Background: Growing Role of China and Russia on World Stage
Quite a few in the West see Russia's war in Ukraine as just one episode in a series of events that began years ago, whereby the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is trying to reshuffle geostrategic balances and recreate new spheres of dependency at the expense of Western influence, especially that Western countries have been complacently triumphant but ineffectively engaged in geostrategic thinking and review of their dominance of world affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Thus, besides setting up a buffer belt of direct influence, made up of Central Asian republics in addition to Armenia, Serbia and Belarus, Russia has created scattered loyalties in small regions and republics in Transnistria (eastern Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Crimea and the Lugansk and Donetsk provinces in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, not to mention the Suwałki Gap, the sparsely populated strip that cuts across the border between Lithuania and Poland and forms a corridor between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad oblast on the Baltic Sea. This vast belt is seen by Russia as a vital sphere that serves as a bulwark against NATO encroachments, while it restores an image (albeit “imperfect”) of the glories of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.
Russia is not alone in this geostrategic design. China has been cultivating the same ambition: under President Xi Jinping it has expressed sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea and reinforced its presence therein. Its Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in more than 150 countries and international organizations, an initiative that makes of it an indomitable international development player and a future hotbed of global trade exchanges. Its most recent Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) (March 2023) ventures into the realm of values and culture and advocates for “the respect for the diversity of civilizations, the common values of humanity, the importance of inheritance and innovation of civilizations, and robust international people-to-people exchanges and cooperation” (Embassy of China to Samoa, “Initiatives Proposed by China, Fruitful Outcomes Shared by World”, May 5, 2023). China's aim in all these initiatives is to combine economic, financial, cultural, and military power and influence to reinforce its presence on world stage and confirm its presence as an inevitable player in today's and tomorrow's world affairs and exchanges.
Emergent Independent Actors
Add to this the growing role of Turkey as a new economic and political actor that does not primarily serve Western interests, and the ambition of countries with regional and international weight (such as Brazil, India , South Africa, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar etc.) to adopt a posture that is not necessarily in consonance with Western views, and we find a new map of “new alliances and priorities” at the international level that will have a fairly negative impact on the military, political and economic dominance of Western countries in the world.
The New Frontier of Africa
But the new stage of this growing challenge to the Western “domination” of the world is Africa. France is losing its grip on its ex-colonies and is no longer a key player in Central and West Africa; it has been forced to disengage militarily from important countries such as Central Africa, Mali and Burkina Faso, and is being criticised by many young people in Chad and Niger, who see in the French presence a reproduction of France's colonial role, nothing less.
But the situation goes beyond a renewed rejection of French neo-colonialism: it is a change with geo-strategic proportions, with repercussions in Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso and, more recently, Niger. The common denominator governing this transformation is the “popularity of military coups” and rule as an alternative to pro-western and allegedly inept civilian governments, as well as the entry of foreign non-state military actors like the Russian paramilitary group, Wagner, into the equation. It is surprising to see the continued rejection of any Western intervention, in exchange for welcoming the growing roles of other non-Western countries such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Arab countries like Morocco, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The Mali Coup and the Growing Reliance on Wagner
In Mali, there was a coup in the summer of 2020 against the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (democratically elected since 2013 and hailed then domestically and on the world stage only to later disappoint everyone by his inefficacy and ineptitude in tackling economic challenges and the growing threat of Jihadist groups and organized crime) followed by another coup in the spring of 2021, in which Colonel Assimi Goita took office as president after the dismissal of Ba N'Daou, who had succeeded Keita as president.
Mali's new rulers took office against a backdrop of widespread grievances in the ranks of Mali's armed forces regarding lack of equipment and non-payment of salaries, and in the context of the failure of the French operation "Barkhane" to curb the rise of terrorist attacks and its replacement by the international special security force known as "Takuba". Successive attacks by armed groups have created a consensus on the futility of the presence of French and international forces, which were later replaced, in the wake of the military coup, by “more effective” and “rapid” intervention forces, namely the Russian Wagner group. Wagner, which was logistically aided by Algeria to settle in Mali and other countries, had gained a “reputation” on the ground in Libya and Central Africa, (a reputation that is, from a Western point of view, no more than a notoriety in the excessive use of force and the scant respect for human rights).
