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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A ‘new Cold War’ looms in Africa as US pushes against Russian gains

French Foreign Legion soldiers with a counterterrorism operation known as Operation Barkhane in northeastern Mali in February 2020.

By Declan Walsh

Fueled by guns, gold and social media, the rivalry between Russia and the West in Africa is rapidly escalating. The latest flashpoint is Chad, a sprawling desert nation at the crossroads of the continent, now a plum target for Russia’s expanding effort.

The United States recently warned Chad’s president that Russian mercenaries were plotting to kill him and three senior aides and that Moscow was backing Chadian rebels massing in the neighboring Central African Republic. At the same time, Moscow is courting sympathizers inside Chad’s ruling elite, including Cabinet ministers and a half brother of the president.

The decision by the U.S. government to share sensitive intelligence with the head of an African state — a disclosure it then leaked — reveals one way in which the Biden administration is moving more assertively in Africa and using new tactics to stymie Russian gains on the continent.

The United States is taking a page from its playbook in Ukraine, where it has used classified information to expose Russian military plans and preempt what it says are Chinese plans to supply Russia with new weapons.

In Africa, the more forceful American approach aims partly to shore up the crumbling position of France, which in recent years has ceded ground to Russia in former colonies such as Mali and the Central African Republic. Now, the Russians are looking to topple more French dominoes in central and western Africa, and the United States is responding.

A U.S. official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters of national security, said the assassination plot in Chad represented “a new chapter” in efforts by Wagner, a Kremlin-backed private military force, to advance Russian interests in Africa.

Until now, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads Wagner, has established footholds in vulnerable African countries by sending his fighters to prop up tottering authoritarian rulers, usually in exchange for payment, or licenses to mine diamonds or gold.

The plot in Chad suggests that he is ready to topple leaders who stand in his way. That change has prompted the United States to adopt more forward-leaning measures, such as those used in Ukraine, that are intended “to slow, to curb, constrain and reverse” Prigozhin’s expansion in Africa, the official said.

“Where Wagner has been present, bad things have inevitably followed,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a visit to Niger on Thursday.

The visit, during which Blinken pledged $150 million in aid to the Sahel region, was the fourth to Africa by a senior U.S. figure this year. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, ambassador to the United Nations, and first lady Jill Biden preceded him. Vice President Kamala Harris will begin a trip to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia this month, and President Joe Biden has promised to visit Africa later this year.

To many in Africa and beyond, the heightening great-power rivalry smacks of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union backed rival African leaders, including dictators. It’s a comparison the Biden administration desperately wants to avoid, because its strategy in Africa, announced by Blinken to fanfare in South Africa last year, presents African countries as valued partners, not pawns in a global rivalry.

For their part, African leaders have made it clear that they do not want to be forced to choose sides.

“Africa has suffered enough from the burden of history,” Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, told the U.N. General Assembly in September. “It does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War.”

Russian ties to Africa stretch back to the Soviet era, when Moscow backed sympathetic governments and independence movements, and have endured in recent years as Russia became the continent’s largest arms supplier.

But its latest drive for influence started in earnest about five years ago, when Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries — many Russian but also Syrian, Serbian and Lebanese — began to appear in some of the continent’s most turbulent corners.

In response to questions, Prigozhin said in a statement, “We have nothing to do with either the Chadian rebels or Mr. Hemeti,” a nickname for the deputy leader of Sudan, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who also wields influence in Chad.

The Russian effort spans the continent but has had the greatest impact in the Sahel, the semiarid region bordering the Sahara. Wagner fighters are battling Islamist rebels in Mali, are bodyguards to the Central African Republic’s president and mine gold in several countries, including Sudan. Social media campaigns seek to burnish the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin or to tap into wellsprings of anti-French resentment.

Larger by area than Britain, France and Germany combined, Chad has been a key French ally for decades, used by the French military for training and as a hub of operations. In the 1980s, the CIA supported its brutal leader, Hissène Habré, who was later convicted as a war criminal.

Chad’s current leader, Mahamat Idriss Déby, came to power in 2021 after his father, Chad’s autocratic leader of three decades, was killed in battle with rebels. Déby has stayed close to France, but the alliance has been frayed by a brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in October that left 128 people dead, according to Chad’s national human rights body.

On a recent tour of four African countries, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the rising wave of anti-French sentiment and promised a new era of partnership.

For some Africans, the show of humility has come too late. “The people of Chad do not want the French,” said Hallowak Haoua, 29, a street vendor in the Chadian capital, Ndjamena. “At least the Russians want to help us. With the French, it’s just for their own interests.”

Others worry that a return to Cold War-style confrontation could doom their democratic aspirations. The United States should not cozy up to authoritarians such as Chad’s president to prevent him from tumbling into the Russian orbit, said Succès Masra, the main opposition leader.

“It would be a big mistake for President Biden to side with Déby,” said Masra, speaking by phone from the United States, where he fled after the massacre of protesters in October. He added, “In the long run, the best way for the United States to protect its interests in Chad is to bet on democracy.”

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