Unsurprisingly the West seems to be paying more attention to Russia’s activities in the Sahel, and in Africa as a whole, than it is to the activities of the jihadist groups which — in terms of the number of attacks, deaths and wounded, and internal displacements — show no signs of abating.
Russia’s presence in Africa, notably in the form of the Wagner Group, preceded the invasion of Ukraine but the latter is increasingly focusing Western attention on Moscow’s international adventurism. This is partly because of the inherent fear of President Vladimir Putin’s determination to destroy the existing rules-based world order, and recreate some sort of new post-Soviet empire, or, more realistically, a Russian sphere of influence
The US and Europe currently have much more on their plates to worry about than jihadism in the Sahel. Indeed — with France’s withdrawal from Mali and the largely unsuccessful war against the jihadists about to enter its second decade in January 2023 — civilian massacres now rarely make the international news unless the number of victims is particularly high. The Sahel and news of jihadist activity in the region have largely been relegated by the media. By contrast the atrocities committed by the Wagner Group — such as in the Malian village of Moura in late March (Sahara Focus – April 2022) — now produce shocked headlines.
With the Central African Republic (CAR) already a captured state, and Mali on its way to becoming one, which countries will Moscow target next? The Kremlin has certainly been doing its best this year to woo as many African states as it can muster.
A reading of Russian propaganda — especially the articles published by the TIF Global News — make it very apparent that Niger is now high, if not at the top, of its African strategy. The key to undermining Mohamed Bazoum’s presidency is, as in Mali, to use propaganda to encourage anti-French sentiment while praising Russia and its success in Mali and elsewhere in Africa.
On 18 September several hundred people peacefully demonstrated in Niamey against France’s anti-jihadist Barkhane force while praising Russia. With cries of ‘Barkhane out’, ‘Down with France’, ‘Long live Putin and Russia’, the demonstrators, who had been given permission to do so by Niamey’s municipal authorities, paraded through some of the capital’s streets before holding a meeting in front of the National Assembly. Some demonstrators carried Russian flags and held up hostile signs including some which read ‘The French criminal army, get out’ or ‘The colonial Barkhane army must go’.
Seydou Abdoulaye — the coordinator of the M62 movement, which organised the demonstration that was also held to protest about the cost of living — explained to Agence France Presse (AFP): ‘There are anti-French slogans because we demand the immediate departure of the Barkhane force in Niger, which is alienating our sovereignty and destabilizing the Sahel.’ Wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of Burkina Faso’s former revolutionary president Thomas Sankara, he accused France of actively supporting the jihadists who had spread terrorism from Mali.
Russia’s crude propaganda asserts that the ‘masses’ do not believe Bazoum’s assertion that Western troops will bring stability to the region and instead think that the presence of western militaries will only intensify the cycle of security force abuses, civilian mistrust, and more intensive jihadist attacks. TIF Global claimed that the increasing faith in Russia was because it had already made the Malian army better trained and equipped than they were a few years ago, and that the Wagner Group had had its first big mission in the village of Moura which was cited as a great success, but was a massacre.
Russian disinformation, which is specifically directed at Niger, claimed that the country understands that the West’s ‘appeasement agenda’ towards the jihadists is just a cover to further exploit the region and push it to the brink of collapse. By contrast, it viewed Russia as a dependable fighting force and that ‘Niger is also trying the Russia backed Wagner Group in a bid to wipe out jihadist militants in the region’. This claim is simply not true because there are no Wagner forces in Niger.
TFI Global insists that those African countries which ally themselves with Russia do not suffer from the same shortages of oil or food as the EU which it describes as an ally of the ‘almighty’ United States. It concludes by explaining that it is now too late for the West because: Niger has understood that it will get nothing in return for supporting Ukraine and the West; and that, to fight terrorism, it should accept Russian support and cut its ties with the West.
This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.