Some unlikely names are beginning to appear in Syria, Egypt, Libya and other countries, which lie south of the Sahel belt of Africa. Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), which won its spurs in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, is also suspected of being involved in protecting gold, diamond and uranium mines controlled by the northern Sudanese president Omar al Bashir. While Wagner Group guards oil facilities in Syria, it has also spread its wings to the Central African Republic, where a hundred of its men are training the army, which is being rebooted after free elections brought a new man, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, to the presidency two years ago. Russia had already agreed to sell weapons to the country despite a UN embargo, which followed severe rioting in 2013.
Another Russian PMC, RSB, has been active in clearing explosive ordnance around Benghazi, Libya, while unnamed Russians are training, on the Egyptian base of Sidi Barrani, soldiers and officers working for the strong man of eastern Libya, Field Marshall Belqassim Haftar. Ukrainian PMCs are not far behind: the Omega Group is active in Burkina Faso and it doesn’t shy away from recruiting ex-francophone soldiers with solid combat experience. French indeed remains the lingua franca in North West Africa. The company’s Ukrainian helicopter for its part is active in Ivory Coast, Congo and Mali where it helps evacuate wounded soldiers who belong to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Mission in Mali established in 2013.
The three traditional leading players in the region – France, the United States and Algeria – are unhappy, but each of them for different reasons. As to the US, it is not happy about the appearance of Russian PMCs but only has itself to blame. Indeed, the report published in April by the Pentagon on the ambush, which on 1st October 2017 cost nine soldiers, including four members of a special US force, their lives in eastern Niger shows photos of an American PMC, Erickson, evacuating the wounded. Another US company, Berry Aviation, is also involved in the region, helping out with operations, which come under the command of AFRICOM, one of the ten United States Armed Forces commands whose remit to combat terrorism and drugs trafficking covers all of Africa except Egypt. Twenty-one American PMCs are officially listed on the AFRICOM website.
Such companies proliferated after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the likes of Blackwater and Dyncorp becoming household names after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But PMCs go back to the Congo crisis in the 1960s, which ended with Joseph Mobutu seizing power to protect the interests of Union Minière in the province of Katanga. The first PMC was Watch Guard International, formed in 1965 by David Sterling, the founder of British Special Air Services (SAS). Their activities seemed to decline in the 1980s.
In such a context, the recent decision of US Defense Secretary James Mattis to order a sweeping Pentagon review of elite Unites States commando missions, which employ more than 7,300 Special Operational troops world-wide, would appear to fly in the face of existing orthodoxy. The Africa command has been asked how it would conduct its counterterrorism on the continent if the number of commandos there was cut by 25% over 18 months and 50% over three years. That would cut existing numbers from 1,200 to 700 – roughly the same number as 2014.
What is not clear yet is whether such a cut, were it to be carried through, is a belated recognition that the increasing presence of sophisticated weapons and foreign troops and mercenaries is most unlikely to bring lasting peace to Africa. Whatever the answer, the growing US military footprint has helped attract Russian and Ukrainian PMCs to central Africa, which complicates an already very difficult situation.
‘Russia & Ukraine Gain a Foothold in Africa’ – Opinion by Francis Ghilès and Akram Kharief – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.