Wagner in Africa – political excess and the African condition

In an analysis of the Wagner group in Africa, Graham Harrison argues that Western coverage on the group’s activities on the continent characterises it as an extension of the Kremlin’s violent and venal cronyism and a disrupter of African-Western partnerships dedicated to the building of liberal sovereignties through aid, peacebuilding, and policy advice. Yet, Harrison explains the commentary from Western circles share a deep and significant misreading of African politics.

By Graham Harrison

Wagner and its affiliates’ presence in Africa follows a faultline. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and Mali each possess a present or recent history of loss of sovereign territorial control to insurgencies, recent coups or unstable regime changes, and failed or troubled interventions from Western organisations. Wagner and associated projects also led by Yevgeny Prigozhin have trained African militaries and militias in counter-insurgency, served as private security for heads of state, directly carried out counter-insurgency, secured (and exploited) mineral resources, and provided spurious but legitimating observation of elections. In essence, Wagner has acted to privatise state security, fight ‘dirty’ wars outside of established liberal codes of combat, and produce propaganda for insecure incumbent regimes. Until the march towards Moscow, Wagner had worked in Africa with background support from the Russian government.

Western reportage on Wagner in Africa characterises it as an aberration, a globalisation of the Kremlin’s violent and venal cronyism. It is also characterised as a spoiler: a purposeful disrupter of African-Western partnerships dedicated to the building of liberal sovereignties through aid, peacebuilding, and policy advice. One can readily agree with the former characterisation. But the latter is based in a kind of ideational sleight-of-hand, one that has proven remarkably durable in official Western circles when the question what to do about Africa? comes into focus.

Liberalism and Western elites’ misreading of Africa

Commentary from Western governments, diplomatic cadres, and a good number of consultants share a deep and significant misreading of African politics. This is that African governments have not yet properly learned the best and/or right modes of rule. This misreading was initialised during decolonisation, a period in which decolonising powers discussed independence within a singular framing: are African elites ready for statehood? The corollary of this question was that postcolonial African politics was defined by its inabilities. Up to the present-day, various tropes concerning corruption, state failure, peacebuilding, development aid, policy-based lending, election monitoring, technical assistance, and good governance refresh this very Western anxiety.

This framing is unified by a liberal counterposition. If African politics is too corrupt, violent, inefficient etc., then the solutions should be sought within the codes of liberal governance: liberalised markets, strong enforcement of property rights, an open national economy, civil society, accountability and transparency, pluralistic and deliberative political processes often based in partnerships, and multi-party democracy.

Again and again, facets of this doctrine anchor Western commentators’ representation of African politics as undeveloped in some fashion or other. And this allocates African politics to a specific relation with Western agencies: paternal tutelage.

Real politics is about how you make the right kind of compromises and the right arrangements so that you arrive at a better system for your country, and I think… [Somalis]… are discovering that they can’t have everything that they want and that’s just a basic rule.

This was the European Union’s Special Representative to the Horn of Africa, commenting on the inauguration of Somali Parliament in 2012. Think about that. A foreign diplomat characterising a newly-constituted parliament in which members are supposedly just now discovering that politics is about choice of action under conditions of constraint. The infantilising implication that you can’t have everything you want, and that you have just now learned this.

Political excess: Africa’s political overdevelopment

Basil Davidson’s brief history of decolonisation and the sovereign state in Africa, The Black Man’s Burden, characterises the winning of independence as ‘a transfer of crisis’ and, as a general leitmotif, this seems apt. The struggle for statehood was deeply intertwined with colonial failure: the brief, violent, and extractive experience of colonialism meant that newly-sovereign ruling elites did not ‘attain state power’. Rather, independence meant gaining control of projects of state construction, projects that had been previously executed in highly traumatic fashion. For new ruling elites, decolonisation involved immediately facing major-order and even existential challenges concerning the exercise of authoritative rule over peoples.

