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Wagner's Next Target

Wagner's Next Target

Africa’s latest coups could become templates for other disaffected military leaders–and Wagner is slavering at the prospect.

David A. Andelman

When it comes to Africa, forget democracy in any conventional sense. An increasingly broad swath of the continent is being ruled by autocrats or the military. And then there’s the Wagner Group. In the wake of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s assassination, there is a potentially toxic vacuum in Africa.

The problem is that the West and many of the shrinking, democratically-controlled territories of Africa appear to be operating under the illusion that hope, good will, and a determined embrace of western values and methods can restore order, or even sanity, to nations riven by conflict and politics at the point of a gun. In barely a month’s time, military juntas have overthrown decidedly disparate governments in Niger and then in Gabon—both former French colonies—and remain in place in a half dozen more countries where they have seized power in the past three years. That’s along with a swarm of Russian mercenaries and their handlers still on scene, now at least nominally leaderless.

The junta that seized power in Niger on July 26 recently gave the French ambassador forty-eight hours to “get outta Dodge” after he refused a summons by the foreign minister of the junta, whose legitimacy France has refused to recognize. The ambassador didn’t budge—not even as crowds coursed past his embassy’s doors demanding French withdrawal from the country and suggesting, with a display of hastily stitched together Russian flags, that the Kremlin would be far more welcome in their capital.

My special fear is that the time for action may have passed. Certainly, it is now fast approaching a limit where any junta will have become so deeply entrenched that the costs of outside armed intervention could be wildly prohibitive. Decisive action is vital. Just look at the latest posts on the Wagner Group's leading Telegram channel, which demonstrate how deeply embedded its forces are in a host of African countries:

The assault troops of the Wagner Group, with the support of the Libyan National Army (de facto subordinate to the second capital of Libaya—Benghazi) carried out offensive operations from the east to the west of the country with a furthe assault on Tripoli itself….

Soldiers of the Wagner Group meet with a UN contingent accompanied by the German side on a TPZ-1 Fuchs armored personnel carrier in Mali.

Soldiers of the Wagner Group in African Mali: Along the roads that until recently were controlled by motley Islamic terrorists, the state flags of Russia and Mali now hang. The Russian Expeditionary Force that named after Wagner went through Central Africa up and down, as they say, even before it became mainstream.

As for Niger, Wagner proclaimed gleefully on September 8, "The new government of Niger, represented by the National Council for the Defense of the Homeland, gave US Ambassador Kathleen Fitzgibbon 48 hours to leave the country." The junta subsequently declared that this report was erroneous.

From the outset, France, and especially its president Emmanuel Macron, appear prepared to draw the line in the Sahel: if it takes a military intervention to restore democracy, by all means consider sending in the dogs. It’s a tougher line than the United States (or even those nominally democratic states nearby in West Africa) have been prepared to take. All they’ve done is suggest an ill-defined diplomacy for the best path forward, while holding out an evanescent threat of military intervention should such a path prove to be a dead end. Still, without American backing, even French muscle may not be enough.

Indeed, the latest word is that France is in some variety of talks with elements of Niger’s ruling military to begin a withdrawal of some elements of its military. Any quid pro quo will certainly be most carefully monitored—especially after Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna lamented in an interview with Le Monde that the entire concept of “Franceafrique has been dead for a long time.”

Many African nations essentially remain democracies. But even the largest of these have had histories of military takeovers. Nigeria, by far the most populous African nation and a flourishing democracy for the last quarter century, has had at least six military coups. It was ruled by military governments with little interruption from 1966 to 1999. In 1985, I raced down to Lagos on a charter with my CBS camera crew when a palace coup unseated General Muhammed Buhari (who had been running the country), only to learn midflight that the borders and all airspace were closed, leading to our bouncing between Benin and the Côte d’Ivoire. That particular Nigerian regime survived two more coup attempts, before finally turning over its reins to an elected democracy. And indeed, in this century democracy has largely reigned in Nigeria, having foiled a couple of half-hearted efforts to unseat civilian governments.

