From Sudan to the Sahel, Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly attributed a leading role in African conflicts. Unjustified, writes Bram Vermeulen. Moscow is merely an asset for isolated warlords.
“There is war in Sudan, but why, I've lost track of that for a while,” the late Dutch singer Jeroen van Merwijk sang. “I no longer understand anything when I look at those images. Why don't we do one war at a time from now on?”
I was reminded of this song in recent days, when the wildest analyses about the outbreak of violence in Sudan emerged. “Vladimir Putin's war has exploded in Sudan,” wrote the Daily Telegraph. “How Russia's Wagner group once again appears to be behind the violence in Sudan.” (Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium.) “Is Moscow behind the massacre in Sudan?” (Daily Mail.)
Those headlines would reassure Van Merwijk. As if there is only one war: Putin against the West, and all other conflicts are just outgrowths of it. It is as simple as that.
But Sudan is not Putin's puppet, nor are other African countries. The Russians are just a trump card in the games of isolated warlords.
Take General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, alias Hemedti, the man who commands the Rapid Support Forces that were fighting for power with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan's Sudanese government forces mid-April. A year ago, Hemedti suddenly appeared in Moscow. It was 23 February 2022, on the eve of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. “The whole world must recognise that [Russia] has the right to defend its people,” Hemedti said.
His visit had been facilitated by the head of Wagner, the mercenary army that not only fights in Syria and Ukraine, but also turns up in a growing number of African countries. In Sudan, Wagner entered into a joint venture with Hemedti's Rapid Support Forces, which controls gold mines in western Sudan. That gold now feeds the Russian Central Bank, and thus Putin's war chest. It sounds like a solid coalition.
But Wagner is just one of Hemedti's business partners, an occasional friend. He also lends his well-trained Rapid Support Forces, 110,000 troops strong, to Saudi Arabia to fight in Yemen, in exchange for hard currency. His troops are also responsible for border control in Sudan and, according to human rights organisations, are alleged to have received money from the European Emergency Trust Fund through a detour channel, to stop refugees fleeing the country. The EU denies this.
“Hemedti is emerging as a mercenary of the state,” writes Sudan expert Alex de Waal. “This is familiar to anyone who follows Sahrawi politics.” Hemedti himself has been busy on Twitter, presenting himself as a defender of human rights and the people. In doing so, he emphatically positions himself against the government army – the same government army that has hired him for numerous dirty jobs over the past 20 years.
Russia is on both sides of this conflict
According to sources of the Africa Confidential newsletter, Hemedti has let it be known that he is willing to drop Wagner if neighbouring countries are willing to recognise him as Sudan's new leader. At the same time, the Russians are also playing a double game. On 9 February, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Khartoum to shake hands with Hemedti's rival, General Burhan, in order to lobby for a Russian naval base in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. Russia is on both sides of this conflict.
I saw the same opportunism in Sudan's neighbour, the Central African Republic (CAR). There is no country in Africa where the Russians are as visible as in CAR. You come across Wagner mercenaries at bakeries, cafés and restaurants, and in almost every ministry where there is some money to make. They cut down tropical hardwood, man roadblocks on the main arterial roads to neighbouring countries and, as in Sudan, loot gold mines.
The Russian mercenaries do not budge from the side of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra either. I saw with my own eyes how Wagner's head walked into the presidential palace in Bangui to report on the security situation in the country. I also saw how the mercenaries stood for hours – masked and all, sweating like bodyguards – while the president watched a triathlon from a plastic chair. But when I asked the president why he trusted the Russians with his life, he responded with agitation. “Is this the only question you find interesting? The Russian issue?” he asked, sitting on the veranda of his country house. “When your house is on fire, you don't go whining about the colour of the firewater.”
His point was that for years he had begged the West for protection from rebels threatening his power but received no response. As a result of an international arms embargo, he could not defend himself against numerous rebel groups. The army of former coloniser France withdrew completely from the Central African Republic late last year. Only Moscow heeded the president's cry for protection.
President Touadéra also informed the French in January that he was willing to drop Wagner in exchange for Western support. Although the Russians have had warm ties with CAR since the 1960s, the president’s use of Wagner was motivated only by personal interest and not ideology. The Russians, by default.
According to an International Crisis Group report published in February, this hope is in vain. Mali and Burkina Faso risk sinking further into international isolation. None of these processes are directed by President Putin. He is not the puppet master here; he is being played by African interests.
In February, when Russian frigates conducted exercises with the Chinese navy off the coast of South Africa, it was seen internationally as a middle finger to Ukraine and the West. “All countries conduct exercises with their friends around the world," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in defence. By ‘friendship’, she was referring to Moscow's support for African liberation movements during the Cold War, such as Mandela's ANC.
You would not expect such theatrics from a government for which the European Union and the United States are significantly more important trading partners than Russia. But the ANC government is under fire domestically for mismanagement, and feels the hot breath of the radical left on its neck. The leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, has already promised to give Putin a warm welcome when he visits South Africa in August for a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit. Hand in hand, comrades.
The chances of South Africa arresting Putin on the orders of the International Criminal Court are slim. Not because South Africa has much to gain from lending a helping hand to Putin, but because in these times, playing both camps is more profitable for the elites of African countries.
Bram Vermeulen is former Africa correspondent of NRC and presenter of the VPRO programme Frontline. This article was first published in Dutch daily NRC.