Archive for May, 2022

Boots and brownshirts – part two

May 31, 2022

The Ukraine that is currently being invaded and destroyed by the crop of Moscow gangsters that came into its own at the beginning of this century is a bit different from the one that was selling all those arms to Africa. The mafia that was removed in one of those colour-coded revolutions in 2014 was a factor, even though huge corruption problems remained, as expected. But the arms exports collapsed. In 2020, these were worth one-tenth of those a decade ago and the main recipient these days is China. By contrast, Russian arms sales to Africa have soared. 

Arms are one prime Eastern Bloc export; soldiers – or ‘instructors’ if you like – are another. Cast adrift by the seismic geopolitical shifts in their homelands three decades ago, they and their bosses were looking for a purpose, which they found by getting involved in wars abroad – not just the immediate neighbours like Georgia and later Ukraine but also further afield, starting with Syria. And then, in perfect tandem with Russia’s geopolitical designs, they descended on the African continent. 

image retrieved from Hindustan News Hub

What we have here is a replica of the old Soviet model: exporting arms and sending people that can teach the clients how to use them. The AK47 is the biggest selling weapon for a reason. It is cheap, easy to use and virtually indestructible. Countries as far apart as Mozambique and Mali still work with Soviet kit for the exact same reason. Today though, the Soviet model comes with a few modifications. First, the ‘instructors’ are performing other tasks. Second, they perform these tasks under the banner of an organisation that officially does not exist. Third, the non-existent company they work for employs a formidable geo-military propaganda machine. 

Wagner, the business started by Dmitri Utkin, a former intelligence operative with a fondness for the composer of the same name, does all of these things. The joke in security expert circles is that this officially non-existent company does not really need an address of its own because it already has one: Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Those in charge of Wagner and/or bankrolling it are close friends with the Russian president and capo di tutti capi, Vladimir Putin. 

Of course, Private Military Companies (I prefer the more succinct ‘mercenary outfit’) are nothing new in Africa. Arguably, the continent pioneered the model. Executive Outcomes, established in South Africa 1989 and consisting mostly of white veterans returning from Angola, is one of the oldest. 

And before that, we had individuals like the notorious French Bob Denard in Central Africa from the 1960s to the 90s, Indian-born Irishman Mike Hoare, Simon Mann and his Wonga Coup disaster. There are French, German, British and American outfits on the continent and activities are mostly centred on providing security and doing training missions, sub-contracted out by their governments. The US-based company DynCorp trained the Liberian army to some effect after the country’s ruinous 1989-2003 civil wars and was still vying for more lucrative contracts from the US government when it was gobbled up by another outfit, Amentum. Blackwater, another major American outfit (currently branded Academi) and its numerous offspring have acted as a logistics/security provider, army trainer, Praetorian Guard. Competition is cutthroat, as you can imagine. Some of their methods are also cutthroat. American mercenaries may have participated in combat in Somalia and the DR Congo. An Israeli outfit is said to have trained a notoriously violent army unit in Cameroon and we had UK freelancers fighting in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s and in Côte d’Ivoire the next decade.

Unsurprisingly, none of the five permanent members of the tragically mis-named United Nations Security Council has ever ratified the UN Convention against the recruitment, use, financing and training of mercenaries.

Wagner fits perfectly into this rogues’ gallery. Based on the template Blackwater and others provided, the Russian firm has taken things a few steps further. It combines four features: it is a business, it is directly and personally linked to the heart of power in Russia, it is consistently and emphatically involved in combat missions and it is a highly effective user of the internet as a weapon. In the countries where it operates, Wagner provides personal security for high-placed individuals, guards the assets it acquires in these countries and kills ordinary civilians. For this they get paid in cash or resources, on the African continent mainly in mining concessions, in other words the assets just mentioned. It is a good old colonial model. Unlike the competition, which tends to act as sub-contractors, Wagner gets paid in the countries where it operates.

Getting their hands on the client’s assets. Image retrieved from Deutsche Welle.

