Putin's 'Africa Corps'

For a man whose disdain for Nazis is avowedly so deep that he invaded his country’s neighbour to ostensibly de-nazify it, and whose claim to a thorough familiarity with history is so self-assured that he often holds forth at length on the subject, Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to rename the Wagner Group in Africa as the Africa Corps seems a tad ironic.

It was a Nazi military outfit, after all, that first bore that title. During World War II, Nazi Germany’s Afrika Korps, whose most famous commander was Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”, helped fascist Italy hold onto its colonial possessions in North Africa, until it was eventually routed, at great cost, by Allied forces in 1943.

I find Mr Putin’s mind inscrutable, and so can’t decide whether the irony is lost on him, or whether he was aware of this not-so-subtle similarity when approving the not-so-new name for the paramilitary group, and went ahead anyway merely to confuse his enemies. In any case, the move, which accompanied a restructuring of the group to bring it explicitly under the Kremlin’s direct command, says a lot.

Russian strength

For one, it is obvious that Mr Putin has, unexpectedly, shaken off his erstwhile reluctance to admit that Wagner in Africa was really just a front for the Kremlin. The claim (with which he’s tried to obfuscate the narrative in the past) that Wagner is an independent operator contracted by some African governments always rang hollow, and now the Kremlin is discarding it.

It is also clear now that Mr Putin considers the roots the mercenary group has sunk into Africa too valuable to lose. He is doubling down on them, making good on the assurances he made last summer, as his government defused Wagner’s mutiny, that the group’s engagement with its African client governments – particularly Mali and the Central African Republic – would continue.

Back then, I questioned the extent to which these assurances would translate into action, given that the group had just defied its own government. The months since have shown that the Kremlin meant every word. Not only did Wagner mercenaries stay in Mali and the Central African Republic, they now have a footprint in Burkina Faso, are reeling in Niger (where the military overthrew the government in July), and seem keen on bringing Chad into the fold as well.

Given that the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is fighting the Sudanese military for control of Sudan, and seems to have the upper hand as the war nears its first anniversary, is also affiliated with Wagner, it is quite possible that Mr Putin’s Africa Corps will soon straddle the entire Sahel. He’s effectively displaced France as the most important foreign power in the region.

And he’s done this while fighting a full-scale war in Ukraine (at one point against the combined industrial might of the West), steeling the Russian economy to thrive in the face of withering Western sanctions, keeping the main non-Western powers close, ruthlessly eliminating domestic dissent, and running for a new presidential term which he is guaranteed to win, among other things.


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Whichever way one looks at this, there’s no denying that it’s remarkable. And no, misinformation and disinformation had little to do with it, as many have lazily tried to assert. France laid the groundwork for its displacement, by making such a mess of its involvement in its former African colonies that Russia could easily waltz in and offer itself up as a plausibly non-paternalistic alternative. Mr Putin was just more astute than the French.


This doesn’t mean that Russia is good for these countries, which are some of the poorest and least democratic in Africa. Almost as a rule, they are (mis)governed by a coterie of inexperienced military men blinded by an infantile messiah complex and an uninterrogated resentment against all Western influence; they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater of French pompousness.

Ironically, their sad parochialism and naivete are exactly the same qualities that allowed the French to take their forebears for a ride for so long. To wit, it’s unlikely that Russia’s involvement with them will engender a flowering of democracy and human rights for their long-suffering people. If anything, it will probably result in the exact opposite.

Nevertheless, it is possible that some good will come of Russia’s adventures in the Sahel. It may yet help the Sahelian countries quash jihadist violence, a goal the West shares. Additionally, Mr Putin’s model of development, centred on natural resources, might come in handy in a region blessed with abundant reserves of minerals and other resources.

And this is what makes Russia’s advances in Africa so difficult to evaluate. Africans need freedom and human rights, security and stability, growth and development. In some parts of the world, especially the West, all these have been supplied, and so there is little tension among them. But over here, striving for one often means neglecting some or all of others.

This tension probably isn’t fundamental. Very likely, it is just the result of poor leadership. But leadership is the hardest nut of them all to crack, and so the tension persists. By focusing on security and development, Mr Putin’s Russia is merely picking a struggle it thinks it can win. And it very well may win.

The only question is whether the cost is worth paying.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Clément Di Roma/Wikimedia Commons


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  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-03-02 04:14:31 +1100
    A Korps or a Corps is a military term for a group (one can also say “body”) of military divisions, that are given a common goal.

    The term is not a Nazi invention. Corps, Division, Batallion or Kompanie are terms used in many armies, and they were used before 1933 and are still used after 1945.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-29 09:11:15 +1100