Today, Nigeria is determinedly pro-Western. It serves as leader of the democratically-inclined Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Its chairman, Nigeria’s elected President Bola Tinubu, has understandably not been happy with military takeovers in nearby Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger. Tinubu and his fellow ECOWAS leaders have been equally unhappy about the arrival of the Wagner Group as a proxy for the Kremlin. After Mali and Burkina Faso fell victim of military coups, then subsequently welcomed Wagner, Tinubu laid down the law: “We will not allow coup after coup in the West African sub-region.”

Then along came Niger. Not only was its pro-Western president, whose nation is a full member of ECOWAS, unseated and placed under house arrest, but the coup’s leaders also even blatantly flirted with Wagner. That Russian group has been spotted or is deeply implanted in at least eighteen African countries, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In many cases, these include Wagner largely assuming control of the country’s security functions, while at least in the case of the Central African Republic, looting them of valuable resources including gold and diamonds.

In June, before Prigozhin’s demise, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a press briefing, “Wherever we’ve seen Wagner operate in the past, we’ve seen death and destruction follow in their wake. And we have instituted a series of policies to hold them accountable and to counter Wagner’s influence.” This bluster, again, does not seem to have had much impact.

ECOWAS, for all Tunubu’s own bluster, has also done nothing. It set a one-week deadline after the Niger junta’s takeover for capitulation or invasion. That deadline came and went—long ago. The junta kept digging in. The problem is that few seem to want another full-scale war in this corner of the world.

There’s certainly some question whether Russia wants to fight or is capable of sustaining another proxy war, this time far from home in Africa. There are said to be some 5,000 Wagner mercenaries sitting in a camp in Belarus, itching for a fight—somewhere. But where? And who would lead them? Still, there is an appetite, which should capture the attention of those concerned about further Russian inroads into Africa.

Neither should Niger’s junta really be spoiling for a fight. Admittedly, the ruling juntas of nearby Mali and Burkina Faso have pledged their assistance to Niger, yet that is far from being put to the test.

Prigozhin’s last official visit, according to his Telegram channel, Orchestra Wagner, was to the Sahel. There are many who believe that Niger may well be Wagner’s next target. Or if not Wagner per se, then quite possibly Russian forces directly. There’s likely little question whether these countries much care who is signing the checks or “helping.”

Indeed, if Niger continues along this parlous path, and especially if Wagner manages to insert itself there, Western intervention is in its own way no less critical in support of democracy than in Ukraine. The world continues to hold its breath as to next moves from those most concerned.

And now, along comes Gabon and the military coup there during the night of August 29-30. In theory, it ought to have been welcomed by democratically-inclined countries, especially that nation’s onetime colonial overseer, France, as well as by the United States, both of which, shamefully, have backed the family that has subjugated and pillaged that oil-rich nation for a half century. Curiously, this coup had the appearance at least of being the first such change of government that was not overtly anti-democratic. Its announced goal was to bring an end to the rule by the kleptocratic Bongo family—father and son, and all their hangers on.

Yet here the West, but particularly the United States and France, appear to be playing an utterly counter-intuitive game—embracing the Bongos and advocating for their return. How is that even possible?

French Foreign Minister Colonna tried to walk this narrow line in her recent Le Monde interview: "On the one hand, we condemn any seizure of power by putschists, especially in a country like Niger, where democratic institutions were functioning. On the other hand, we support the efforts of the countries of the region to achieve a return to constitutional order." That should be Gabon, should it not?

In fact for France, the first reaction from the Macron government had been to “condemn the military coup that is under way in Gabon,” as government spokesman Olivier Veran told reporters in Paris, adding that the government “reiterates its desire to see the results of the election respected.” That was the election last month, totally manipulated by Ali Bongo, that returned him to power for a third term.

