Russian encroachment in French Africa has Paris struggling for solutions

The news of atrocities carried out by the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group of mercenaries in the Central African Republic (CAR) should serve as a full-frontal warning for the West that Russia is increasing its influence in the parts of Africa that used to be French colonies. Indeed, it is Brussels and especially Paris which should be most concerned about the recent developments, with CAR joining a growing list of territories where Russia has flexed its muscles, including Libya, Sudan and Mali – and increasingly Chad as well.

After the sudden death of his father earlier this year, president of the Chadian transition General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno is hoping to maintain stability at a crucial juncture for the country. However, with Emmanuel Macron currently trying to appease lingering colonial resentment towards the French, as well as winding down his country’s military operations in Africa, Russia looks ready to capitalize on the ensuing vacuum to undermine Western powers and extend its influence in Africa in one stroke.

Russia’s double-edged gift to Africa.

Russia first entered CAR in 2017, bringing 175 military instructors and weapons to arm the local forces. Fast forward four years and, according to the official party line, that figure has swelled to 1,100 trainers – though Moscow insists that they remain unarmed and have not participated in any conflicts to date. However, reports on the ground tell a different story. The infamous Wagner Group, allegedly bankrolled by President Vladimir Putin’s confidant Evgeny Prigozhin, is rumored to have as many as 3,000 troops in the country.

A UN report supported by anecdotal evidence suggests that as well as driving back rebel insurgencies, the mercenaries are also committing grave human rights abuses in the CAR, including kidnapping, torture and rape. They’re also rumored to be responsible for the widespread planting of land mines, which have killed over a dozen civilians this year alone, displacing 1.4 million more.

The unofficial nature of the connection to the Kremlin means that the latter can simply claim plausible deniability for the actions of the Wagner Group, though they are certainly earning a reputation for getting things done. So much so that beleaguered Mali, which recently suffered its third coup in eight years, is thought to be considering hiring 1,000 mercenaries to replace the withdrawing French forces.

Chad next in line?

In light of those events, it’s unsurprising that the authorities in N’Djamena are feeling uneasy – as should the EU. Chad is a key European partner in the fight against international terrorism and a pivotal for stability and peace in the Sahel and Central Africa. Having proven to be the most reliable member of the G5 Sahel security force, Chad now finds itself surrounded on three sides by countries where Wagner Group troops are present and at the epicenter of many continental conflicts.

Despite the instrumental role that it has played in maintaining some semblance of stability in the region, Chad has been going through a period of vulnerability since the previous president Idriss Déby Itno was assassinated in April while visiting the front lines of the struggle against insurgents who were rumored to have been trained by the Wagner Group. His son has since taken interim control and signaled his intention to nearly double the size of the army under his command from 35,000 soldiers today to 60,000 by 2022 in order to preserve order in an increasingly chaotic theatre, no less stirred up by Russia, which is ready to exploit the transitional period.

Déby the younger has pledged to install a civilian government within 18 months and took a significant step towards that goal by appointing a 93-member transitional council last month. But that the road ahead is a long and rocky one was made clear by Foreign Minister has Cherif Mahamat Zene who warned against Russian encroachment into Chadian territory, fearing delay of the power transition process if such an event were to come to pass.

France on the edge.

Like Chad, Paris stands much to lose from the creep of Russian influence. To date, France has taken the biggest role among EU countries in attempting to quell the growing violence in the Sahel and the surrounding region, with some 5,000 troops currently committed to the cause, even though Macron is conscious that the costly and largely ineffective endeavor enjoys little popularity in France. This is mirrored by growing anti-French sentiment among Africans, leading the Elysée to declare the end of the “Françafrique” policies and increase political and economic cooperation with Africa on an equal footing. Even so, an upturn in public opinion about France has been thin on the ground.

Among other issues, the absence of tangible results from Operation Barkhane has prompted many Malians (and citizens of other countries) to call for Russia to replace France. Macron is attempting to square that circle by withdrawing French troops in favor of a more bilateral peacekeeping force comprised of African and international forces, designed to take the burden off France while eroding the ability of Moscow to fill the military vacuum.

Russia ready to pounce.

Conscious of the impasse facing Macron, Moscow has wasted no time inserting itself into the Sahel. The Russian share of arms exports to sub-Saharan African has sprung up from 19% to 28% between 2012 and 2018, with the entire continent accounting for an estimated 18% of Russia’s weapons exports between 2016 and 2020. It has also greatly increased other facets of its military, trade, mining and communications presence in Africa too, with total trade between the two parties up 43% to some $20 billion in 2018.

While the USA has seen its own exports to Africa fall by a staggering 60% in that time, it is Paris, not Washington, which is likely to feel the biggest effects of Russia’s Africa strategy. Should events continue on a similar trajectory, it’s likely that that a new, more or less Cold War could emerge in Africa – with potentially devastating consequences for all involved.

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor and Brussels correspondent of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

In October 2021 POLITICO described Gary as "the busiest man in Brussels!"

He is a of member the Chartered Institute of Journalists, a professional association for journalists, the senior such body in the UK, and the oldest in the world having been founded in October 1884

Gary's most recent book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

https://www.amazon.co.uk/WANTE...

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