During the second version of the Russia-Africa Summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia, last month, it was all too evident that the attendance of only 17 African state leaders was significantly lower than the inaugural summit in 2019. While this may indicate that most African nations do not support Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, it is still important to consider current events in Africa, such as the ongoing situation in Niger, in relation to Russia’s objectives on the African continent. Especially with the United States (US) already seeing a “narrow” window of opportunity to reverse the military takeover in Niger.
One could contend that ongoing events can be interpreted as a strategic maneuver by Russia to redirect the conflict with the European Union (EU), specifically France, from Ukraine to the Western Africa region. Throughout history, this region has been widely acknowledged as one of France’s most crucial strongholds, where its unwavering influence has been steadfastly maintained for numerous decades.
Nevertheless, considering the political upheavals witnessed in both Mali and Burkina Faso, resulting in the establishment of pro-Russian and anti-Western governments, the ongoing rebellion in Niger represents yet another significant event that has the potential to bolster Russian influence in Africa. While it is not unusual for western African nations to experience coups, the recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the ongoing coup in Niger exhibit a shared characteristic in the new regimes’ alignment with Russia. The latter is evident from the ongoing protests in these nations, where the Russian flag is proudly displayed, along with the growing influence of Russia’s Wagner Group in these territories.
In recent years, Russia has sought strategic partnerships with African nations, including Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa. While the extent and motivations behind Russia’s engagement in each African country differ, one can observe certain patterns in its approach. These patterns include diplomatic and economic initiatives, military cooperation, and resource-related interests. Russia has undertaken diplomatic efforts to increase engagement in Africa, often involving high-level visits and deepening economic cooperation.
In Niger, for instance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited in 2021 to consolidate bilateral relations. Agreements were reached on various cooperation areas, such as energy, mining, and defense. Russia perceives Africa as an area where it can diminish Western influence by leveraging historical ties and fostering alliances with African nations. By solidifying partnerships with countries like Niger, Russia is likely to undermine Western-backed initiatives and projects, such as economic aid and military cooperation. This approach allows Russia to challenge the hegemony of the West and increase its own sphere of influence on the global stage.
Russia’s interest in Niger also highlights its interest in the country’s abundant natural resources, such as uranium and other minerals. These resources are vital for various sectors, including energy production and defense. Russia’s pursuit of resource extraction and trade partnerships raises eyebrows in the international community, as it could potentially upset Western dominance in these regions. Africa’s vast natural resources, including minerals, oil, and gas reserves, undoubtedly provide attractive economic opportunities for Russia.
In light of Western sanctions imposed on Russia following its actions in Ukraine, Moscow seeks alternative avenues for economic growth. Expanding its presence in Africa enables Russia to tap into these resources and develop trade partnerships outside the Western sphere of influence. Furthermore, Russia’s increasing influence in Africa allows it to indirectly pressure the West. For instance, Niger’s coup took place only a week ago, yet the leaders of the coup in Niger announced the suspension of uranium exports to France, which is a significant blow to the country, which relies on uranium to a large extent for electricity generation. Niger’s uranium covers about 17 percent of French needs, and its nuclear plants generate more than 70 percent of the country’s electricity.
Ongoing developments in Niger not only invite anti-Western nations like Russia to exercise influence in west Africa but also allow NATO member states that have opposing views to France to take advantage. For example, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, has recently indicated that Niger’s suspension of uranium exports to France is a response to years of France’s oppression. In the same vein, amid tensions between France and Italy over migrant policy, in a 2019 interview with right-wing politician Giorgia Meloni, now Italy’s Prime Minister, slammed France for using “colonial currency” to exploit Africa’s valuable resources.
The coup in Niger, accompanied by the regional instability it brings, also jeopardizes Nigeria’s plans for the development of a 13 billion USD gas pipeline that would allow for the export of gas from Nigeria to the EU. Provided the project is successful, the EU would benefit from a decreased reliance on Russian gas, thus clearly indicating why it is in the best interest of Russia that such a project does not reach fruition. In addition to economic factors, Russia’s involvement in West African nations will allow it to build a rapidly moving security force block in the region. Even though most African nations signed military agreements with Russia, Russia’s Wagner group already maintains a strong and active presence in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, and Mali, all of which are in close geographical proximity to Niger. Therefore, allowing Russia to effectively enter the battlefield in Niger via the Wagner Group.
That said, the political chaos in Niger only erupted a week ago, and Niger’s military junta is actively seeking help from Wagner Group in facing the threat of military intervention from neighboring countries supported by the international community. More interesting is that Mali, where Wagner Group has a strong foothold, has voiced its full support for Niger’s rebels.
