This article was originally published in Portuguese
Putin calls for fighting Western neocolonialism in Africa, while the Russian Defense Ministry apparently plans to take over from the Wagner group.
The many lives of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the controversial leader of the Wagner Group, came to an abrupt end on August 23. Less than a month earlier, Vladimir Putin had declared in Saint Petersburg, at the Russia-Africa summit, that it was urgent to fight against the neocolonialism of Western countries. Has Prigozhin’s death jeopardized Russia’s plans for the African continent?
According to Eastern Circles expert Yan St-Pierre, “Prigozhin was CEO, which means that the organization functions independently of him, as does the entire infrastructure around it, for which Africa is essential in terms of financing, money laundering of money, etc. All that infrastructure still exists. All that infrastructure still stands.
Pauline Bax of the International Crisis Group notes that “Russian military officials, from the deputy defense minister to intelligence officers, have come to visit some of these countries. The Central African Republic, Mali, there were contacts with the leaders of Burkina Faso, and “it was made clear that the Russian Defense Ministry was going to take control of the Wagner group.”
Less than 1% of foreign investment in Africa comes from Russia
Before being diplomatically isolated by the Ukrainian conflict, Putin’s Russia made ambitious promises to Africa. At the first summit with African leaders in Sochi in 2019, the Russian president guaranteed that he would be able to double the volume of trade between the two blocs in five years. Not only did it not happen, it diminished.
In fact, Russia is not funneling much capital into Africa. In total, it represents less than 1% of foreign direct investment on the continent. Trade is around 16 billion euros, that is, around 5% of what the European bloc invests. More than two thirds of exports (mainly cereals) are focused on just four countries: Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and South Africa.
When it comes to arms sales, things change. By 2022, Moscow will have surpassed Beijing as the main arms supplier to Africa, with almost 40% of the total. The equipment is more affordable than Western equivalents and is compatible with material that has survived from the Soviet era.
This summer, in the space of a month, two coups d’état took place: in Niger (July 26) and in Gabon (August 30). Right next door, the examples are repeated: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Chad, almost all of them on the sub-Saharan transition line.
Moscow: the realistic alternative to the West
At a time when power transitions occur with weapons, the question arises: are Russia’s objectives purely geopolitical?
“Much of what Russia and the Wagner group have done in the last two years, to put it bluntly, has been to give the middle finger to France. France has been the main target. They have focused on the former French colonies in Africa And it has worked surprisingly well. However, Russia does not make investments, does not help development, does not provide humanitarian aid,” says Pauline Bax.
For Yan St-Pierre, “the fact that they support the dynamics of young people stands out, saying ‘we support what you do and we will not judge you if there are violations of human rights’. This is well received. What Russia does well is provide an alternative to what Western countries offer or have offered in recent decades.
By taking influence away from the West, Moscow gains support that is in short supply on the international stage. African countries have 54 votes in the UN General Assembly, making them one of the strongest regional blocs.
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