French President Emmanuel Macron recently accused Russia of “predatory” activity in Africa. He is not wrong: Russia’s mercenaries are reportedly fueling violence, coups, human rights abuses and terrorism across West Africa.
For decades, African governments have been marked by corruption and instability — causing a trust deficit between politicians and civilians. According to Chatham House, 70 percent of Africans believe democracy is the best form of government, yet 60 percent say corruption has increased in their country this past year.
Russia President Vladimir Putin is blatantly exploiting this vacuum of moral leadership by making deals with African dictators who hope to retain power amid fears of military coups. The West — and Africans — must invest not in politicians, but in moral, religious and civil society leaders, figures who can cross national borders, fill trust deficits and form an unprecedented pan-African movement aimed at improving all aspects of African life.
Indeed, this would be a critical deterrent against not only a Russian threat, or the root causes of corruption, but other looming challenges as well.
In the last five years, almost half of African arms came from Russia. And they are quick to turn on the West. Only last month, France officially withdrew troops from Mali, ending an almost decade-long effort to combat extremism. But when the French originally announced their departure in 2020 following a coup, the Malian government abruptly replaced Parisian forces 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 though the mercenary group has gone through great lengths to successfully blame the French.
Africa is clearly the next victim of Putin’s imperialist ambitions. Yet, Western nations are occupied with the Ukraine-Russia war, its devastating impacts on their economies, as well as their own internal political instability.
But this blindness — as well as Western focus on Chinese investment projects — has allowed Russia to make subtle yet dangerous inroads into Africa, giving Putin a dangerous leverage in the African continent and beyond.
With 54 UN General Assembly (UNGA) votes and three UN Security Council votes, Africa presents an invaluable political arena for Putin to further his interests on the global stage, all the while discrediting the West.
Russian influence (and disinformation) have already successfully blamed Western sanctions for the food crisis threatening millions of lives across drought-stricken Africa. Back in March, 17 African nations 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 return for security assistance has yielded good results.
Whilst Africa’s biggest trading partner, China, has invested $23 billion in African infrastructure, Russia’s strategy has seen minimal financial investment, barely spending 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 Mediterranean — perfect avenues for the opportunistic deployment of Russia’s paramilitaries.
If Russia continues to gain strongholds, this could influence the development of Africa — from climate policy to human rights — for decades to come.
For too long, the West has overlooked and misunderstood Africa, a continent that by 2050 will be home to one in four of the world’s people. But Africa’s problems are Western by design.
After all, the borders that divide Africa were indiscriminately drawn by Westerns powers. Current African leaders have struggled to fill this vacuum as they are unable to unite Africans across borders — a prerequisite if Africa aims to tackle any future challenges like climate change, food shortages or refugee crises (all of which will spill into neighboring regions eventually).
For the West to curtail Russia’s agenda in the region, we must look to who can unite African people — those who are younger, transforming African industry and development and turning their backs on politics in lieu of community leaders. Religion in particular is rapidly shaping the future of Africa, which could be the epicenter of Christian and Muslim faiths by the end of this century.
Already, organizations like the Muslim World League (MWL) — the largest Islamic NGO in the world — are building networks of faith and civil society leaders to mobilize them against issues like climate change. For example, the MWL’s Secretary General Mohammed Al-Issa — who has combatted extremism and human trafficking in Africa — is behind the global multifaith coalition Faith For Our Planet, which hosted the Faith and Climate Forum in Gambia this week dedicated to promoting West Africa’s most prominent moral leaders.
Of course, countering the Russian threat in Africa will take more than leveraging civil society and faith organizations. It will take a concerted effort to reimagine the West’s relations with Africa, and a reinvestment in issues both the West and Africa face. Disinformation, terrorism, refugees, climate change — defining crises of the century and none that we want residing in the Kremlin’s hands.
Now is the time to build a foundation that Russia cannot manipulate, and the West can no longer overlook. Unless we urgently address West Africa’s moral leadership problem, Russia will keep blatantly exploiting it — with dangerous and far-reaching implications way beyond African borders.
Maurizio Geri, Ph.D., is a former NATO analyst on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and on Maritime Security in the extended Mediterranean. He was also previously an analyst for the Italian Defence General Staff and has 20 years of experience in research on peace and security, international order, democratization, human rights and collective defense. He has delivered research for various think tanks, including The Carter Center, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Euro Gulf Information Center.