The West is losing ground in Africa, strategically, economically and diplomatically. But are the ones who have stepped in, most prominently China and Russia, any better than the West with its abominable African track record? Bram Posthumus thinks not. Will the continent finally take its destiny in its own hands?
Bamako, Place de l’Indépendance, January 2020. At a stone’s throw from the Institut Français, with its interminable roster of Malian talent showcases, yet another anti-France demonstration is taking place. Placards are held aloft, stating ’France dégage’ (France Out!) and red, white and blue tricolour flags are held up. Alongside the familiar vertical French variety, there is also the horizontal white, blue and red – of Russia.
The narrative being peddled this afternoon is that France is supporting Tuareg rebels who have seized the colonial era garrison town of Kidal and that Russia will bring in troops to liberate that place. I ask demonstrators if they are familiar with Russian war tactics, such as the ones currently on display in Ukraine and previously demonstrated in cities as far apart as Grozny and Aleppo.
‘Do you know what they (the Russians) will do with Kidal?’, I ask. ‘Yes!,’ comes the reply, ‘they will liberate it.’ ‘Indeed,’ I reply, ‘by bombing it to hell. It’s what they do.’ My demonstrator friends do not believe this. But in the unlikely event of such wholesale destruction occurring…well if that is the price to pay for the total liberation of the country, then so be it. It is unlikely that events currently unfolding in Ukraine will have the effect of a reality check. If anything, Russia’s African fans are doubling down on their support.
From Wagner with love
Bangui, early March 2022. Near the university campus in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), a small demonstration is staged, in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The crowd recalls the fact that Bangui – and the Central African president Faustin Archange Touadéra, whose government resides there – was saved by Russians early last year when a loose alliance of rebel forces laid siege to the city for weeks and threatened to overthrow the government and the president, who was seeking re-election. The people at the demonstration feel they owe Russia this show of solidarity by supporting the Ukraine invasion.
The fighting force that prevented Bangui from being overrun by the rebel force of former president François Bozizé, was Russian, but not exactly an officially sanctioned one. It was a private military outfit that has gained worldwide notoriety under its brand name Wagner. It cut its teeth whilst conducting offensive action in the Ukraine region of Luhansk in 2014, a dry run if you like for the invasion Russia’s president Vladimir Putin set in motion late February 2022. Latest reports from the CAR suggest that having done their “work” there, Wagner are being sent back to the Ukraine, where they are more urgently needed to support Russia’s invasion.
Mercenaries have a long history on the continent.
Mercenaries have a long history on the continent, from the renegade French self-styled colonel Bob Denard’s antics in the Comoros throughout the 1970s on to the hare-brained British and South African schemes to overthrow the Obiang family in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 (the episode was immortalised in Adam Roberts’ book The Wonga Coup). Former apartheid SA operatives set up Executive Outcomes, the group that worked in Sierra Leone’s bloody messy civil war in the 1990s.
But Wagner adds two dimensions: first, the company has identifiable ties with the Russian state. While the French always used the art of plausible deniability when it came to Denard’s antics, the Kremlin has well-known personal ties between key Wagner executives like its de facto owner Yevgenyi Prigozhin and Russia’s leadership, most notably Putin himself. There are even suggestions that Wagner is not private at all and that its failure to produce an address of its own is due to the fact that it already has one: Russia’s Ministry of Defence. That brings us to the second point: Wagner very neatly fits with Russia’s efforts to re-direct parts of the African continent (back) to its sphere of influence.
Following its deep involvement in first Ukraine and then Syria, it is no coincidence that the company’s entry onto the African scene coincides with the Kremlin’s renewed interest in the continent. But Wagner’s fortunes have been highly mixed: it helped Sudan’s long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir to put down street protests against his regime in 2018 but could not prevent his ouster; it was unceremoniously removed from Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province for its abject failure to dislodge the jihadist rebels from that area (Mozambique went on to demand Rwandan aid); and it failed dismally in its support for Libya’s renegade general Khalifa Haftar to take Tripoli in the first half of 2020.
In fact, its only more or less plausible success story is the CAR, a bitterly neglected part of the world where France once held sway, never bothering to develop it.
Wagner arrived in 2018, filling a vacuum left by France two years previously. The scenario is likely to be repeated in Mali, where French and European troops will leave behind a country that is in worse shape than when they came, with jihadists and criminals controlling large swathes in the North and the Centre. At present, no-one controls the CAR; everyone gets their slice of the open space ruled by nobody. Violence stalks the land.