Similarly, Burkina Faso has joined voices with Mali and claimed that any intervention in Niger would be a declaration of war on Mali and Burkina Faso. In light of Russia’s increasing influence in west Africa, it is worth noting that Burkina Faso itself had a coup in January 2022 and since then has requested France to fully withdraw its troops while hailing Russia as a strategic ally, thus increasing speculations about Russian presence and influence. In the same vein, Algeria, known for its strong loyalty to Russia, announced its opposition to any intervention in Niger.
Regardless of the Wagner Group’s short-term motives to support Niger’s rebels, the long-term gain for Russia would be the full and active presence of a proxy military force in Niger, allowing Russia to maintain an almost full west-to-east African presence and thus challenging the US-EU strategic interests in Africa. The group mainly operates as a mercenary force, deploying highly trained and well-equipped individuals to support Russian geopolitical interests. Their main activities include combat operations, training local forces, and securing economic assets for Russia’s interests. However, unlike regular military forces, private military contractors like the Wagner Group enjoy limited accountability. Such a lack of oversight can escalate conflicts and human rights abuses, further destabilizing fragile states while at the same time allowing Russia to reach its regional objective faster compared to the use of official military force. This was very noticeable in the Wagner Group’s advances in Russia’s war on Ukraine as well as the group’s tactical movements in African countries.
Despite Russia’s geopolitical interests in Niger and how the coup may empower Russia’s position in west Africa, the situation presents the international community with a set of security risks, including terrorism, ethnic conflicts, and a struggling economy that will likely have a spillover effect on the Sahel region. Yet the involvement of the Wagner Group in Niger could exacerbate these issues, posing a substantial threat to African nations’ regional stability, which may hence be part of the tactics employed to diminish the US and EU security roles in the region.
Niger serves as a crucial player in the fight against terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa. The presence of the Wagner Group could complicate regional dynamics, potentially drawing the country into proxy conflicts, increasing the risk of violence, and posing a significant challenge to ongoing counterterrorism efforts. In addition to France’s military withdrawal from Mali and Burkina Faso, international alliances and collaborations forged to combat terrorism, including the US counterterrorism efforts in Africa, may be disrupted or suspended, leading to a decline in military and intelligence support.
This scenario creates an opportunity for extremist and terrorist groups to consolidate their presence in Niger and launch cross-border attacks on neighboring countries, further exacerbating regional security concerns. Furthermore, should Wagner Group become effectively involved in Niger, this will undoubtedly have severe security implications affecting both the nation and the wider region. The Group’s involvement in Niger could lead to increased arms trafficking, rendering the region vulnerable to enhanced violence, instability, and arms proliferation by extremist groups that may operate across Africa or even cross-continental. The latter possibly explains why the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has decided to send military vehicles and security equipment to Chad to support counterterrorism efforts in light of the ongoing escalations in Niger.
Furthermore, the geopolitical stance of Iran with regards to Niger remains a subject of careful consideration. In this regard, it is highly probable that Iran will seek to exploit the prevailing political unrest in West Africa, aligning itself with anti-US and anti-Western factions and militias operating within the region. Reports show that there is an ongoing row between France’s presidency and the country’s intelligence agency on accusations related to the failure to predict the coup. Despite all that said, what is more surprising is that earlier this year, in an attempt to counter the Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, France pledged to reduce its military presence in Africa and transform French bases into partnerships with African soldiers. Yet, it appears that France’s strategy yielded the full opposite and served to trigger Russia’s power plays in Africa rather than counter them.
Although it may be premature to assert that Russia is shifting its conflict with the United States and the European Union from Ukraine to Africa, the situation in Niger undeniably presents a compelling rationale. In light of Africa’s growing significance in the global arena, it is crucial for international stakeholders to closely observe Russia’s endeavors and actively participate in constructive discourse to safeguard stability in Africa.
Russia’s strategic endeavors in Africa extend beyond the mere objective of supplanting the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Instead, it exemplifies a comprehensive approach to pursuing economic opportunities, securing access to valuable natural resources, and augmenting geopolitical influence. Its involvement in Africa transcends the mere displacement of tensions from one region to another. The deployment of the Wagner Group as a proxy in Niger presents an enormous risk for the stability and security of the region, potentially resulting in the re-emergence of terrorist organizations.
Regarding this matter, the coup and subsequent destabilization in Niger will undeniably have substantial spillover ramifications, affecting not solely Niger but also the entire Sahel region. The ramifications encompass a wide spectrum of political consequences, spanning from compromised national security to economic setbacks, a humanitarian crisis, and strained regional relations that are likely to escalate into armed conflicts on multiple fronts. Although very complex, it is imperative for international actors and African countries to try to engage in constructive dialogue and restore stability in West Africa.