By Cheta Nwanze
The hands-off approach of the US towards the African continent under the Trump administration, that has continued under Joe Biden and the continuation of failing European influence has afforded Russia the space to step up. Initially by strengthening regional military forces’ capacity to respond to the threat of Islamist groups across west and central Africa. What Russia stands to gain asides from conflict diamonds and mining rights, its increased influence and the numbers required for key votes in the United Nations General Assembly. The long term effect of this, though, is that democratic gains in West Africa, and indeed the whole of the African continent, could be pegged back as more countries look towards Russia for support.
While China’s spending power on the continent is unmatched, Russian re-entry builds on historic socio-political ties which date back to the Cold War era. During the Cold War the Soviet Union provided arms to revolutionaries in places like Angola and Congo seeking to overthrow colonial governments and their “puppet” successors. The Soviet Union’s interest in exporting its brand of Marxist-Leninism did not just stop at military and ideological support. It expanded that core into a more social enterprise drive model: offering scholarships to a whole generation of African scholars, academics, technocrats
and soldiers to be trained in Soviet institutions. The adoption of socialist economics in many an African state was a clear example of this influence. With the collapse of the Soviet Union these African
“socialist” states were starved of moral and ideological support as Russia retreated.
However, Russia has recently shown a renewed interest in Africa.2 A meeting co-hosted by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which was held in Sochi, Russia in October 2019, marked the very first Russia-Africa Summit. At that summit, Putin told a gathering of African leaders that Russia was “not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa”. Renewed Russian interest in Africa has focused on two main areas of support: economic cooperation and military support.
The West is increasingly reluctant to sell arms to West African state actors based on concerns over how the weapons could be used to violate human rights. In 2020, the UK parliament asked Downing Street to investigate human rights abuses by the Nigerian government3 and security agencies against citizens.
Securing weapons has been a challenge for state security forces in Nigeria’s northeast and northwest, and in the Liptako-Gourma region4, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Multiple reports have documented terrorists, operating as militia in these regions, carting away weapons after successful attacks on military facilities. This raises further concerns that arms could end up in the hands of non-state actors, who are even less accountable for their actions. The government in Moscow is less concerned about human rights given its record against its own people, and its continued
support for Soviet-era relics like Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus.
As the second-largest weapons producer in the world, Russia is a major supplier of arms to Africa: according to the think-tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 13% of Russian arms are sold to African countries. The weaponry sold is predominantly secondhand equipment, such as combat helicopters, aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems. During the two-day summit in Sochi in 2019, the Nigerian government signed a contract6 with Russia for the supply of twelve Mi-35 Hind E attack helicopters, likely to be used in the fight against the jihadist movement, Boko Haram, in the northeast of the country. On 1 October 2021, Mali’s Interim Defence Minister Sadio Camara said that the country had acquired four helicopters, arms and ammunition from Russia in a contract agreed in December 20207 to support its armed forces in their battle with fighters linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
The inability of the modern state to find lasting solutions to the crisis has seen the country experience
three coups, with the latest happening early this year when the transitional government of Bah Ndaw was deposed by Col Assimi Goita who led last year’s coup that ousted deeply unpopular President Ibrahim
Russian private military contractors have also latched on to the security needs of West African states bordering the Sahel where Islamist insecurity is prevalent. In September 2021, a security deal between the mercenary Wagner Group, which is rumoured to have ties to the Kremlin, and the Malian state was agreed according to a report by Reuters. Under the terms of the deal, a thousand personnel are to be deployed to guard regime officials and their families with the Wagner Group paid an estimated 6 billion CFA francs ($10.4 million8) a month for its services. One security source working in the region said the mercenaries would also train the Malian military and provide protection for senior officials. An arrangement that angered French officials given its long-standing military support to the country. But anti-French sentiments in the Sahel have been rising among citizens9 given the inability of French troops stationed in the area to stem violence attributed to the Islamists.