Politically, the majority of Wagner’s operatives – including its founder – hold (extreme) right-wing views, in line with their colleagues in the West and similar to those of the man in charge of Russia and his old pal Trump in the United States, who notoriously pardoned four Blackwater operatives convicted for atrocities they had committed in Iraq. Wagner’s financier and Putin confidante Yevgenyi Prigozhin runs troll factories like the Internet Research Agency and fills them with hyperactive peddlers of lies and deception on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some of the highest profile posters live comfortably in Europe while proclaiming themselves ‘Panafricanist’. Following the Kremlin’s mental acrobatics, they also feel very comfortable around brownshirt political party hacks across Europe; they use the same rhetoric. Don’t tell them that, though, they get upset when you say so. Years ago, before any of this became systemic, I had a Gbagbo propagandist walk out of an interview in Abidjan. On hearing his increasingly strident ‘patriotic’ rhetoric, I told him he sounded exactly like Jean-Marie Le Pen…

To be continued

Boots and brownshirts – part one

May 30, 2022

Ukraine dominates the news to such an extent that it has asphyxiated most other manmade tragedies. But the Russia-Ukraine story has tentacles on the African continent, so I have attempted to gather some thoughts, experiences, reports and ideas. 

Four burly men enter a smallish aeroplane, brand Antonov. The machine clearly has seen better days. On entering the cockpit, one of the giants turns towards the passengers. Blocking the door in its entirety with his huge frame, he goes: “Fasten seatbelts. No smoking. Have a nice flight.” The accent was heavily Slavic. I remember thinking “With these guys on board we may just have doubled our original weight…”. 

Plane, pilots and passengers ended up negotiating one of West Africa’s ferocious rainstorms. Everything about the plane was shaking and since there was rust visible in places where my layman’s brain thought it should not be I resolved to turn to any religion should we land safely, which we did. I promptly forgot about my promise. Sorry about that.

The pilots were Ukrainans. They still fly planes across the African continent, carrying everything and everyone, from UN personnel to diamond smugglers and arms dealers. 

After the demise of the old Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine, formerly a reluctant part of that old empire, went through a period of economic transformation engineered by the same Washington-based institutions that managed to destroy the livelihood of millions in Latin America, Asia and Africa, chiefly through the IMF-World Bank so-called Washington Consensus. But in contrast to its giant neighbour to the East, Ukraine managed to retain a fairly diversified economic base and did not come to rely so heavily on the export of one or two commodities. 

In Soviet times, Antonov planes were produced in the Ukrainian capital Kiyiv

This breakneck speed restructuring, literally called ‘shock therapy’ and championed by the likes of the celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs, had one most discernible result. It was not the economic liberalisation that was promised. On the contrary. ‘Shock therapy’ ensured that huge chunks of profitable business activity fell into the hands of gangsters, often (not always but often) the same gangsters that had been running the one party state. The same happened on a very modest but equally ruinous scale in, for instance, Guinea, as you can read in my book (page 139 to 147 if you have a copy…).

One of the products both Russia and Ukraine are enthusiastic exporters of, is arms. Half of Africa’s weaponry now comes from Russia. In Ukraine, exporting deadly equipment was particularly strong during the years 2005-2010, when almost one-fifth of mostly small arms stockpiled there went to those hotbeds of human rights abuse like Sudan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, the DR Congo and Nigeria. Sub-Saharan Africa bought 11% of its arms from Ukraine in those years, according to SIPRI, the world’s most authoritative source on this subject. Rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and ammunition. Cheap light weapons from the former Eastern Bloc have been a curse on the continent for decades and a lot of these were supplied by Ukraine-based criminal syndicates that used Soviet-era planes to transport these arms and, sometimes, the men using them to places like diamond-rich Angola and Sierra Leone. That old rusty Antonov that flew me into Liberia all those years ago may well have been manufactured in the production facility in the Ukranaian capital Kiyiv. 

To be continued