Evgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin’s chef-turned-warlord, appears to be cooking up trouble in Africa. The leader of the Wagner Group announced on July 19 in a video that Wagner troops should prepare for fighting in Africa. This is consistent with earlier Wagner Group activities. Wagner mercenaries have committed human rights violations and engaged variously in smuggling, disinformation campaigns, and natural resource extraction in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, and across the continent. These smuggling operations have been vital for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, as while the wider Russian economy buckles under sanctions, the vast amounts of gold and other minerals Wagner is extracting keep the Russian treasury afloat.
Whether or not the recent coup in Niger presents new opportunities for Wagnerian infiltration, the event will have significant geo-economic and geostrategic impacts. Niger is home to 5 percent of global uranium production. European energy production is also dependent on Nigerien uranium. According to Oxfam, “In France, one out of every three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium,” which is vital for broader European energy production. With the new government in Niamey announcing a total closure of its borders for the time being, European energy markets will feel a pinch if regular exports do not resume within several weeks.
This is not the first time Niger has experienced political discord. This week’s coup d’état is the fifth since the country gained independence from France in 1960. Some coups were brazen seizures of powers by the military, others putative defenses of democracy. Now, both sides claim a democratic mandate. Deposed ministers are calling on the civilian population to “rescue hard-won democratic gains.” At the same time, the new junta, some of whom cooperated with Russia in the past, pledged to preserve democracy and restore the rule of law.
Unsurprisingly, regional instability spills over into Niger. The wider Sahel region is a mess, and the country has to contend with multiple intersecting jihadist insurgencies. From the south, sectarian rebellions overflow from northern Nigeria and Cameroon. From the north, endemic chaos reigns in Libya. Looking east and west, Tuareg rebels in Mali and insurgents in Northern Chad present a grim outlook for regional security. More disruptive forces emanate from Sudan as well. For some time, it appeared that Niger was an exception to the anarchic trend. The now deposed Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum had even deepened security ties with the United States.
However, the continuing chaos is a feature, not a bug, of Russian policy in Africa. Russia’s ailing and lagging soft power means it can offer little to Sub-Saharan African actors compared to the West or China. As a result, it opened its arsenal to both sides in armed conflicts throughout the continent and hopes that the short-term gains from mining and smuggling will save the Russian economy from the impact of Western sanctions. Moscow’s ruthlessly self-centered behavior is evident in the overall shift of Russian diplomacy towards the region since 2022. In July of last year, the African Union (AU) and Russia cordially discussed the prospect of resuming Russian grain shipments to needy African countries. In July 2023, after Russia literally torpedoed the grain deal and intensified food insecurity on the continent, only one-third of the invited African leaders to an African Union-Russia summit showed up.
Should Russia continue to expand its influence in the Sahel, it will enable the spread of anti-Western, radical terrorism while simultaneously disrupting Western energy supplies, including uranium. Disrupting alternative energy supply chains is critical for Russia since it increases European dependence on Russian natural gas and petroleum.
The Wagner Group may have lost some presence on Ukrainian battlefields, but that does not mean they no longer contribute to Russia’s war effort. However estranged Russian president Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin may be, the latter still advances the Kremlin’s grand strategy. Prigozhin called the conflict with the West “global.” For Wagner, it sure is.
Western policymakers should act to protect the uranium supply chain in Africa and recognize that Sudan and Niger are not just another organic bout of African instability. This is part of the Russian strategy to sow chaos in a desperate gambit to win its energy war.
Wesley Alexander Hill is the lead analyst and International Program Manager for the Energy, Growth, and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center. He researches geopolitical and geo-economic issues involving China, Central Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.