Wagner Group mercenaries have launched an “informational war” in Africa, fighting against democracy by stoking anti-Western sentiment sweeping across some of the poorest nations in the world, experts have warned.
The result could be catastrophic, both domestically and abroad, with a seismic uptick in violence causing the death of thousands and a potential mass migration to Europe, including, eventually, the United Kingdom.
It is in the theatre of the Sahel and West Africa, where the majority of former French colonies are situated, that this is playing out. Its frustrated populations, struggling against a lack of opportunity and heightened insecurity, are looking for someone to blame for these issues.
For fact or fiction, the post-colonial French rulers, under President Emmanuel Macron, who many in the Sahel view as “arrogant”, have been held responsible. In the last three years, six former colonies have experienced coups.
After the final fall of Niger, located in the heart of the Sahel, to an anti-democratic coup on July 26, the French-led West is now scrambling to ensure the ballast of the region does not succumb to the pro-Russian forces that have routinely capitalised on the chaos.
Why did the Niger coup start?
The post-colonial situation facing many Nigeriens, and indeed across many areas of the Sahel, is incredibly difficult.
Educational standards, at both the primary and secondary level, are poor. Employment opportunities are consequently slim because “young people in Niger lack the … knowledge required by the job market”, according to Boubou Cisse, a World Bank economist based in Niamey, the nation’s capital.
Extreme droughts caused by climate change and worsened by the country’s proximity to the Sahara, the world’s largest hot desert, reduce the supply of viable farming, further restricting job opportunities.
These problems are then made more pressing by projections that the Niger population, without sufficient access to contraception and sexual education, will nearly triple by 2050, increasing job demand in an already-constrained pool.
Islamic jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and IS, who have no interest in educational equality, wish to instil repressive regimes and are more than willing to kill those that get in their way, further “hamper development efforts to tackle these already huge problems,” Paul Melly, an expert on Francophone Africa, said.
These interlinked issues and the fact they remain unsolved are why young members of the population unable to reach their full potential are frustrated with their French-backed governments.
Elements of the nation’s military then “exploit this and try to create situations of confrontation where they can play to the gallery as defenders of the nation against the former colonial power,” Mr Melly said.
When Mr Macron recently refused to comply with the putschists ordered expulsion of the French ambassador, for example, on the basis that they did not recognise the new, anti-democratic regime, the junta “presented itself as defending the nation against an arrogant former colonial power that won’t respect Niger’s sovereignty”, Mr Melly added. It was a careful, effective manipulation of the truth.
Why does Niger matter?
Of all the former French colonies in the Sahel, it was Niger that had maintained ties with France and upheld democracy for decades while its neighbours fell like dominoes around them.
Roughly 1,500 French troops are still stationed in the country and a US drone base for long-range MQ-9 Reapers (range: 1,115 miles) is located in Agadez, central Niger, which is vital to Western attempts to fight Islamic terrorism throughout the region.
Neighbouring Mali, which suffered two coups in nine months (2020 and 2021), now hosts roughly 1,500 Wagner Group forces while Burkina Faso next door, which fell to a military junta in January last year, is heavily linked to the Russian mercenaries.
In the east of the Sahel, Sudan is embroiled in a civil war killing thousands following a recent involvement with Wagner, as well as a potential reinvolvement, and neighbouring Chad suffered a military coup in April 2021. Guinea, on the west coast, suffered its own coup four months later.
Niger was one of the few democracies remaining in the region, severing the two collections of coups in the east and west.
Now, after July 26, a belt from the Red Sea stretching nearly 3,500 miles across the entire width of Africa to the Atlantic Ocean is ruled by unelected military officials, all of which are prime targets, if they haven’t already succumbed, of the Wagner Group.
Beware the mercenaries
In the immediate aftermath of the Niger coup, the late Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin described the insurrection as a “triumph”.
In these following months, the Commonwealth of Officers for International Security (COIS), Wagner’s branch in the Central African Republic further south, has been excessively sharing videos decrying the French as “terrorists” and hailing Russia as “liberators” of the Sahel from colonial rule.
