Speaking virtually from Rome during the recent 2022 African Chiefs of Defense Conference, U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. Stephen Townsend said that “the hand of Russia” may be present in a few of the recent coups the African continent has seen in the past year.
Following a question during the Feb. 3 conference regarding the number of coups and the possibility of Russian or Chinese influence, Townsend made the rare move of specifically calling out Russia for its potential involvement in Africa, amid the international focus largely highlighting the ongoing build up of tensions with Ukraine.
“We have not seen that — have not seen any involvement by the Chinese in any of these coups,” Townsend said. “With Russia, I think it’s a little less clear. I think I have received reports of Russian involvement at least in Sudan in the not too distant past.”
The October coup in Sudan is just one of four successful military coups carried out in 2021, with Chad, Mali and Guinea also facing militaristic takeovers in the last year.
Violence in Africa has been increasing exponentially in the past few years, especially in the Sahel, a semi-arid region crossing northern Africa between the Sahara to the north and and tropical savannas to the south, extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea across Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea.
“In 2020, the Sahel saw a 44-percent increase in violent events in the region,” Col. Daniel Kobs, 409th Air Expeditionary Group commander, said in the Air Force press release marking Chief JoAnne Bass’s December visit to U.S. troops in Niger. “The threat is real. Our partnerships in West Africa, now more than ever, are key to the counter-violent extremist organization fight. Our Airmen are critical to enabling our partner forces and building trust within the region.”
While Townsend was clear that he does not believe Russia was the driving force behind any of the coups, he specified that their involvement can likely be noted as an attributing factor.
“The hand of Russia may be visible in one or two of these [coups],” he said.
The AFRICOM commander also specifically noted the presence of mercenaries in Mali from Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization that some believe is a direct branch of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Despite denials from the Malian and Russian sides, Townsend said the U.S. has confirmed reports of their presence, with hundreds of Wagner members currently in-county and more potentially on the way.
“We have observed the Malian junta bring Russian mercenaries into their country,” he said. “They’ve invited them.”
Townsend said that after years of watching their efforts in Syria, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic, the presence of Wagner Group does not bode well for Mali as a nation.
“They never leave the situation better than they found it,” Townsend said. “My experience is they will leave it much worse and they will also exploit the country at [it’s own] expense.”
While Townsend declined to specifically state why the influx of military coups in 2021 may have occurred, he did suggest they could be attributed to a lack of — or insufficient — governance and corruption.
U.S. forces will continue to offer support to the members of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, established in 2017 to respond to the expansion of armed and violent extremist groups and to the deteriorating security situation in the region, and affected nations, Townsend said, with equipment, training, intelligence-sharing and occasional airlift and advisory support.
Burkina Faso is the latest member-state to face a coup, with the military taking control, deposing President Roch Kabore, and dissolving the government and parliament Jan. 24.
Speaking on Burkina Faso, Townsend said the U.S. government is waiting for neighboring countries to make a decision before moving forward with any potential American action.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and a master's candidate at New York University's Business & Economic Reporting program.