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Shifting Sands: Thoughts On Sahelian Africa’s Turn To Russia

Photo session leaders Russia-Africa Summit 2023

Comment editor Ruth Otim examines Sahelian countries’ reception to Russia as France exits the African region.

Numerous news outlets have been positioning the Russian presence in the Sahel as a challenge to French hegemony. Reuters frames the ongoing situation as Russia ‘in competition’ with France in Africa. The Institute for International Political Studies (IIPS) understands the Russian presence in Sahelian countries as challenging France and Politico goes as far as to say Russia is chasing France out of Africa.

What these headlines show, and countless other news houses corroborate, is that the subject and object of Africa is still in the global North. That is, it is consistently amongst the global North to dictate who “Africa” will collaborate with as opposed to headlining a recurring truth about the situation: it was Sahelian Africans who pushed France out first.

Russia did not end military involvement in numerous Sahelian states, Burkina Faso and Mali had done so in 2023. Russia was not the first to contemporarily denounce French neocolonialism, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum was quite outspoken about how French President Emmanuel Macron’s support for military action in Niger perpetuates neocolonialism against his people.

The tapestry of African decolonisation is not woven by two Europeans fighting amongst each other to see who can win. The fabric is innately African, both the subject and object of their future. The narrative of the Russian replacement of France in Africa misconstrues the immense role that African states and actors have. It is worth examining how Sahelian countries have welcomed Russia into the region and the implications that follow suit.

True agency or a cycle of dependence?

Anti-French sentiment in ‘Françafrique’ has translated into anti-French rhetoric and action, leading to a decline in French influence across the countries. This sentiment has manifested into widespread protests from the Sahel to other former French colonies such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have also been calls for the removal of the French military presence in the Central African Republic (CAR). They also share a drive toward economic independence from France.

Some African countries are not only moving away from France, they are moving closer to Russia through similar public demonstrations for increased Russian military presence and financial support.

Burkina Faso and Mali, in particular, have directly welcomed the Russian influence in their states – which begs the question: is the replacement of France in Africa a true symbol of African agency or merely a shift from one external power to another, perpetuating a cycle of foreign dependence?

The countries’ warm reception of Russia is largely driven by a need for security stabilisation, addressing gaps that France previously failed to fill if not intensify. French troops began tackling security threats from armed Islamic Jihadist groups to rebel militias in Burkina Faso in 2009 and Mali in 2013. Their consistent presence, however, has not wavered the power of such groups in the Sahel. Only 400 French troops were deployed in Burkina Faso from 2010 to 2023.

With no change to the increasing instability in the country, Burkina Faso issued a forced removal of France in the space of a month last year. As security worsened from Burkina Faso to Mali, Niger to Chad, heads of state have turned to the Wagner Group for help.

The Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organisation made up of mercenaries formerly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin before his death in 2023. In Burkina Faso, Wagner mercenaries have been present in the country although the government denies having officially “sealed the deal” with the group. Wagner claims, according to Foreign Policy, that their intended tasks in the Sahel include:

“Fighting rebel groups, building domestic security capacity, and carrying out development aid. It has been carrying out those missions, which it bills as explicitly anti-colonialist, in the region since roughly 2017.”

Justin Ling at Foreign Policy

The “anti-colonialist” nature of the Wagner presence is of considerable importance. Russian President Vladamir Putin also emphasised, according to Modern Diplomacy, that:

“Africa is now building up capacity and aspires to emerge as an effective powerhouse in a multipolar world with its unique identity by making confident strides in nurturing a genuine sense of political and economic sovereignty.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Modern Diplomacy

The Russian Offer, as some within the political community have coined, is presented as both anti-colonial and equally cooperative in the “political and economic sovereignty” of African nations. This recalls the initial question of agency or dependency. African countries who have been impressed by Western values and policy may view the Russian offer as a step towards true sovereignty. African nations however certainly have to remain wary.

As Wagner increases its presence throughout the Sahel, African states have likened their political attitudes more in line with Russia, such as on the topic of same-sex marriage which some states, such as Burkina Faso, position themselves contrary to European progressivism. Particularly since Sahelian countries are struggling to gain democratic footing as seen through numerous coups, the Kremlin’s political attitudes can bring about greater democratic challenges.

New allies and old patterns

The agency that some states across the Sahel intend on capturing through their welcoming of Russia must consistently acknowledge the timing of the Russian alliance. As Moscow becomes further isolated amid the ongoing War on Ukraine, the economic and strategic interests to be gained in Sahelian Africa must present caution to African heads of state. Dr. Edgar Githua at Africa Business reported that Wagner contractors had received great financial benefits to the tune of $10 million monthly, highlighted in the continent through exploitative operations.

The trade relationships that these countries foster, from CAR to Mali, moves money out of Africa rather than into it. Rather than prioritising intra-African trade, as Dr.Githua argues, African countries such as Sahelian ones have relied on foreign alliances instead of “regional integration and economic self-sufficiency.”

In this way, Sahelian Africa remains dependent on foreign alliances under the guise of agency. Although security matters are of great importance for the future of Sahelian Africa, the region cannot live off of exchanging one foreign power for another.

We cannot have headlines that further position the political affairs within Africa to be drafted abroad. To be able to return the subject and object back to Africa, we need to begin by placing the intra-African alliance at the forefront of our growth. What needs to be challenged, competed with, or chased out has nothing to do with a rivalry between Russia and France, and everything to do with ending the enduring legacy of systemic inequality between Sahelian Africa and the global North.



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