Beyond the Wagner virus: hybrid threats in Africa


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Advisor at Defend Democracy, Lecturer at the Institute for Security Governance and former Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

Africa faces a variety of hybrid threats that are exploiting the vulnerabilities of African nations, including political, economic, social and technological dimensions.

As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, hybrid campaigns can range from cyber-attacks and disinformation to the disruption of critical services, such as energy supplies or financial services; the undermining of public trust in governmental institutions; and the exploitation of social vulnerabilities. Once a state is weakened sufficiently, the aggressor’s strategic aims can be consummated using conventional or paramilitary forces.

As we have seen in Eurasia and the South China Sea, a hybrid approach lowers the political price for aggression, making regime change, territorial annexation and resource plundering possible for a reduced political price.

Many refer to this phenomenon as ‘hybrid warfare’ and in the process ‘militarise’ the concept, which is much broader and more complex in nature. A whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is needed to access the necessary capabilities and authorities to address this phenomenon. Thus, hybrid threats are best understood as an attack on governance – specifically democratic governance.

Both hybrid threats and transnational organised crime are threats to governance. In most cases, hybrid campaigns seek to achieve political objectives such as to weaken a state to make it easier to attack, overthrow or plunder.

At the same time, transnational organised crime seeks to weaken governance to enable them to act with impunity, moving materials, people and money in and around governing regimes to conduct illicit commerce. In extreme cases, transnational organised crime groups can even achieve state capture as seen in narco-states since the 1980s.

Russian disinformation themes in these countries seek to position Moscow as a benign actor

In building, maintaining and growing this system of impunity, transnational organised crime manages to corrupt government officials, computer systems and financial institutions and to create porous borders. All of this makes them ripe targets for hybrid actors.

In the case of Africa, due to weak governance and widespread corruption, hybrid actors are more deeply intertwined with transnational organised criminal groups, which serve as enablers for the hybrid actor. In turn, criminal groups profit from the hybrid campaign while enhancing their ability to operate with impunity.

Perhaps the most notorious examples of this dynamic in Africa are the campaigns of the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-backed Russian mercenary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who recently led a military mutiny against Moscow.

Since 2017, the Wagner Group has operated in several African countries, providing military and security support to local regimes while spreading Russia’s influence and gaining access to lucrative mining contracts.

Operating in a grey zone between private company, organised crime group and arm of the Russian state, Wagner has provided paramilitary assistance and training for anti-democratic regimes. In return, Wagner receives lucrative contracts to extract resources, often working with regional organised crime groups for logistical and technical support.

Wagner also conducts anti-democratic, anti-Western and anti-United Nations disinformation campaigns in every country they operate in; from Mali, Libya, Burkina Faso and Sudan to the Central African Republic (CAR), Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Russian state also provides diplomatic support to these new client states, which become beholden to Moscow.

Russian disinformation themes in these countries seek to position Moscow as a benign actor and without a history of colonialism in Africa while highlighting France’s colonial history against Paris and the West. These anti-French, anti-Western and anti-UN themes seem to be effective so far, notwithstanding the irony of Russia’s own colonial approach in Africa through Wagner.

It is not clear what the future holds for Prigozhin and his leadership of Wagner

According to one security professional in West Africa: “For now the Russians have won the information campaign. The people here like Wagner and think they are heroes – and they hate the French.”

These same disinformation campaigns are also a big reason why much of Africa has been sympathetic to Russian narratives about its invasion of Ukraine.

The Wagner Group has been most active in the CAR, Libya, Mali and Sudan. In the case of the CAR, Wagner has been able to infiltrate and influence the country’s military and political levers and take control of its economic resources, rendering it a captured state.

Wagner’s close relationship with the CAR president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and their grip on power is maintained through a terror campaign carried out by Wagner’s own army outside the capital and by regime forces within Bangui. Wagner forces have also been implicated in the murder of three journalists in the CAR.

Brutal repression and resource plundering by Wagner and regime forces have only worsened the humanitarian crisis in the CAR, with one study estimating that 5.6% of the country’s population had died in 2022. This represents more than twice the death rate of any country in the world.

According to a new study by the Sentry Group, Wagner is already using its operations in the CAR and Mali as a launching point to expand its reach into Chad and Burkina Faso.

Given recent events in Russia, it is not clear what the future holds for Prigozhin and his leadership of Wagner. However, given the expanded influence it has given Russia in Africa, it is hard to imagine the Kremlin giving up Wagner’s operations with or without Prigozhin.

Africa has over 650mn internet users, yet the continent has only 7,000 trained cyber-security professionals

However, Russia operating through Wagner is not the only hybrid actor in Africa as numerous local actors are taking advantage of the continent’s increased digitisation and heavy social media use to weaken governance and influence populations.

African nations are increasingly targeted by cybercriminals, hacktivists and state-sponsored actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, government systems, financial institutions and telecommunications networks.

