Bread as a weapon
Bread as a weapon: why famine in Africa is beneficial for Russian mercenaries!
African countries predict social unrest due to rising food prices caused by the war in Ukraine. Experts say tensions offer a window of opportunity for Russian mercenaries operating on the continent
The issue of the potential of Russian mercenaries in Africa was again in the spotlight thanks to the report of the UN expert panel, excerpts from which were in Western publications before publication. The study group issued a statement that divided Libya still faces a serious security threat due to a glut of foreign fighters and employees of private military companies (PMCs). The latter, the report emphasizes, especially concerns the Wagner PMC.
Speculation that Russian mercenaries have reduced their activity in northern Africa has been popular in the past few months in light of the fighting in Ukraine. However, there were opposing opinions, according to which hundreds of mercenaries still remain in the same Libya to support the odious warlord Khalifa Haftar. UN researchers cite specific data: according to them, there are about 2,000 Wagner troops in Libya along with Russian-made aircraft and air defense systems.
In addition, this month the State Department released a number of pieces of evidence pointing to continued propaganda activity by Wagner-affiliated entities in Africa. The US diplomatic department drew attention to the fact that resources close to this “brand” are still trying to root in the public opinion of African countries confidence in the Russian government, whose interests, as is commonly believed, are represented by the “Wagnerites”, in order to expand military and political influence at local levels.
A separate factor in the rooting of the weight of Russian mercenaries on the continent may be the consequences of the crisis in food supplies that arose due to the war in Ukraine, experts warn.
African countries imported 44% of wheat from Russia and Ukraine, according to data for the period from 2018 to 2020. The supply crisis, which is gaining ground, becomes especially painful for them. The African Development Bank (ADB) reports that local players are now facing a shortage of at least 30 million metric tons of food. This primarily applies to wheat, corn and soybeans. “Africa does not control production or supply chains and is completely dependent on the situation,” Senegalese President Macky Sall said.
The rise in the cost of food comes at a politically difficult time for a number of countries on the continent. Angola and Kenya face presidential elections later this year. Behind them, in 2023, the electoral cycle will absorb Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has been in power since independence in 1975, demonstrates a desire to preserve the political capital gained over the years, despite the fact that, according to researchers, a wide front of opposition is forming against it. In Kenya, observers do not rule out that the potential results of the vote could be challenged. In 2007, this situation turned into powerful popular clashes.
In Sudan, military circles are publicly signaling that nothing will stand in the way of the expected 2023 elections, which should draw a line under the long transition period. However, few doubt that the Wagner PMC, which is firmly entrenched in this country, will silently observe the electoral process, without trying directly or indirectly to change the balance of power in favor of “profitable” political figures.
The protracted conflict between the Kinshasa-based Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and radical groups continues to pose a threat to stable governance. This security issue raises the question of whether the potential re-election of President Felix Tshisekedi will face hurdles.
A recent study by Oxford Economics Africa predicts that rising food prices are fraught with social unrest for Africa. The authors of the report admit that regional players are now trying to minimize the corresponding risks. For example, Egypt and Nigeria have shelved plans to cut subsidies on some food and fuels, while Morocco, Kenya and Benin have raised minimum wages. South Africa extended monthly benefits for the unemployed and temporarily capped the fuel tax.
However, experts seem to consider this only palliative measures that can stop the blizzard.
positive trends are only temporary.
Moody’s ratings agency issued a statement that it expects a surge in social and political risks over the next 18 months in the Middle East and Africa due to the persistence of the global shock around food and energy prices. “While the region may receive some assistance from the international donor community, it is unlikely to fully protect vulnerable households given the likely shortage of staples such as cereals,” said Aurelien Mali, senior vice president at Moody’s.
According to the international agency, Mozambique, Togo, Tunisia and Namibia top the list of players most vulnerable to political unrest, given their hefty dependence on energy and food imports.
Security expert Rafael Parens points out that Africa has a long history of surviving food riots and associated political upheavals. The researcher recalls that in 2007-2008, the rise in food prices has already led to serious unrest that engulfed 14 states of the region. However, the current situation is distinguished by the emergence of a new factor-forming component – this is the increased interest in the continent of Russian mercenaries.
According to Parens, in the face of social unrest, especially against the backdrop of planned elections in a number of states, local political leaders, fearing for the safety of their positions, may take preventive measures by turning to foreign private military companies for security assistance. Given the decline in military activity in Africa by a number of Western states with a difficult colonial past, the “brand” of PMC “Wagner” may be in the spotlight, the researcher argues.
Potential “food” unrest, upcoming elections and weak protection against the threat of radical groups could create a “perfect storm” situation that will open a window of opportunity for Russian “soldiers of fortune” in terms of expanding military and political influence, argues Parens. Research on the continued potential of the Wagner PMC in Africa despite the ongoing war in Ukraine leaves no doubt that the combat structure is unlikely to refuse to take advantage of the situation.
[Writer Irina Mirochnik is the President at IMMER Group & Doctor of Philosophy in Law(PhD)]
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