And the United States was not far behind the French, with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller observing, “We remain strongly opposed to military seizures or unconstitutional transfers of power. We urge those responsible to release and ensure the safety of members of government and their families and to preserve civilian rule.” At the end was appended a backhanded reference to the reality that these results were utterly bogus: “We also note with concern the lack of transparency and reports of irregularities surrounding the election.”

Wagner seems to be slavering at the prospect of getting their claws into another oil-rich African state. Look at how the Grey Zone, one leading Wagner Telegram channel with over 600,000 subscribers, played the coup and the suggested opportunity:

In African Gabon, a “March of Justice” took place, as a result of which President Ali Bongo was arrested. He has already issued a statement calling for a stir in the international community in order to restore the regime. In turn, the representative of the French government, Olivier Veran, said: "Paris condemns the coup attempt in Gabon, recognizes the results of the elections held in the country." The well-known pan-Africanist Kemi Seba said that Gabon will follow the path that the Wagner Group opened to the African continent: “Now we want the rebels to finally turn the page on the Ali Bongo (president) system and follow the pan-Africanist path of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.”

How is it possible that France, the United States, and the West can't distinguish between the good, the bad, and the absolutely ugly on the African continent? Russia and Wagner don't seem to have much trouble in that regard—each is little more than another opportunity.

The United States needs to do much more. At a minimum, it needs to back any moves by other West African nations to remove the junta in Niger and to restore the democratically elected government, including by supporting military moves other African democracies may be prepared to take. The United States can certainly do this with rhetoric—along with a potential combination of money, weapons, or intelligence—although up to now all it has been preaching is restraint and use of "diplomatic means." But meanwhile, the junta has ordered the French ambassador expelled, and gave short shrift to acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who lasted barely a day in the country and was refused an audience with the junta's leader.

Moreover, even if it means appearing to celebrate a military coup, the United States needs to support any efforts to restore democracy from dictatorships like Gabon, no matter how pro-American these kleptocracies may have styled themselves in the past. Among the first actions by the Gabon military was to appoint as prime minister one of the Bongo family's leading political opponents—economist Raymond Ndong Sima, who had served as Ali Bongo's prime minister from 2012 to 2014 before resigning then running against him twice, unsuccessfully, most recently this year as leader of an opposition coalition.

While a military seizing power may appear at first blush to be an act worthy of being condemned at all cost, such condemnation should not be dispensed reflexively. The junta in Gabon did, after all, manage to remove from office an autocratic dynasty that used the veneer of democracy to perpetuate a kleptocracy that has utterly impoverished the vast mass of a population sitting on OPEC-scale oil reserves. The billions generated have only served to enrich and entrench a father and son in power. Restoring at any cost even a semblance of democracy to a nation that has known none in the half century since its independence from France should be celebrated, not condemned. Nor should such a reaction be allowed to drive the nation's new leaders into the arms of a Russia waiting eagerly in the wings.

Human rights activist and former Nigerian senator Shehu Sani praised the coup in a tweet, observing that Gabon’s “father to Son Dictatorship has been overthrown.” Then he added, “Five decades of one family rule is not a democracy. This is what happens when democracy is suffocated.”

There is a final concern if either the United States or European powers, or both, drop the ball, failing to react strongly (and above all, consistently) in Africa. The risk is that the latest round of coups—thus far successes from the viewpoint of their masterminds, because they've survived to rule—simply become templates for other disaffected military leaders. Fuming in their barracks in other brittle pseudo-democracies elsewhere on the continent, they are opportunities for Russia or China or both to exploit.

David A. Andelman is a foreign correspondent, writer and columnist. His SubStack page is Andelman Unleashed, and he is a columnist for CNN. A former correspondent in Europe and Asia for The New York Times, he was Paris correspondent for CBS News and is a chevalier of France’s Legion d’Honneur. His latest book is A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen, plus its podcast.

Image: A member of the Wagner group in Africa (Telegram/Wagner's Orchestra)

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