French President Emmanuel Macron recently accused Russia of “predatory” activities in Africa. He is not wrong: Russian mercenaries are reportedly fueling violence, coups, human rights violations and terrorism across West Africa.
For decades, African governments have been characterized by corruption and instability, creating a lack of trust between politicians and citizens. According to Chatham House, 70 percent of Africans believe democracy is the best form of government, but 60 percent say corruption has increased in their country in the past year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin blatantly exploits this vacuum of moral leadership by making deals with African dictators who hope to retain power for fear of military coups. The West – and Africans – should invest not in politicians, but in moral, religious and social leaders, figures who can transcend national boundaries, fill trust gaps and form an unprecedented Pan-African movement aimed at improving all aspects of African life.
Indeed, this would be a crucial deterrent against not only a Russian threat or the root causes of corruption, but other looming challenges as well.
In the past five years, nearly half of Africa’s weapons came from Russia. And they quickly turn against the West. Only last month, France officially withdrew its troops from Mali, ending a nearly decade-long effort to counter extremism. But when the French initially announced their departure in 2020 following a coup, the Malian government abruptly replaced the Parisian troops with the Kremlin-backed mercenaries, the Wagner Group.
Since then, Russian mercenary operations have been linked to the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Mali and across West Africa, even as the mercenary has gone to great lengths to successfully blame the French.
Africa is clearly the next victim of Putin’s imperialist ambitions. Yet Western countries are preoccupied with the war between Ukraine and Russia, the devastating consequences for their economies and their own internal political instability.
But this blindness – as well as the Western focus on Chinese investment projects – has enabled Russia to make subtle but dangerous inroads into Africa, giving Putin a dangerous influence on the African continent and beyond.
With 54 votes from the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and three votes from the UN Security Council, Africa represents an invaluable political arena for Putin to advance his interests on the global stage, while simultaneously discrediting the West.
Russian influence (and disinformation) has already successfully blamed Western sanctions for the food crisis threatening millions of lives in drought-stricken Africa. In March, 17 African countries voted against or abstained when the UNGA overwhelmingly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In particular, Russia’s lack of colonial past has facilitated its strategic mission, even positioning Wagner mercenaries as the “opposite of a colonial power”. Rekindling these Soviet-era ties in exchange for security assistance has yielded good results.
While Africa’s largest trading partner, China, has invested $23 billion in African infrastructure, Russia’s strategy has led to minimal financial investment, barely spent a ruble. Yet in recent years Putin has signed two dozen security cooperation agreements in Africa, securing access for future naval operations in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean – perfect avenues for the opportunistic deployment of Russian paramilitaries.
If Russia continues to gain strongholds, it could affect Africa’s development – from climate policy to human rights – for decades to come.
For too long, the West has overlooked and misunderstood Africa, a continent that will be home to one in four of the world’s population by 2050. But Africa’s problems are Western in scope.
After all, the borders that divide Africa have been drawn haphazardly by Western powers. Today’s African leaders struggle to fill this vacuum, unable to unite Africans across borders – a prerequisite if Africa is to tackle future challenges such as climate change, food shortages or refugee crises (all of which will eventually spill over to neighboring regions). ).
If we want the West to curtail Russia’s agenda in the region, we need to look to who can unite the African people – those who are younger, transform African industry and development, and turn their backs on politics rather than community leaders. Religion in particular is rapidly shaping the future of Africa, which could be the epicenter of Christian and Islamic faith by the end of this century.
Organizations such as the Muslim World League (MWL) – the largest Islamic NGO in the world – are already building networks of faith and civil society leaders to mobilize them on issues such as climate change. For example, MWL Secretary General Mohammed Al-Issa, who has been fighting extremism and human trafficking in Africa, is behind the global multi-faith coalition Faith For Our Planet, which this week hosted the Faith and Climate Forum in The Gambia, dedicated to promoting West Africa’s most prominent moral leaders.
Of course, countering the Russian threat in Africa will require more than engaging civil society and religious organizations. It will take a concerted effort to rethink the West’s relations with Africa, and a reinvestment in issues facing both the West and Africa. Disinformation, terrorism, refugees, climate change – crises that define the century and none that we want in the hands of the Kremlin.
Now is the time to lay a foundation that Russia cannot manipulate and that the West can no longer overlook. Unless we quickly address West Africa’s moral leadership problem, Russia will continue to blatantly exploit it — with dangerous and far-reaching implications far beyond Africa’s borders.
Maurizio Geri, Ph.D., is a former NATO analyst for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and for maritime security in the expanded Mediterranean region. He was also previously an analyst for the Italian General Staff of Defense and has 20 years of experience in research on peace and security, international order, democratization, human rights and collective defence. He has conducted research for several think tanks, including The Carter Center, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Euro Gulf Information Center.