With Wagner propping up the government of president Faustin Archange Touadéra, most emphatically early last year when Bozizé’s rebels failed to capture Bangui, the Russian mercenaries have mainly been in the news for serious human rights abuses in the cash-strapped nation. Since the CAR government has no money, it has given Wagner the right to help itself to its gold and diamond mines to pay for the presence of its estimated 1,300 “instructors”. The UN has recorded a litany of murder, disappearances, rape and pillage the company has allegedly been involved in.
This is what awaits equally cash-strapped Mali. The participants of the pro-Russia rallies in Bamako are, of course, blissfully unaware of Wagner’s fortunes and antics elsewhere on the continent. They have fallen for the highly effective propaganda war waged by another branch of Russia’s African efforts: well-oiled troll factories, increasingly manned by operatives in Africa itself.. Reports are emerging of a massacre allegedly involving Wagner operatives, which took place early March in a village called Dogofry, in the Niono region. This would be the first such mass murder committed in Mali by these Russian mercenaries.
But Russia is by no means the only foreign power currently claiming African turf from the old Western colonial bosses. China is, of course, another.
The Liberian capital Monrovia is home to some of China’s most spectacular construction efforts, including the very large and very austere Ministerial Complex in Congo Town and the new terminal at the Roberts International Airport. If the quality of the kit used in the latter is any indication, these buildings will not last terribly long. Another area where China will not have an impact with its construction, consumer goods, logistics and culture businesses, is the quality of Liberian governance, which is only going down from where it was, which wasn’t very good to begin with.
It was not far from that Ministerial Complex, in one of the backstreets off Tubman Avenue in the capital, that the following scene unfolded one fine Friday morning in March. A private vehicle was being pursued by two large and unmarked FourWheelDrives with horns blaring maniacally. The car was overtaken and made to stop. A bunch of heavy duty bodyguard types in grey suits exited the 4WDs, got the driver and his passengers out (all young men), took control of the vehicle, made the driver sit in the back of his car, and drove off. The whole sinister scene took maybe ten minutes to unfold and quite a few more to digest. One possible explanation was politician’s thugs wanting a car and perhaps a prisoner. Another could be that the driver simply got in the way of some government official or other and had to be taught a lesson. The incident evokes parallels with the beating, last January, of journalist and ZAM contributor Bettie Johnson-Mbayo, her husband and a friend, after a politician took offense when they parked in the street that borders his mansion.
With the UN peacekeeping mission gone and hardly any foreigners present to keep an eye on things, these street scenes are signs of a gangster regime in operation. It is tolerated by the country that created it (the United States) and supported on a large scale by China, which has a trade relation with Liberia worth US$2.5bn. Some 70 state and private Chinese companies are present in the country, trading, doing construction and refurbishment work of public buildings, road building and extraction activities, notably iron ore mining, forestry and fishery.
For the benefit of foreigners
Still, all this is small beer compared to what Angola and China created at the turn of the century: a giant cooperation laboratory of construction projects-for-oil. Having suffered four decades of war, Angola needed to rebuild and turned to China for money, backed by its oil reserves. These oil-backed loans then paid for the 1,300 kilometre Benguela Railway and continued with Africa’s most spectacular ghost town: Kilamba Kiaxi. This gigantic building project, built a decade ago just outside the Angolan capital Luanda at a cost of $3.5 billion, was supposed to have housed the country’s middle classes but the apartment blocks are too expensive to rent or buy and so the place is taking forever to fill up while the capital’s numerous poor suburbs remain overcrowded. By contrast, the railway, reconstructed and extended into the DR Congo for nearly $2 billion is in full operation, transporting passengers and goods between the interior and the coast.
But the Benguela railway is an exception. How super powers’ partnerships with African governments more often than not fail to serve the African people can be seen, twice daily, in Guinea’s capital Conakry. Here, a small Chinese-built passenger train between Kagbélen, a suburb on the outskirts of the capital and a nondescript point on the central Kaloum peninsula is frequently out of service because of accidents, or for lack of money for maintenance.
