / YOutube channel

It includes the Wagner Group, a controversial paramilitary company led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. In the decade before his death last year, Prigozhin established relationships with leaders of countries like Mali, Libya, the Central African Republic, and others, deploying mercenaries to help combat insurgencies or provide personal protection to leaders.

In return, Wagner gained access to mines and infrastructure contracts, as well as political influence. Wagner was seen as the conductor of an orchestra of many parts: beyond security, Wagner operatives also engaged in mining, election meddling, and the production and dissemination of disinformation.

They paid a bloody price: at least 1,800 civilians were killed during Wagner's operations across Africa since 2017, according to data from Acled, a non-governmental organization. After Prigozhin's death, Wagner's structure and operations were absorbed into the African Corps, along with his son Pavel.

Recruitment took place in December. Wagner fighters were given a choice: disband or join the new crew.

Former Wagner Chief Yevgenij Prigozhin© The Telegraph / YOutube channel

To quash speculation about the group's continued existence, top Russian officials visited several African leaders to assure them of continuity and support.

Analysts say the new arrangement is indicative of Vladimir Putin's zero-tolerance approach to independent mercenary forces. The Russian state has long denied any ties with Wagner, but this changed with the attempted coup and Prigozhin's subsequent death.

"[Wagner] had a lot of leeway to break rules and engage in dubious activities that the Russians could deny," said Dr. Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S.

Department of Defense. "Now, the activities of these deployed forces are an integral part of [Russia's] Ministry of Defense. They can no longer be disowned as they could be previously." Some observers, including Oleksandr Danyliuk, an expert on Russian multi-dimensional warfare and a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based research center, argue that the change is merely a return to Russia's original plan.

"There is no difference... because Prigozhin was never the owner of that operation," he said about Wagner. "It was always an operation of the Russian secret services, and Prigozhin was nothing more than a manager in this command chain." The changes mean more direct control from Moscow and less flexibility for managers responsible for the "Russian conquest" of Africa, said Danyliuk.

The African Corps, he continued, was just part of a larger scheme called the Expeditionary Corps, which was "originally designed and created for operations not only in Africa but in all countries of the global south." This is really just the beginning.

As coups and conflicts in former French colonies have led to worsening relations between them and Paris in the past decade, Russia has rekindled Cold War-era ties in parts of Africa. Hundreds of people have appeared at rallies supporting coup leaders in the blue, white, and red colors of the Russian flag, while French flags were burned around them.

As jihadist activities emerge in coastal West Africa, there are fears that they might also reject Moscow's traditional allies. Diplomats and foreign policy experts say Russian actions still come with promises of regime stabilization packages and fighting insecurity, but not much in terms of outcomes.

Russia France