Burkina Faso and the departure of Saber
In Central Africa, the Wagner group fights alongside regular troops against rebels and invests in media, minerals, and politics. In Burkina Faso, photographs of Wagner elements circulated on social media, but the military government denies any presence of the Russian paramilitary group and the same denial came from Moscow (Le Monde, 23 February 2023). But the new military leaders of Burkina Faso who took power after the military coup of September 2022, demanded the departure of the French Special Forces (called "Saber"), which has been interpreted by observers as a sign that the country may look for new (non-Western?) "military partners" to protect it from attacks by armed groups.
Niger…the Straw that broke France’s (and the West’s) Back
To make matters worse, the coup d'état that took place in Niger on July 26, 2023, caused the countries of the ECOWAS--Economic Community of West African States (especially Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast) to align themselves with what they call "democratic legitimacy", a position supported by France and Western countries (with noted muted reserve from the US). ECOWAS countries are threatening to mount a concerted military intervention in Niger to restore the civilian President Mohamed Bazoum to power. Algeria (Russia’s military ally and facilitator in the Sahel) and Tchad oppose any military intervention, while Mali and Burkina Faso have issued threats to intervene on the side of the military in Niger to “protect” the coup. Burkina Faso's position in support of the coup led France to suspend its assistance to the poor Sahelian country. The implication would be that the Burkinabe military will be forced to rely on the military and non-military assistance of non-Western partners such as Russia and China and others.
Sudan…the geostrategic ramifications of the new “civil war”
In Sudan, while the conflict between the army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ("Hemedti”) remains an internal power struggle, the regional and international dimensions of the conflict are not imperceptible for well-informed observers. What is striking is the supply of surface-to-air missiles by the Russian Wagner group to Hemedti's RSF command through bases in eastern Libya, which are under the control of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Nima Elbagir, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Tamara Qiblawi and Barbara Arvanitidis, “Evidence Emerges of Russia’s Wagner Arming Militia Leader Battling Sudan’s Army”, CNN, April 21, 2023). Perhaps thanks to this support, the RSF militias seem difficult to crush by the Sudanese Army and have become part of a broader equation in which major non-Western countries (including Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia) are seeking gains and influence in sensitive areas of Africa, close to the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.
Chinese funding of Africa
Add to this the growing number of African countries that depend on Chinese funding and investment, most of which comes in the form of concessional loans, BOT contracts, and international development grants, which are transforming the investment landscape in Africa. Overreliance on Chinese loans has been in the talks for years now but the continued complexity of access to Western loans and funding has only spiked African governments’ appetite for Chinese funds and it does not seem to end soon. Chinese lending, investment and aid come without political or other strings attached to them and are therefore coveted by both sides, despite promises to curb the overdependence of Africa on Chinese loans. Africa is witnessing profound transformations at the investment and financial levels that will radically change the decades-long “system” of “allegiances” to the West.
Conclusion: Wagner’s Role after the Coup in Russia
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner group leader’s coup against Russian troops on June 23, 2023, will definitely have an impact on the way Russia intervenes in Africa, but Russia, like China (and Turkey and the Arab countries), will remain a key player on the African continent. Yes, the situation will depend on how countries like France and the US will react to the recent events in the Sahel, but it does not look like the discreet American diplomatic effort, or the French economic and military threats are having an impact on the tilt of Sahelian countries towards military rule and towards non-Western players. Public opinion in many African countries does not seem to be very enthusiastic about reproducing the same hegemonic relations with the West. Unless Western countries review radically the way they view and approach their relations with African countries, Africa will be forever lost to them.
Article previously published in Al Sharq Al Awsat