♟️ Russia’s mercenaries are bolstering autocratic regimes in the Sahel

The spate of coups in the Sahel has been advantageous for Russia. Marcel Plichta and Christopher Faulkner argue that Moscow's mercenaries in the Sahel aren't to blame for the democratic retrenchment, but their presence is insulating and emboldening military dictators on their path to autocratic consolidation

Authoritarian solidarity in the Sahel

Few regions in Africa have shifted away from democracy as dramatically as the Sahel. In the past few years, established but fragile democracies in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have all been toppled by coups. These coups have resulted in an acrimonious exit from ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel alliance. The new military regimes have established their own collective security architecture – the Alliance of Sahel States​ (AES)​. This democratic retrenchment comes amid longstanding security crises, flawed partnerships with the West, and dissatisfied military leaderships.

The spate of coups in the region created serious challenges for Europe and the US, who invested millions to support counterterrorism operations. Niger’s coup in 2023, for instance, put the US in the precarious position of unsuccessfully trying to balance its ​security investment​​​​s​​​​ ​against its commitment to disavow coups. The US attempted to walk​ the same tightrope​ following Chad’s unconstitutional leadership transition in 2021, with potentially the same outcome.

Niger’s coup put the US in the precarious position of unsuccessfully trying to balance its ​security investment​​​​s​​​​ ​against its commitment to disavow coups

Russia capitalised on this autocratic awakening. And, as others have suggested, Sahelian juntas used their new positions of authority to capitalise on power politics​.​​ ​The juntas are ​finding new security alternatives and ​trying to establish mutually supporting institutions like AES​. These institutions seriously diminish the incentive structure for a democratic revival.

From Wagner to Africa corps: the regime survival package

Russia has a long history of helping client states defend themselves against internal threats such as coups. Private military companies (​​​​​PMCs) like the Wagner Group are tools that Moscow has deployed to enhance the durability of its autocratic allies. Recently rebranded as the Africa Corps, Wagner arrived in Africa as a unique combination of the avarice of private military contractors and the ideological agenda of the Russian state. Typically, ​​​​incoming military regimes would have few viable domestic alternatives that would be able to fight terrorism effectively. However, they also look the other way as they consolidate autocratic power.

The Sahel’s ​nascent coup regimes pursued closer relations with Moscow, often through partnerships with Wagner. Contracting Russian mercenaries contributes to a sense of authoritarian solidarity within the new security alliance, and simultaneously acts as a coup-proofing tactic. Dictators can create barriers for internal challengers like would-be coup plotters by recruiting outsiders, such as PMCs. Foreign recruits’ disconnect from local populations might make them less likely to have qualms about using violence against civilians. This is evident in Wagner’s atrocious human rights record in Mali.

The Wagner Group capitalised on the spate of coups, stockpiled resources, and developed partnerships for itself and for Moscow

Despite Russian influence, Wagner did not create the circumstances that contributed to the region’s slide into military rule. It did, however, capitalise on the spate of coups, gained resources, and developed partnerships for itself and for Moscow.

What Wagner offered was a 'regime survival package'. As a former AFRICOM commander suggested, Wagner is the 'guarantor of their rule'. Regime survival for new coup governments suddenly became a more realistic proposition. Wagner also formed closer ties with the Russian state, from whom Sahelian juntas have sought arms and equipment.

Reinforcing democratic erosion

Military regimes are less durable than civilian autocratic regimes, but Wagner and its successor show how Moscow aims to buck that trend. Russian PMCs provide dictators with the tools to stay in power. From Bamako to Niamey, familiar autocratic consolidation is already unfolding. Mali’s ruling junta repeatedly postponed elections, despite promises to facilitate democratic transition. Colonel Assimi Goita (Mali's Interim President) strengthened his military's hold on power, attacking media freedom and institutional reforms that empower the president. Such strategies are not unique, but support from Russian contractors emboldens these attempts at autocratic consolidation.

Mali’s ruling junta repeatedly postponed elections, despite promises to facilitate democratic transition

Moscow, unsurprisingly, welcomed Bamako’s dictatorial slide, and doubled down on mercenary diplomacy. The new Africa Corps expanded Wagner’s original mission in Mali, moving into the gold-mining sector to fulfil an objective of Wagner’s initial entry in 2020. Like earlier deployments in the Central African Republic, Wagner first consolidated security in and around the regime, with a focus on shoring up security in Bamako. It then helped the Malian military retake territory from separatist and jihadist groups.

Burkina Faso’s democratic prospects are similarly dismal. Ouagadougou’s military junta deemed that elections slated for July 2024 were 'not a priority', given the country’s ongoing security challenges. Amid a dire security situation and Moscow’s commandeering of Wagner, the reluctance of Burkina Faso President Ibrahim Traoré to partner with Russian PMCs dissipated. In January 2024, 100 Africa Corps personnel arrived in Ouagadougou. Their arrival will not rectify the crisis, but it indicates a desire to centralise personal power at the expense of partnerships with the west or West African democracies.

Niger’s democratic trajectory is also unclear. The junta​​ ​​​scrapped security agreements​ with the EU​ in December 2023​. Niger then joined Burkina and Mali in leaving ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel, and revoked military cooperation with the US. Instead, Niger is pursuing a security relationship with Russia.

​​​​​Democratic revival unlikely​ in the Sahel

Democratic decay in the Sahel is only becoming more complex. Russia’s presence dims the prospects for democratic revival and encourages authoritarian alliance building. Russian PMCs ensured the durability of new military regimes, and with it, their relationship with Russia. Juntas reinforced by Moscow’s concerted effort, on the other hand, help continue and expand Russia’s mission in Africa. This paints an ominous picture.

The pivot to Moscow only complicates options for the US and Europe, which have legal restrictions in dealing with coup regimes. Their traditional tools to pressure partners into restoring democratic institutions, especially in the form of security assistance​, are​​ severely​​ limited​. The Kremlin lacks such constraints. That makes Russia particularly dangerous for democratisation prospects in the Sahel – and across Africa.

♟️ No.28 in our Autocracies with Adjectives series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Marcel Plichta Marcel Plichta PhD Candidate and Fellow, Centre for Global Law and Governance, University of St Andrews More by this author
photograph of Christopher Faulkner Christopher Faulkner Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs in the College of Distance Education, US Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island More by this author

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