But another, altogether smoother train operation ends in the Port Autonome de Conakry and carries colossal quantities of unprocessed red earth to destinations ranging from Russia to China to Dubai. This particular train runs fast and is operated by the Russian aluminium giant RusAl, one of the few non-military Russian endeavours on the African continent. Like almost all railways ever built on the continent, this one carries a sough-after commodity, bauxite (the raw material for aluminium, worth 50 times more), which leaves the country with no value added.
Following numerous accidents with this train as it runs through the densely populated Guinean capital, RusAl was not told to improve its security protocol. Instead, Conakry’s city dwellers were told to be extra careful when crossing the railway line.
STREAMER Russia is building on the capital it retains from the Soviet era.
This last example is the most symptomatic for foreign involvement on the continent. It’s there ‘for the benefit of foreigners’, as Fela Kuti sang so memorably. It’s not there for the people actually living there. And it does not really matter who is doing the constructing, the hauling, the exporting or the financing of all that stuff. They all do it – for themselves.
Russia is building on the capital it retains from the Soviet era. China is building on the legacy of its non-colonial past, which is only non-colonial because others got there earlier.
For its part, Europe never got to grips with the fact that the world has changed and that new, never colonised generations of Africans have no truck with any supposed “special relationship” that was built on the subjugation of their ancestors.
Resentment in the Sahel against France, for instance, has a history, from the forced labour gangs that built the railway between Abidjan and Ouagadougou to the crimes France committed directly in Cameroon and Niger and through its attempted dismemberment-by-proxy of Nigeria in the 1960s. The list is incomplete and yet already depressingly long, between the brutal British suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Italians massacring thousands of Ethiopians in Addis Ababa, the King of the Belgian’s genocide in Congo, the planned extermination of two peoples by the Germans in Namibia and Portugal’s wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.
Which is why some, in Mali and CAR, will cheer the Russians. Unlike the West, they do not pretend to stand for human rights , transparency, good governance or the rule of law. While brutal, this honesty can be quite refreshing.
Europe gets a fit of collective amnesia when its own crimes come up, whilst none of this has been forgotten on the African continent. And the realisation is growing, especially among the continent’s younger generations, that all this foreign posturing, be it by sending troops, sending money to finance “development projects”, dumping stuff nobody else wants, holding endless rounds of meetings and workshops and pledging yet more assistance will never bring better governance to their countries, never create the jobs they want, never bring down the kleptocracies that have mortgaged their futures, never reduce armed conflict and never install non-corrupt justice systems that work for everyone, not just a well-connected elite. And you may have noticed that all of these (bad governance, unemployment, stealing leaders, lack of prospects, impunity) are factors that contribute to more armed conflicts, as ZAM’s own research has pointed out frequently.
While some layers of society in Africa continue to nail their flags to the masts of foreign partners, be they donors, railway builders or military powers, there may well be even more who, increasingly, feel that it has been quite enough. Awareness is rising that, even if Africa continues to suffer from weak state systems and its history of exploitation and bad governance, looking for a saviour from outside hasn’t helped and that Africans have to take the lead in doing things for themselves.
Hard-hitting investigative journalism communities are holding leaders accountable in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. In Uganda, increasing numbers of social justice activists denounce theft and land grabbing by the kleptocrats that rule them, even if to do so means jailtime; likewise, military coup leaders are under fire from thousands of protesters in Sudan. Citizens’ activism recently saw new president Hichilema, who is untainted by corruption and has turned away from indebting the country to China, elected in Zambia, and fuelling a new yellow pro-democracy wave in Zimbabwe. Intelligentsia and media in South Africa don’t buy even one comma from their ruling party’s lame and ill-informed sucking up to Russia as an ‘old ally’ in the struggle against apartheid. Nigerian students stuck in Ukraine recently were unafraid to call out both the Russian bombs and the EU-minded, but racist Ukrainian ‘good guys’ who forced all blacks to the back of queues for refugee trains. From Mali to Mozambique, professional civil servants and whistleblowers have provided maps of the anatomy of corrupt systems in their countries to inform good governance efforts.
The sharpest minds on the continent are heartily fed up with debates about who the next foreign saviour will be – or who next to blame when things go wrong.
Therefore: forget Brussels, Moscow, Washington or Bejing. Inspiration and energy away from global chess players are available on Africa’s streets, in Africa’s home yards, in its minds, heads and hearts. It is not yet uhuru, as the saying goes, but it is definitely coming closer.