Four Recent Pieces on Russia in Africa/The Sahel

A lot of analysts and journalists are writing “Russia in Africa” pieces these days, and the quality – and the politics – of those pieces varies considerably. Here are four:

Jalel Harchaoui and John Lechner, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine Affects Its Meddling in Africa” (Lawfare, May 1). This is a good and straight-shooting piece that avoids hyperbole and sensationalism while still taking very seriously Russia’s (negative) role in several of Africa’s conflict zones. The piece also convincingly calls out Washington as talking tough but doing little to really push back on Russian influence – and then, refreshingly, calls not for tough actions but for judicious and continued engagement with African governments. An excerpt:

Punishing poor African governments, like those of CAR or Mali, for their Russian connections by reducing U.S. and European aid will not alter their behavior or protect civilians. It will only amplify Russian influence and erase U.S. leverage, while bringing further harm to populations already in the grips of a severe food crisis caused in large part by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The United States should avoid this type of overreaction given that security deterioration in those territories, along with the growth of actors more toxic than the Russians, might well force the United States to come back asking for cooperation from the same local authorities in the medium-term future.

Mucahid Durmaz and Murtala Abdullahi, “‘White hands’: The Rise of Private Armies in African Conflicts” (Al Jazeera, April 28). As the title indicates, this piece is not merely about Russians or the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, but it is useful for thinking about Russia in Africa. It is not “whataboutism,” in my view, to consider that other mercenaries from the “global north” and beyond – including French, British, Israeli, and South Africa – also operate in Africa and get into their own scandals involving corruption, abuses, child soldiers, usurpation of state functions, etc. On one level, the “Russia in Africa” story is just that; on another level, it’s a story about the hollowing-out of African states and the opportunities that opens for multiple private-sector plays to cash in.

Carley Petesch and Gerald Imray, “Russian Mercenaries Are Putin’s ‘Coercive Tool’ in Africa” (Associated Press, April 23). This piece represents the now-standard narrative; worth a read, but more as a reflection of the dominant view in Washington and Paris than as adding much new to conversation. On Twitter, Durmaz (co-author of the previous piece) called the AP piece “full of lazy, unimaginative, uncritical, sensationalist and biased reporting on African countries’ complex ties with rest of the world.” Harsh but not unwarranted.

Danielle Paquette, “He’s Pro-Russian, Anti-Zelensky and Rallying for Putin in West Africa” (Washington Post, April 21). I actually found this piece the worst of anything I’ve read on the topic recently. The article is a profile of a 30-year-old Burkinabè man whom the journalist condescendingly presents as an absolute dupe, someone completely brainwashed by Russian disinformation; basically, the guy showed the journalist a few sites he likes, and it becomes a story about how Russia is winning in Africa. It’s not that journalists need to be political scientists (heck, I’m not even a proper political scientist), but to extrapolate so much from a sample size of one (!!) is ridiculous, as is the idea that Russian propaganda is the most significant variable at play in shaping how this man thinks. After all, it turns out “he indulges in scrolling perhaps three times each week, he said, which is how much data he can typically afford.” That’s not much. And what is the effect of the propaganda on his political action? He ultimately attends a pro-Russia demonstration where “only a couple dozen men had gathered.” The piece also glosses over France’s failures in the Sahel, implicitly poo-pooing the kind of frustration this man feels; I’m not saying he’s right to be pro-Putin, but in the hands of some Western journalists and policymakers, the “Russia is taking over Africa” narrative easily becomes a means of grossly oversimplifying how the situation in the Sahel got so bad.

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