[Elizabeth Shackelford] To beat Russian influence in Africa, the West must offer something better
Russia’s growing engagement in Africa is gaining attention. The Wagner Group, a shady mercenary organization, is the centerpiece of this activity. Since 2015, it has become an important security player in at least a half-dozen countries across the continent. The Russian government denies any connection, but Wagner is widely believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and doing Russia’s bidding.
The US government and European partners have been quick to condemn African governments that have accepted Russian mercenary support but have failed to offer a better alternative. For more than a decade, Western security sector assistance across the continent has failed to bring stability, all while insulating bad actors from the consequences of poor governance and corruption. In fact, terrorism on the continent has become more widespread and deadly in recent years.
Since 2019, the Pentagon has considered reducing its footprint in Africa, due both to the failure of counterterrorism efforts to bring security and the need to redirect resources to more pressing US national security interests elsewhere. Africa’s terrorist groups pose little meaningful threat to the United States, after all. But Russia’s expanding influence in Africa, and China’s growing engagement, are spurring renewed interest in a hard-power presence to ensure our competitors there don’t get the upper hand.
The Wagner Group’s activity is nothing to cheer. Its penchant for abusing civilians is widely documented, including in Mali and the Central African Republic. It has no problem legitimizing anti-democratic leaders. As one example, when Western countries condemned Mali’s military junta and France withdrew troops following the 2021 coup (only nine months after a coup in 2020), the Wagner Group wasted no time striking a security deal with Mali’s unconstitutional military leadership.
But Wagner’s appeal comes as little surprise to those of us who have worked on the continent. Its engagement is transactional. In return for a wide range of security services -- from training and advising to combat and spreading disinformation -- Wagner reaps access to natural resources such as precious metals, gas, and oil. This differs significantly from state-to-state defense agreements, which are time-consuming to negotiate and execute and often come with conditions.
Wagner’s heavy-handed security approach provides no lasting solutions though, as it doesn’t address the underlying issues that fuel insurgency. But, then again, neither did Western assistance. It comes with none of the human rights training requirements or hollow finger-wagging about democracy that are hallmarks of US and European engagement but have done little to change bad behavior.
In the short-term, Wagner might even look effective. In the Central African Republic, for example, the Wagner Group has helped the national military regain control over most major towns. It achieved this with brutality and abuse, but life under rebel militias was hardly an appealing alternative.
Russia might deny an official role, but some of the trade-offs clearly include official state acts. Russia gets the support it craves on the international stage, while African governments get recognition. Russia’s footprint in Africa certainly didn’t hurt when the UN General Assembly voted in March to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only 35 countries abstained, and nearly half were African.
The security threats and insurgencies facing many African states are real, threatening governments and civilians alike. While not a direct threat to the homeland, it is generally in the United States’ interest to help bring stability to these countries. That would mean fewer ungoverned spaces where illicit activity can thrive, more robust and mutually beneficial trade, and more manageable migration flows.
But only durable stability will drive those outcomes, with governance that meets the needs of the people, and with sufficient security, jobs and services to undermine the appeal insurgency and terrorist groups pose today. That requires addressing not just violence but the underlying causes that fuel that violence too.
The United States and other partners can offer something more appealing and effective than a mercenary force, but only if they prioritize addressing the causes of insecurity over the symptoms.
If the focus is merely outdoing Russia in security support, it will fail. If anything, the increasing appeal of Russian assistance in Africa should trigger a reconsideration of why, how and where the West engages in security assistance, and what other assistance is necessary to make that support effective.
The US and the West need not be everywhere. They should have standards for those they partner with and hold them to account for this support. They should not prop up bad actors for short-term security interests, as bad leaders only turn into long-term problems. They should invest in countries where partners have the political will to build good governance because those are the places where a robust provision of governance, development, and security support can succeed. They should not waste time or resources fighting the enemies of bad actors who are not committed to building better states.
If the United States and its partners truly believe that stronger partnerships with more stable, democratic African countries are in our national security interest, they should provide more effective support than simply scolding the use of the alternative or trying to replace it.Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. -- Ed.(Tribune Content Agency)
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