When National Security Advisor John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s Africa policy nearly a year ago in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, he invoked dark and foreboding language reminiscent of the Cold War: “The predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa; threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment; interfere with U.S. military operations and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests.”
I, for one, was dismissive of the now former NSA’s grim verbiage, feeling it tone-deaf to a discerning African leadership checked by an increasingly vocal civil society. But, as it turns out, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Following the Heritage Foundation event, as we policy wonks debated how to bridge Africa’s infrastructure gap, the impact of China’s state-directed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the sustainability of Chinese debt, and the role that the newly-constituted Development Finance Corporation (DFC) could play in executing the U.S. policy “Prosper Africa,” the Russian government and its proxies were on the move, and — as usual — playing by their own rules, without accountability.
On May 19, a white paper presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon warned that the United States was ill-equipped to counter the increasingly brazen political warfare Russia is waging to undermine democracies.
"In this environment, economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent," writes Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Czerewko, the Joint Chiefs' deputy director for global operations, in the preface.
One month later, leaked documents obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative organization funded by exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, revealed Russia’s plan to use proxies to bolster its presence in at least 13 African nations by building relations with existing rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of leaders and undercover agents. It included a map that rates the level of cooperation with individual African countries, scoring them between one and five points on matters of cooperation.
The documents, first exposed by London’s Guardian newspaper but since reviewed and analyzed by the New York Times, South Africa’s Daily Maverick and the Times of London, reveal that the mission to increase Russian influence in Africa is being led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” because of the lucrative Kremlin catering contracts he holds.
Prigozhin was indicted in 2018 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for using his catering business in St. Petersburg, Russia, as a front to run a troll factory with the purpose of interfering in the United States’ 2016 presidential elections in support of Donald Trump, and just last week the U.S. Department of Treasury, seeking to “safeguard our democratic processes from adversaries” imposed additional sanctions on Prigozhin, targeting his physical assets, including three aircraft and a yacht as well as employees of the Internet Research Agency — the alleged residents of the troll factory.
The Dossier Center investigation uncovers multiple firms linked to the oligarch, all of which are reported to operate “in coordination with officials inside Russia’s foreign and defense ministries,” including the Wagner Group, which first gained attention for its operations in 2014 in Ukraine where it provided mercenaries to fight alongside the Russian-backed separatists. Since 2014, the group has been seen in Syria, Libya and the Central Africa Republic (CAR).
According to Dionne Searcey of the New York Times, after meddling in the U.S. elections in 2016, Russia is using similar tactics in CAR; but as it sows political chaos, this time there are also diamonds. “As the United States has pulled away from engaging Africa, withdrawing troops and offering no broad policy agenda, Russia has pushed hard into the continent expanding its presence in unstable nations with abundant resources,” Searcey writes.
In July of 2018, three Russian journalists who arrived in CAR to investigate Russia’s military activities in the country and document the work of the Wagner Group were led into an ambush and murdered. It is widely believed to have been a hit job — Russians playing by their own rules in weak nations without institutional checks and balances.
Prigozhin’s company and other Russian proxies reportedly have been involved in Madagascar and South Africa’s last presidential election, and with deposed Sundanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir, for whom Russian specialists reportedly drew up a program for the besieged leader that included a campaign to smear anti-government protesters.
This brings me back to our missing mustachioed-man, John Bolton, the concerns he expressed in December of last year, and what appears to be a lack of political urgency in the U.S. administration (outside of the Department of Treasury) to do anything about the creeping criminal hand of Russia in Africa. Left unchecked, the Russian program could undermine the most important democratic development on the continent in the past two decades: The rise of Africa’s activist generation.
“Western countries need to play catch-up to Russia (as well as China) in actually delivering a strategy and the tools,” argues Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation. Mills, like others, believes that the United States relies too heavily on “limped-wristed” election observation missions that are easily manipulated.
In a paper entitled, “The Game has Changed,” Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa Program the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has given us a blueprint for addressing Russia’s destabilizing of norms in Africa and for carrying America’s democratic brand to a population that embraces it.
Devermont identifies essential interventions with an emphasis on credible nation-wide polling to fight fake news, new technologies, and, most importantly, the strengthening of Africa’s civil society. The CSIS report should be a must read for the new Assistant to the President for African Affairs, Elizabeth Erin Walsh, who was appointed by Bolton and undoubtedly shares his concern about Russia’s predatory practices. Likewise, it should be a must read for members of Congress (bicameral and bipartisan) who are united in the belief that Russian interference in politics at home and abroad cannot be tolerated.
*K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson