Gurtov: Russia fanning flames in recent African coups

If head counting is any indication, Russian diplomacy in Africa is slipping. A Russia-Africa summit meeting held in St. Petersburg drew only 21 African heads of state, compared to the 45 attending Russia's 2019 summit and 50 attending a U.S. summit convened by President Biden last December.

The reason for the low participation may be Vladimir Putin’s withdrawal from the grain deal with Ukraine, which is causing a major price increase throughout Africa. Putin is now promising free grain to several African countries over the next four months.

As the summit unfolded, yet another coup took place in West Africa, the seventh since 2020.

The democratically elected president of Niger was overthrown. A general has been installed as head of state and opposition politicians have been arrested.

In recent years coups have also occurred in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad and Sudan. But Niger, formerly a French colony, is particularly important for the US as a military partner in counter-terrorism activities.

The U.S. operates a drone base in Niger and deploys more than 1000 troops there. It also boasts large deposits of uranium.

The coup leadership’s political leanings are unclear but suspect.

The African Union has condemned the coup. The West African economic bloc ECOWAS has threatened military intervention if the president isn’t reinstated.

The U.S. State Department has called for restoration of democracy, but has left open a legal avenue for continuing military cooperation with the new regime.

Coup politics in Africa have become a Russian specialty, so we may find that Russia’s local Wagner mercenary group, which commands roughly 1,000 soldiers, will begin operating in Niger. Wagner has supported three of Africa’s other recent coups.

And guess who attended the recent St. Petersburg summit? Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose mutiny turned Moscow upside down earlier this year. Perhaps his presence was part of the deal he struck with Putin to halt his rebellion.

Prigozhin reportedly hailed the Niger coup for overthrowing colonialism, meaning a pro-Western leader. He offered use of his troops to help re-establish order, meaning repress the new regime’s opponents.

The great tragedy here is two-fold.

First, military rule is snuffing out democratic options throughout West Africa.

Niger’s overthrown government was the country’s first experiment with democracy. The generals who rule now don’t show any sign of interest in that experiment.

Second, the great needs in West Africa are finding the resources to address poverty, illiteracy and desertification.

But aligning with Russia will not help solve those problems. To the contrary, if the Wagner group has the kind of influence with Niger’s coup regime that it has with others, expect repression of human rights and abuse of government resources to keep the military in power.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated through PeaceVoice, serves as professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University.