The most well-known recent case was in 2021 when Transnet, South Africa’s largest port operator faced a crippling cyber-attack, which disrupted regional supply chains for weeks. Since this cyber-attack occurred within days of a failed insurrection in South Africa, some observers and officials concluded that the hackers may have been operating in concert with the insurrectionists. Similar supply chain attacks are currently continuing in South Africa with arson attacks on transport trucks.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, African companies – much like their global counterparts – shifted to more remote working. And much like was experienced in the rest of the world, this increase in attack surfaces for hackers has led to a surge in cyber-attacks on private and public entities.

Indeed, Africa has over 650mn internet users, yet the continent has only 7,000 trained cyber-security professionals; one for every 177,000 people. By comparison, the US has one for every 330 people. In addition, nine out of every ten African businesses does not have basic cyber-security protocols in place and only 15 African countries have their own national cyber-security strategy.

These all add up to a bundle of hybrid vulnerabilities to governance, stability and economic growth in Africa. According to a 2021 Interpol report on cyber-security in Africa, the continent’s GDP is reduced by up to 10% per year by cybercrime alone.

But China’s private security contractors in Africa cannot be compared to Russia’s Wagner Group

African governments and civil society groups have been pushing back on hybrid threats with fact-checkers, watchdogs and cyber sleuths but they are often outmatched in resources and technical capacity. In other cases, big Western tech companies do not support their efforts.

For example, in 2022, Meta declined a request to ban Russian-backed Wagner disinformation groups operating in the Sahel region. Similar complaints against Meta were made when they refused to curb hate speech, which exacerbated violence during Ethiopia’s recent civil war.

As noted in a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies: “This is part of a pattern of [Meta] giving lower priority to removing inauthentic content in Africa.”

Recent years have witnessed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasing its influence in Africa through extensive loans and investment deals. While this has led to much economic growth in Africa, the debt dynamic comes into sharp focus since China holds 20% of Africa’s debt and payments to China account for 30% of Africa’s debt payments.

Given that 19 African countries exceed a 60% debt-to-GDP ratio and 24 exceed a 95% debt-to-GDP ratio, these nations’ sovereignty remains vulnerable and could result in leverage that Beijing can gain on their sovereign decision-making.

Port facilities operated by Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOE) and connected with Chinese shipping networks are concerning since these large-scale investments in critical infrastructure projects are also accompanied by ‘active measures’ such as propaganda and buying the loyalty of key local officials. In addition, each large Chinese SOE maintains its own paramilitary security forces to secure its various enterprises, including those in Africa.

But China’s private security contractors in Africa cannot be compared to Russia’s Wagner Group. Chinese security contractors have not been observed destabilising African governments and their activities indicate their main purpose is to keep Chinese investments and workers secured.

That said, China recently relied on Wagner to evacuate Chinese workers who had been targeted by a militant group in the CAR. Whether this means China will cooperate with Wagner in Africa again in the future remains to be seen. But in the unlikely event that Wagner starts to reduce its footprint in Africa, Chinese security companies could choose to fill in any gaps left behind.

Current efforts to counter transnational organised crime in Africa should be strengthened and focus on disrupting its links to hybrid actors

So, how do we move towards a resilient Africa? While African experts and defenders of democracy are working diligently to counter hybrid threats, they can’t do it alone. Since so many of these hybrid threats come from outside of Africa, for African nations to build the necessary levels of resilience against them, they will need assistance from friends and partners around the world. This is especially the case since the illicit financial flows, enablers and social media platforms being exploited by hybrid actors are based outside of Africa.

Firstly, the recommendations of the Sentry Group in their ‘Architects of Terror’ report are especially necessary. These include UN member states establishing a global coalition to counter Wagner’s influence in Africa – similar to the global coalition against Daesh. The report also recommended the European Union, United States and United Kingdom to designate the Wagner Group as a terror organisation, leading to more effective sanctions against them.

Secondly, the various illicit actors both inside and outside of Africa that enable Wagner’s hybrid campaigns should be sanctioned by G7 governments. This would also include the Wagner-related entities that are plundering the resources of African nations. Current efforts to counter transnational organised crime in Africa should be strengthened and focus on disrupting its links to hybrid actors.

Thirdly, social media companies such as Meta, YouTube TikTok and others should allocate the resources to monitor and address disinformation in Africa and in African languages. This could ideally be done in a similar way to these companies’ approach in Europe, by working with civil society organisations involved in fact-checking and defending democracy.

Next, the G7 should begin a joint public-private campaign with the African Union and tech companies to train sufficient numbers of cyber-security experts in Africa so the continent’s digital economy can be resilient enough to both grow and withstand threats from hybrid and criminal actors.

Finally, every effort to strengthen governance should include a focus on building resilience against hybrid actors and other threats to governance and sovereignty. This can be achieved through the continued work of the Africa-EU Partnership in cooperation with democracy-focused civil society organisations in both Africa and Europe.

In addition, efforts to restructure African debt via joint approaches such as the agreement between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Ghana’s creditors in 2023 should also be pursued so that debt does not lead to endangered sovereignty.

And perhaps the best way to help Africa build resilience is for the G7 nations to offer economic partnerships that are more attractive than what China and Russia are offering. Without such real investments and long-term commitment, our words on democracy and human rights will ring hollow.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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