African elites have struggled to manage what might be described not so much as an undeveloped politics but rather an excess of politics: a succession of strategic, social, and material difficulties that would overwhelm any cabal of EU policymakers, consultancies, or UN institutions. None of this is to excuse the sometimes abysmal failures and predations of many post-colonial elites. It is simply to say that the challenges of governing states that were a product of a highly traumatic colonisation, thrown into world-systems heavily overdetermined by the Cold War, and (from the early 1970s) defined by generalised economic instability set post-colonial governance in a condition of complex and urgent political strife. The core political resources of manoeuvrability, resilience, innovation, ideological bombast, patronage, accommodation, repression, conciliation, deception and hypocrisy, institution-building, and the seeking of legitimacy were ever-present and ever-pressing.

The more detailed one’s investigation into specific cases, the more apparent this political excess seems. The EU’s talking suit was profoundly wrong about Somalia for example. Somalia has faced complex and existential challenges from the late 1980s onwards: the balancing and changing of Cold War patrons, the creation of a national development strategy in a society over which the state had almost no institutional presence in some places, invasion by Ethiopia, the rise of a secessionist movement in the north, the emergence of clan-based autonomous political formations, the rise of a massive informal economy in which piracy, finance, and international trade in bananas and khat produced new conduits of power and wealth. Two massive military interventions, the second of which dissolved into a US-led war. The formation of an exile government; the constant negotiation with donors concerning Somalia’s post-conflict future. A successful secession, leading to the creation of a genuinely original form of national assembly that has largely maintained civic peace even in the absence of juridical recognition of its sovereignty. All this in sixty years.

What is most interesting for our purposes is why Western politicians and diplomats get African politics wrong. The key reason is that they all deploy the same simplified liberal paradigm as a way to make African politics legible. Discourse on Africa is strewn with fatuous advice about free and fair elections, decentralisation to bring government closer to the people, the benefits of economic liberalism as a hotbed for entrepreneurialism. And so on. This Liberalism 101 ostensiblyserves to render African politics as undeveloped but substantially what it reveals is the continued naiveté of Western observers who have repeatedly failed to generate even the minimal cognitive sophistication to recognise that African politics is, if anything overdeveloped: defined by an excess of politics.

We have the answers… what’s the question?

In a response to recent interest in Wagner’s presence in some African countries, the United Sates Institute of Peace (USIP) worries that America is losing its influence in Africa. It argues that the West needs to win back Africans from the illiberal influence of Russia. It needs to make its case, a case that is not as judgemental or tainted by colonialism as it used to be. In summary, its liberal case to win back Africa is:

Intensify diplomacy and dialogue with Sahel states […]

Work not just with governments, but with whole societies… Support and seek guidance from opposition, civic, religious and communal groups, women and youth leaders — and critically, the business sectors — on specific steps in each country to better meet populations’ needs through democratically elected governments.

Demonstrate to Sahel nations the opportunities to build their economies through the rule of law that invites domestic and foreign investment.

Dialogue, partnerships with civil society organisations, the market economy. This ‘re-evaluation’ (USIP’s phrase) of the Western case for Africa could have been written in the mid 1990s and it could have come from all kinds of UN, Bretton Woods, OECD, EU, bilateral government aid departments, or consultancies. It is in this sense an encapsulation of the rudimentary and unchanging nature of the Western liberal optic in relation to African politics. Yet, its iteration in this specific circumstance is perhaps revealing.

Tempting though the figurative might be, Wagner’s presence in some African countries is not virus-like. That implies that it is a morbid symptom, a dysfunction. Something that can be flushed out in order to return politics to order. Wagner is, rather, part of a repertoire of techniques of governance in the context of continuous and radical instability: of lived-in crisis. The fragmentation of territorial sovereignty, the use of the state as a resource-in-itself, the ‘extraversion’ of elite enrichment into tax havens and property held by family groups, the use of militaries as a mode of plunder, the contracting out of core government services to international actors through opaque resource deals, the ambiguous relationships between governments and criminal organisations… all of these things are what Africa’s post-colonial politics looks like in an age of crisis. The activities of Wagner in Africa are extreme but not exceptional.

