Russia tightens its grip on the Sahel, shifts focus to Africa’s West Coast

Russia tightens its grip on the Sahel, shifts focus to Africa’s West Coast

In July 2023, armed troops in Niger ousted the government, aligning with Russia. As Russian military trainers and equipment arrived, protests demanded the withdrawal of US forces, prompting their departure and closure of a key drone base. The move signals a shift in alliances, threatening US interests in Africa.

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By Olumba E. Ezenwa* and John Sunday Ojo*

Armed troops in Niger overthrew the government in July 2023, seizing power for themselves. The following months were rife with speculation that the military government would align with Moscow and possibly form ties with the Russian military or its associates.

This has now become a reality, to the detriment of western interests in the country. On Wednesday, April 10, a Russian plane arrived in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, reportedly carrying Russian military trainers and equipment, including a Russian air defence system. It marked the beginning of a new alliance between the Kremlin and Niger’s military leaders.

Following the arrival of Russian military equipment and advisers, hundreds of protesters gathered in Niamey to demand the withdrawal of American forces. Niger has been the centre of US operations in west and north Africa since the two countries signed a military pact in 2012.

The US has since announced that it will pull more than 1,000 military personnel out of Niger. This will result in the closure of Base 201, a key US drone facility that has been used in operations against jihadist terrorist groups in the Sahel region.

Niger’s closer ties with Russia come a month after senior US officials visited Niger and expressed concern over the country’s potential relationships with Russia and Iran. Following the meeting, a spokesperson for Niger’s military, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, criticised the “condescending attitude” of the Americans for denying the Nigerien people the right to choose which countries they partner with.

It has also been reported that the US will temporarily withdraw its troops from Chad, just a few weeks after the Chadian air force chief halted all operations at a drone base near the country’s capital, N’Djamena. As Chad reevaluates its alliances and leans toward Russia, the withdrawal of US troops will likely be followed by that of the French troops.

Washington’s strategy of curbing Russian influence in volatile parts of Africa looks to be failing.

Protesters in Niamey, Niger, calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Niger on April 13 2024. Issifou Djibo / EPA

Countries across the Sahel, a region stretching from Senegal to the Red Sea, have turned toward Russia for security assistance in recent years in the face of growing regional instability. Russian mercenaries, for example, have supported the Burkina Faso and Malian armed forces in their fight against insurgent groups.

Now, Russia is doubling down its focus on the region by tightening its hold over several Sahel states and looking for new partners further afield – a strategy that could pit it against other world powers. The next battleground may well be the coastal west African states.

Changing battlegrounds

Russia’s interests on the west African coast look to be in securing military, diplomatic and economic pacts with leaders of these nations in exchange for strategic access to the Atlantic Ocean. This strategy mirrors how the US military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, provides the US some access and control in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.

However, jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have also penetrated the west African coastal states of Benin, Ghana and Togo in recent years, where they have established a new axis for their operations. Benin has been hit particularly hard. Attacks by jihadist terrorists against civilians nearly tripled in 2023, rising from more than 30 to roughly 80.

The US is seeking to build military drones bases along the west African coast in an effort to stop the spread of these groups. But in his testimony to the US Senate on March 16, General Michael Langley, the commander of the US military wing that protects American interests in Africa, warned that US influence on the continent has been “drowned out” by Russian disinformation in recent years.

The dragon and the bear

Russia must balance its efforts to exert influence in Africa with its relationship with China. Under the presidency of Xi Jinping, China has also worked hard to grow its influence on the continent.

Russia and China engage with countries in Africa in different ways. Russia uses military and diplomatic incentives to attract and retain partners on the continent. China instead uses developmental projects and heavy debt to draw African allies into its camp.

For example, China is Djibouti’s largest creditor, holding more than US$1.4 billion (£1.1bn) in debt. Faced with rising inflation and a persistent drought, Djibouti suspended its loan repayments to China in 2023, following in the footsteps of Zambia a few years before.

In the event of a default, China could take control of one or all the projects it has funded to recoup its loss. These include the country’s port and its international free trade zone.

China and Russia are not formal allies. But they have expanded ties over the past decade. Xi has called Putin his “best friend and colleague”, while the Russian president has addressed his Chinese counterpart as a “dear friend”.

China has also agreed to strengthen its relationship with Russia further after a meeting between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Beijing on April 9. The two countries may form partnerships with the same African allies in the future, allowing the Kremlin’s influence on the continent to grow further.

The US and Russia are at odds over their influence in Africa. The current situation reflects the old struggle for partitioning Africa among major and emerging world powers, and it could trigger a proxy war among countries in Africa.

Considering that Africa is already struggling with widespread corruption and hardships enabled by old-fashioned and puppet leaders, violent conflicts, and coups, foreign powers must be prevented from further worsening the situation under the guise of counter-terrorism operations.

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*Olumba E. Ezenwa: Doctoral Research Fellow, Conflict, Violence, & Terrorism Research Centre, Royal Holloway University of London

*John Sunday Ojo: Doctoral Researcher at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics, and Literature, University of Portsmouth

This article was first published by The Conversation and is republished with permission.

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