Images of Russian and Wagner Group flags being waved at protests in Niamey, and published far and wide by COIS channels, were then hailed by that same group as evidence of their status as the saviours of the region and the only answer to Western-sown insecurity.
For the people of Niger, at least in the southern regions where Niamey is located, only miles away from Burkina Faso, it seems the prevailing influence of the Wagner Group is spreading.
Dr Alex Vines OBE, director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House since 2002, said this tactic effectively “exaggerates, divides and seeds doubt on fertile sceptical ground about France but also increasingly the West”, noting that this same strategy was being employed in South America.
This manipulation of information bears striking resemblance to the Niger military junta’s own approach to French refusals to leave.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
But recognising that the Wagner forces in the Sahel over publicise their influence is vital for France and the West to understand that support for these mercenaries is equally easy to overestimate.
Dr. Philani Mthembu, executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, a South African think tank, suggested many of the struggling young people holding Russian flags, images which are then proliferated by Wagner channels on social media, are not doing so out of support for the Kremlin or Wagner.
These flag-bearers, he said, are knowingly “playing into geopolitical tensions”, essentially looking to provoke Western nations by pretending to support their enemies.
A closer inspection of these pro-junta rallies shows Iranian and North Korean flags also flying, as well as Russian and Wagner signs, and these countries have little to no affiliation with Niger, they are simply known by the Nigeriens to be anti-Western.
The presence of Russian and Wagner flags says less about the infectious nature of the mercenary’s appeal than it does the staunch frustration at what Nigeriens view as Western-sown hopelessness. The Wagner Group’s propaganda may not be as effective as they think.
Swim before the tide turns
As the coup in Niger develops, however, increasing the risk of both the Sahel and West Africa “plunging into a spiral of violence, including from extremist Islamic groups”, the need to counter the Wagner Group’s influence is nonetheless pressing, former US ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray said.
Support for the Wagner Group may be over publicised for now but propaganda initiatives have proved effective in the Sahel before.
Three disinformation campaigns in Mali helped consolidate the Wagner Group’s influence and subsequent stationing in the nation. Since their arrival in 2021, instances of political and civilian deaths have increased by 150 per cent while “violence in 2022 reached the highest levels ever recorded”, according to researchers ACLED.
France must counter this Wagner-led narrative before it is too late.
But they face an issue: while “unofficial” Wagner actors can spread disinformation without repercussion, a democratic nation does not have this liberty. Mercenaries do not have to play by the same rules.
In 2020, for example, French attempts to counter pro-Russian online disinformation campaigns in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali with fake accounts backfired when Facebook disclosed the participation of individuals connected to the French armed forces. Wagner is now in both countries while the French have left completely.
Disinformation works for mercenaries; it does not for democracies.
In Niger, the COIS claimed recently that France is “abucting children” who are “likely to be used for slave labour and sexual exploitation”. These claims have no basis in fact but efforts to counter them may fall on deaf ears.
Upping investment in mainstream media, a tactic the French are now employing in the region, according to Dr Vines, is unlikely to succeed given the view of many Nigeriens that France is an “arrogant” overlord. What appears to be more grassroots voices perpetrated by the Wagner Group, and that prey on anti-French feelings, may be more appealing.
How long France can invest in mainstream media in a region where they are unwanted is also unclear.
Mr Ray, with extensive experience of Western involvement on the continent, suggested the best solution at this stage was an African-led one. Anti-Western sentiment is currently too volatile.
The former ambassador urged the pro-democratic Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigeria, to “press its member states to sever all ties with Wagner Group if they form an alliance with Niger’s junta”.
“Strict sanctions against those Sahel countries that invite Wagner in, might – and I say might – put pressure on some to take a step back,” he said.
ECOWAS has dithered over how best to tackle the seemingly-infectious nature of these coups and the subsequent appearance of pro-Russian mercenaries. Threats of military retaliation in early August proved empty.
Nevertheless, the fate of France and their Western allies’ involvement in the Sahel, and in countering dangerous Russian influence, may now rest in West Africa’s hands. Perhaps that is the Wagner Group’s first victory.
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