US Congress targets Russia’s African allies

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 6 April 2022 14:07

Russia Africa Forum
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Namibia's counterpart Hage Geingob attend a meeting at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik)

The US Congress is tackling Russian influence in Africa as the continent emerges as a key battleground in the western campaign to punish President Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine.

With the six-week-old conflict dominating foreign policymaking in Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday 5 April voted on 11 separate bills targeting Russia following a congressional delegation to the Ukrainian border in Poland last month. In addition to legislation to ban Russian participation in the G7 and investigate alleged Russian war crimes, the committee also advanced a bill requring the State Department to develop a strategy to counter the “malign influence and activities” of Russia and its proxies in Africa.

“For several years now, the Russian Federation has used various means, including unaccountable private military contractors, embedded political operatives, and disinformation troll farms, to conduct malign activities throughout the continent of Africa,” said committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, who sponsored the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act.

The top Republican on the committee, Michael McCaul of Texas, co-sponsored the bipartisan bill.

“Putin’s complicity in atrocities around the world cannot go unanswered,” McCaul said. “Russian activity on the continent is growing, and that’s a real threat to our interests.”

African battleground

The legislative push comes as Russia has now joined China as a major topic of US concern in Africa.

“I would point out that over the years, many of us have brought a great deal of attention to China’s malign influence in Africa,” said New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, the top Republican on the panel’s Africa subcommittee. “But there has not been the kind of attention brought to bear on what Russia is doing.”

Russia’s 24 February invasion has reshuffled priorities. The Joe Biden administration has dispatched some of its top diplomats to raise the alarm, armed with warnings not to try to sidestep US sanctions on Moscow.

They’re trying to gain access to the African continent to rape their natural resources and dominate their energy markets.

“What’s most important is that as Russia tries to evade the sanctions that we have put on, that countries in Africa do not become sanctuaries for dirty Russian money, for oligarchs’ ill-gotten gains, for them to stash their airplanes and their yachts,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told The Africa Report last week.

The new House bill looks to build on that momentum by giving the State Department 90 days to develop a strategy to counter Russian influence. It notably calls for strengthening democratic institutions and anti-corruption initiatives, monitoring natural resources and extractive industries, and tracking Russia’s political influence, disinformation operations and military activities.

The bill also calls for periodical reports on Russia’s diplomatic, economic and security priorities in Africa. These include efforts to “manipulate” African governments, voters and diaspora groups, as well as Russian engagement with “strategic sectors” such as mining and other natural resources extraction, military basing and other forms of security cooperation, and information and communications technology.

“They’re trying to gain access to the African continent to rape their natural resources and dominate their energy markets,” said McCaul, who also pointed to plans for a Russian naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea as cause for concern.

Russia’s African allies don’t escape scrutiny

The bill’s reporting requirements include identifying African governments and government officials “that have facilitated payments and other prohibited activities” that benefit US-sanctioned Russian individuals and entities.

Russian activity on the continent is growing, and that’s a real threat to our interests.

“This legislation would also require the State Department to identify and hold accountable Russian and African officials for facilitating the Russian Federation’s malign activities, often designed to exploit the continent’s natural resources, manipulate democratic processes, and evade sanctions,” said Meeks, Democrat of New York.

McCaul put it more bluntly: “We must make every state choose between doing business with the free world, or with the war criminal,” he said.

Some African governments have pushed back, with almost half of the countries on the continent declining to denounce Russia at the UN. Many officials are wary of undermining long-standing economic and political ties to Russia, while pundits have adopted Russian rhetoric about an anti-imperialist struggle against the West.

Target: Wagner

Much of the congressional outrage centered on Russia’s military involvement in Africa, particulary the Wagner Group of Kremlin-linked mercenaries that operate in Sudan, Libya and across the Sahel.

Reports that the Wagner Group may have been involved in the massacre of hundreds of people in the Mopti region of central Mali in late March have only strengthened US calls for accountability.

The State Department has insisted that Malian transition authorities “give impartial investigators free, unfettered, and safe access to the area where these tragic events unfolded.” Meanwhile, some members of Congress such as Senator James Risch, Republican of Idaho, have linked the massacre to war crimes in Ukraine. (The military junta in Mali says the dead were local militants and denies that Wagner mercenaries are helping fight the insurgents).

California Democrat Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the House subcommittee on Africa, said Russian military influence is particulary concerning in the wake of a series of coups across the Sahel.

“Russian security contractors have also appeared in conflicts in Libya, Mozambique and South Sudan, among others,” she said.

Given the destabilising nature of these unaccountable Russian mercenaries known to conduct human rights abuses throughout Africa, I believe that every member should support this amendment.

“These actions are highly akin to what is occurring in Ukraine and cannot go understated. Russian mercenaries hired to extend the strong arm of government are violating human rights, which must be condemned and stopped. This is so important, especially on the continent of Africa, where there are many governments that are unstable, or where we are now having an increased number of coups, violent takeovers of democratically elected governments. And if these governments where there has been a coup that takes place believe that now they can just call in Russian mercenaries to prop them up, (it) really sends an incredibly dangerous signal.”

During consideration of the bill the committee notably adopted an amendment from New Jersey Democract Tom Malinowski, a former Assistant Secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour under President Barack Obama, that requires the US government to identify entities that have facilitated the ability of the Wagner Group to operate in Libya including logistical companies, money transfer services and businesses that own the planes used to fly in ammunition and weapons in violation of UN sanctions.

“This amendment calls on the State Department to provide details of the activities of the Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries and those facilitating such forces in Libya and to analyze whether sanctions should be imposed on those facilitators,” Meeks said. “Given the destabilising nature of these unaccountable Russian mercenaries known to conduct human rights abuses throughout Africa, I believe that every member should support this amendment.”

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