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The end of February 2022 marked a major turning point in international relations after Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine. Many see this as a flagrant violation of the international norms and standards that have developed over the past decades, including notions of sovereignty, international law, individual human rights and freedoms and democracy. At the same time the invasion has also been hailed as an opportunity for a restructuring of the global system. At an emergency session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA), a draft resolution deplored Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as a violation of the UN Charter and called for the immediate withdrawal of troops. In total, 141 countries voted in favour of the resolution, five voted against (Belarus, the Democratic Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria) and 35 abstained (17 coming from the African countries). While not new, the vote raises the question of reform towards a more democratic UN – without veto power and with greater African influence. It also might suggest a trend where military might prevails, signalling a move away from multilateralism. But what does the situation mean for Africa’s peace and security?

Until now, Russian presence in Africa has been expanding. The Russian ‘Wagner group’ are private military contractors that Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has been quick to distance himself from, although the group is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch with close ties to the Putin. The Wagner group has been active in a number of countries on the African continent, including in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province in 2019, where it was employed by the government to fight a growing extremist insurgency, but withdrew after the loss of seven of its members. Wagner has also been propping up the government of the Central African Republic (CAR), where state authority does not extend much beyond the capital and where armed groups continue to pose a threat to the country’s peace. Most recently, the Wagner group has been in Mali, where Colonel Assimi Goïta took power in a coup in August 2020. Russian mercenaries have also in the past been found in Botswana, Burundi, Chad, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Russia is frequently accused of supporting despotic governments in exchange for financial and material concessions. Its involvement in African countries where France has traditionally been active has been the source of rising tensions, with France now shifting operations from Mali to Niger and the Gulf of Guinea. In CAR, the United Nations (UN) group of experts raised concerns of Wagner harassing civilians and indiscriminately killing Muslims. This has the potential to spurn the spread of violent extremism as a UN report has shown that the tipping point for recruitment is often the result of heavy-handed state abuse. The fact that Russian president Putin distances himself from the Wagner group is also a problem for accountability. This isn’t to say that Western powers are not also abusing the African continent to take advantage of their own supply chains – in fact quite the opposite. Rather, Africa has caught in a game of geo-political competition, as powers compete for influence, security, and economic benefit.

Russia is not the only country that has been intervening bilaterally in Africa. For example, France is well known for its bilateral peacekeeping engagements, such as operation Barkhane in the Sahel, which operates alongside a plethora of actors, including the G-5 Sahel, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), as well as soldiers from United States (US), Germany, Belgium, the UK and Italy. This has led to issues of coordination and disagreements over funding and the concept of operations, but more importantly there have been overarching critiques on the failure of these operations to address governance in Sahelian countries. Moreover, is not always the case that these actors have the same shared set of objectives, leading to ineffective outcomes and approaches.

Aside from the expected challenges and fluctuations of the oil price, the supply of commodities, such as wheat, and the related impacts on country economies that may further drive conflict, African peace and security is likely to struggle with global powers turning their resources towards the east. A withdrawal of Russian troops from some African countries may create an immediate security vacuum but may also pave the way for greater multilateral approaches that align to human rights standards and that are accountable in some manner and to someone (this is not to say that the UN itself is a beacon of accountability but rather that multilateral approaches allow for efforts at greater accountability to be made). This provides an opportunity for Africa to reflect on what its own objectives are in different peacekeeping/peacebuilding contexts, to revisit the short-term and inflexible approaches of its partners, and to again appreciate the value of multilateralism and all that it has to offer. 

Amanda Lucey, Project Leader in Violent Extremism