After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germans of all backgrounds descended on anything that symbolised the old communist order and brought it down.
One day, as the angry crowd had encircled a local KGB outpost in the city of Dresden, in East Germany, about to storm in, a mid-level officer who was deputising for his commander frantically tried to reach Moscow for direction, without success.
When it dawned on him that he was on his own, he commanded his team to burn all the files there. Then he went out and announced that the office was full of soldiers who would shoot if confronted.
The bluff worked. The people pulled back.
That young officer was Vladimir Putin, who later became the president of Russia. Looking at how the Soviet Union disintegrated, Putin’s opinion is that that was the most unfortunate geopolitical event of the twentieth century. And Putin has made it his business to correct that historical misfortune for Russia.
Following Russia’s military adventures in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, Putin stumbled on a strategy that he believes can make Russia great again, a strategy that is now being increasingly deployed in Africa – the use of mercenaries.
In October 2017, Faustin Touadéra, the president of the Central African Republic (CAR), asked for Kremlin’s assistance in stabilising his civil-war-stricken nation. For four years, the situation in CAR was precarious, despite the presence of 15,000 strong UN peace-keepers.
The UN had approved the deployment of a small contingent of Russian trainers, but soon after Touadera’s visit to Moscow, Russian soldiers were seen everywhere – fighting in frontlines, across the border to Chad, and leading Touadera’s security detail. It was quite evident that the Russians involvement in CAR was much deeper than what was envisaged.
The situation improved dramatically – the government recovered some of the lost ground, Bangui was stabilised, and the control of gold and diamond-rich areas was wrestled away from rebels’ hands.
Several sources – including the UN, estimate that up to 3,000 Russian troops are active in CAR. Russia claims that only 1,100 ‘civilian trainers’ are present. So, who are the other troops fighting in CAR?
Private military group
In 2014, members of a private military group were observed assisting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Since then they have been sighted in Syria and now increasingly in conflict zones around Africa. The group is called Wagner.
Wagner is generally linked with a Russian billionaire and a close associate of Putin called Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner works with soldiers for hire – mercenaries – and has issued about 10,000 contracts since 2014.
When a Libyan rebel general came calling, Wagner sent 1,000 troops to Libya. When the French reduced the number of their troops in Mali by half, Mali turned to Wagner. When IS destabilised Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, Wagner moved in. Having had operations in CAR, Mali, Mozambique, Libya, Sudan and Madagascar, Wagner is becoming Russia’s most popular export product to Africa, next to weapons.
Wagner’s performance in different conflicts has been mixed. However, in CAR, their intervention has been a game-changer, thus, more clients are expected to come knocking. Wagner is anticipating that demand and half its current recruits are being prepared for Africa.
Officially, Russia denies the existence of Wagner, however, with Wagner expanding operations, those denials are sounding pretty thin with time. Wagner’s military engagements in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere has left a trail of bodies and abandoned equipment – whose origin can be traced.
In Libya, the BBC acquired a Samsung tablet which provided more evidence of Wagner’s operations. In Russia, journalists have identified hospitals where the wounded are treated. They have also determined that mercenaries are given medals of honour from the Kremlin.
Mercenaries serving Russia’s interests
The ‘soldiers for hire’ strategy is very beneficial to Russia. While mercenaries pursue money and adventure – they also advance Russia’s interests as a result. For example, in CAR, the moment Wagner secured diamond and gold areas, Russian businessmen jumped in to acquire those mines. Consequently, Wagner may be more effective in achieving the ends of Russia’s foreign policy than the government ever was.
Similarly, as mercenaries enmesh themselves in their host countries, their presence becomes indispensable. In CAR, again, the expulsion of the Russians would almost certainly signal the fall of the Touadera’s government. Hence, mercenaries not only displace Russia’s competitors but also provide a way for continued influence in those nations.
Finally, the strategy is risk-free. Across Africa, there are already many reports of atrocities committed by Russians in host nations – they take no prisoners, they loot, they rape, etc. But, as a nation, Russia can stand aloof – denying involvement, losing zero soldiers, but stand to claim the spoils of war for itself. Brilliant, huh?
Not learning from the past
Unfortunately, Russia has been here before and this shows that it has not learnt anything from its 100 years’ experience in Africa.
In the 1920s, Moscow established schools providing training in clandestine operations, espionage, and guerrilla warfare, targeting Africans. One of their students was Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, who was there in the early 1930s.
Kenyatta didn’t like his experience there – he graduated questioning Russians’ racism and general performance. Nevertheless, the Russians went on to play a crucial role in the liberation of Africa from colonialism. It is what happened after independence that left so much to be desired.
Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré, and Mali’s Modibo Keïta were the first leaders to attract Moscow’s attention. Unfortunately, they all went on to wreck their respective economies and suppress their people.
While Moscow was aware of that, it not only kept supporting them but also kept feeding their paranoia with disinformation regarding bogus CIA’s plots to remove them.
Remarkably, KGB’s Service a branch conspiracy theories worked marvellously in keeping African leaders wary of the West: there was hardly an African leader that wasn’t approached in the same way.
So, as self-styled Marxist leaders were terrorising their people, they kept enjoying full support from Russia believing that the West was out to get them until those regimes started to fall due to the contradictions they had created.
In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was toppled in 1966 and he went down with guns blazing, blaming ‘imperialists’. Unfortunately, the Osagyefo – the redeemer – completely discounted his role in the mishandling of the economy. But the Ghanaians weren’t so forgiving – they immediately threw a thousand Russian advisors out, thus setting the tone for the rest of the continent.
Therefore, despite Russia’s excellent work in Africa’s liberation movements, it has never had a great appeal to Africans. Its approach has generally been ‘short-termist’ – giving little thought to what they would do with the power once they have it. So, sooner or later, they find themselves back to square one. That’s what happened in Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Ethiopia, Somalia, Togo, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, etc.
The history of Russia’s engagement with Africa shows that Russia has hardly been capable of providing any real alternatives to Africans. To be a responsible power, Russia needs to be able to address that challenge – what has Russia got to offer the people of Africa?
Peddling guns and gun totters is a dead-end strategy – by banking on Africans’ misery for its growth, Russia will not endear itself to Africans.
Russia can do better.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through email@example.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.