As Russia’s Africa Conference in St Petersburg is attended only by client states and those with a shopping list, a brutal Russian mercenary group has turned up in Somalia.
Only 17 African leaders are attending Vladimir Putin’s latest Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg out of a potential 54. This represents a dramatic fall from the previous event in 2019 that saw 43 travel north to hear that Russia should be Africa’s global partner of choice over the former colonial states and the US-European western liberal order.
Many have been put off by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, taking a moral stance against a transgressor of international laws and norms. Others have been pressured by the West, it is true. Some simply don’t want to be seen to be taking a side.
Who went? Who didn’t?
Those in the pocket of Russia, of course, are toasting Putin’s good health with plentiful vodka: countries like Mali, CAR, Libya and South Africa (whose ANC leaders conceal their personal lines of credit with declarations of long term, Soviet era friendship). Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Senegal, while not on the Kremlin payroll, will as well, with a list of ‘desirable items’, most of which lie in Russian arsenals. Some are sending lower-level delegations, ministers rather than presidents.
Kenya, however, will not even do that, nor will Zambia, Ghana and a number of other key players. Many African countries appear to be beginning to see through preposterous Russian claims. Putin stated in 2019 he would double trade with Africa from $16 billion to $40 billion: but it has risen only to $17 billion.
Others see Russia’s abandoning of the grain deal, which ensured that vital raw foodstuffs were still shipped around the world from Ukraine despite the continuing conflict, as likely to have direct and devastating effects for the African continent. His offer of a measly 60,000 tonnes of grain to six select African countries has riled the other 48.
Attending at gunpoint
Some of those who are attending are doing so effectively with the barrel of an AK-47 in their back. Russia has only last month finally recognised what everyone already knew, that the mercenary organisation, the Wagner Group, was funded directly by the Kremlin and was, therefore, a tool of influence, intimidation and exploitation.
The Wagner Group operates across Africa, supporting client states, suppressing both terrorists and political opposition groups with equal brutality. They also are swift to appear in any unstable area where there are extractives: payment is often taken in gold, diamonds, vital minerals and oil. Any unstable state that has something to offer, admittedly at an excessive mark-up, is Wagner’s natural home.
So it should be no surprise that Wagner has apparently appeared in Somalia, for a long time the ultimate failed state. (Although it is now only ‘fragile’ and does seem to have passed the point where it could slide back into chaos, although it does still have bad days.)
The invitation to Wagner did not come from the government of Somalia, or even Puntland, the northerly Federal Member State where sightings of the Russian mercenaries were reported. Allegedly it instead came from a UAE company with strong Emirati government links. The company are prospecting in Puntland and sought the protection of Wagner. This is entirely possible: UAE apparently used Wagner in a similar manner in Libya.
It seems that the trip did not go to plan, with reports that the soldiers of fortune became involved in a confrontation with the heavily armed, well trained, and numerous Puntland Security Forces. It is unclear if this was an ‘accident’ or the Puntland authorities and its international supporters decided to send Wagner (and the UAE company) a clear message that they were not welcome.
Wagner Group on the Kenyan border?
This does raise the possibility of Wagner on the border of Kenya. Wagner have been close before, intervening in Mozambique with a canny eye on the country’s mineral rich northern region, Capo Delgado. That did not go so well, though: the local terror group, who claim links to Da’esh, sent them fleeing with bloodied noses (and bloodied other parts of the body).
Should Kenya be worried? There have also been reports of Russian ‘NGOs’ (there is no such thing as a Non-Governmental Organisation in Russia, by the way) appearing in Kenya’s restive Border Counties, distributing food and offering other forms of assistance. It might already be too late to be worried.
But Kenya has made a moral choice to skip the St Petersburg event and is sophisticated enough to avoid falling for base, simplistic arguments such as ‘you detest homosexuals: so do we Russians’ (others have sadly fallen for that one). If Kenya is not careful, it might well find itself become both the conscience and the spine of Africa. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.