The politics of lived-in crisis

Lived-in crisis has spread through many African states from the 1980s. Jane Guyer encapsulates the nature of lived-in crisis as follows: ‘existential precarity, moment-to-moment, and the long processes of a structure in crisis’ A day-to-day precarity locked into a secular precarity. Crisis and instability does not undermine normal politics; politics is crisis and instability.

It is instructive that international attention on Wagner in Africa emerges in the wake of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. Perhaps Russia and many parts of Africa share something. In Adam Curtis’s documentary Hypernormalisation (2016), a representation is made that Russia’s shadow elite straddles many venues in which power is produced: business, government, military, intelligence, and media. And, the documentary suggests, these elites are not interested in any kind of ‘new normal’; it is a constant state of instability that allows them to flourish or perish. They are equipped to survive in the midst of permanent chaos. The exception is, for them, the norm. Multiple citizenship, multiple cliques of associates, hidden money and property. Ready to grab opportunities not as investments but as short-term enrichment.

This condition profoundly affects the nature of governance. Elites also have their shadow cliques, militias, secret international links. Often, an incumbent elite cannot know their future once they have left government. Elite politics in much of Africa requires a kind of super-charged Machiavellianism, a nimble fox, a smart thief, a flexitarian horizon watching. A political skill-set way more advanced than the stolid mechanics of many Western governments during the 1990s for example.

In 2000, Botswana’s President, Festus Mogae, said ‘We’re very proud of how dull our elections are. It proves that our democracy is working.’ Botswana’s politics is relatively boring and this is sign that the immense political work many other states have to undertake are largely absent. In many of its regional siblings—Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa—politics is defined by major-order questions of political survival, the absence of successful nation-building, severe deficits in legitimacy, extreme volatility, insurgency, and unbalanced and recessionary economies.

In this context, some African countries share something else with Russia. Sam Kriss writes that: ‘Russia is the only country where old-fashioned events still take place, and those of us trapped outside Russia can barely see it.’ But Russia is not alone. This phenomenon is inscribed into many parts of Africa. The deep realities of politics—the project of nation-building, the establishing of uncontested authoritative power, the construction of institutions that secure a basic predictability to social life, the founding of a basic legitimacy claim that the state and its nation can aspire to a good polity—manifest themselves in many parts of Africa as partial and contested phenomena.

This is perhaps why Wagner is present in Russia and parts of Africa. It is a symptom of the fact that many states seek ways to enforce state power, eradicate armed opposition, deploy resources, and establish international networks that evade, shortcut, or refuse the liberal mantras that has proven over decades not up to the task.

Many African governments perform a dynamic and improvised hybridity, combining liberal, nationalist, and vernacular political strategies. Every national strategy and vision cohabits with clientelist manoeuvre, with considerations of territorial security, with venal ambitions to capture resources, with the secretive transnationality of wealth accrual. Private security is part of this hybridity, along with transnational corporations, tax havens, and shadow elite brokers and fixers.

Time to learn from Africa

In an age in which liberalism in Western political cultures seems severely weakened by populisms, integralisms, and deglobalisations, one has to wonder how long the West can keep its global Liberalism 101 going. This endless repetition of liberal desiderata—we have the answer now what’s the question?—now faces a disposition in much of Africa in which the political foundations of the national project are eroding, there is no liberal ‘new normal’ in view. Transnational nexus of violence, resource grab, trafficking, and privatising state patrimony leaves a prospective for Africa that liberalism is ill-equipped to make sense of.

Recognising this and seeking more troubling but more relevant political analysis is the first step that those who are interested might take if they are to respond to the thoroughly modern and sophisticated political of Africa. After all, one cannot assume that Africa might hold in its present some auguries of the West’s own future. It is striking how, after seventy years of expectation that the world economy would converge through economic growth in the Global South, it is global crisis that seems to drive convergence in all nations.

Graham Harrison teaches political economy at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and is on the editorial board of ROAPE. His recent book Developmentalism: The Normative and Transformative within Capitalism is published by Oxford University Press.

Featured Photograph: Russian mercenaries on 25 May 2019 in the Central African Republic (Florence Maïguélé for CorbeauNews).


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