In August 2014, Viktor Polikarpov was appointed as the Regional Vice -President of Rosatom International Network. His key responsibilities include overseeing, implementing and managing all Russian nuclear projects in Sub-Sahara African region. In this interview, Viktor Polikarpov discusses the potential nuclear energy requirements and nuclear safety as well as how to use nuclear energy in agricultural, health and other sectors of the economy in Africa.
How would you estimate the potential nuclear energy requirements in Africa? Which African countries have shown interest and point out if Rosatom already have some projects on the continent?
Viktor Polikarpov: Africa, being a continent suffering from electricity deficit, won’t be able to bring all its potential into life without meeting energy needs for its growing economy. It is vital for African countries to create viable energy mix, which will guarantee their own energy security and drive the industrial development. That is the reason why more and more African countries are currently studying the opportunities for nuclear power development.
In our opinion, these countries must be supported by the global community, which must ensure an equal, non-discriminated access for every state to such a safe and reliable source of energy as nuclear. At the same time, as the majority of African countries are newcomers in nuclear energy, the basic principles of non-proliferation, as well as nuclear safety and security, must come at the first place.
With the recent spike in electricity emergency declarations in South Africa, the need for additional baseload power has become a matter of urgency. Ninety five percent of electricity generated in South Africa is through coal-fired power stations. Koeberg Power Station, based in Western Cape, with a net output of 1,830MW accounts for about five percent to the total power grid, which in relevant terms means it powers the whole of Cape Town.
This proves the tested reliance on nuclear energy as additional baseload power generation for the country. South Africa was one of the first countries to publicly declare its stance on peaceful nuclear energy use for power generation in Africa.
Rosatom is intensively developing cooperation with African countries. The company already has own history of cooperation with Africa in nuclear sphere. In 2012, we signed an intergovernmental agreement with Nigeria on cooperation in NPP construction and are currently in the process of elaborating the comprehensive structure of the project. We have been working in Namibia and Tanzania in terms of uranium exploration and mining. With the Republic of South Africa, cooperation is the most lasting and dates back to 1995 with the supply of enriched uranium supplies for the Koeberg Power Station in Cape Town.
Rosatom assigns high priority to the development of cooperation with the South African nuclear industry. We confirm that our proposal for a strategic partnership in the development of nuclear energy in this country, keeps in force.
In your view, how really sustainable is nuclear energy for Africa? How is that compared to other alternative power resources such as solar and hydro, and what are the positive sides for the use of nuclear power?
VP: Today, nuclear power is one of the most important vectors of the world economic development. Electric power consumption growth under deficit of energy resources and CO2 emission restrictions make nuclear power industry practically beyond competition on a global scale. Despite of active investments to the wind and solar power generation facilities, general power balance in the world market of energetics will remain the same as now for long years ahead: hydrocarbons and nuclear power.
The question is in the optimum way of such energetic balance. Full costs of alternative generation are still considerably high and should not be passed on to final consumer. Due to technological limitations alternative energy sources cannot serve as reliable and consistent sources of electrical energy. On the other hand traditional sources of energy generation do not always meet ecological standards and demand considerable amounts of raw materials.
Nuclear generation is a most energy intensive sphere of power. I would explain this with an explicit example. In order to generate 1 MW hour of electricity you would need approximately 340 kg of coal, or 210 kg of oil, or 1-3 g of enriched uranium. And under calculation of yearly demand for 1000 MW generation object numbers tell stories best: 24 tons of enriched uranium against 1.7 million tons of oil, 2.7 million tons of coal or 2.4 billion m3 of natural gas.
Today, nuclear power is the only source of energy that meets all the challenges of a rapidly developing world. Nuclear power is unique because of the significantly low cost of electricity generated by it. That is why nuclear power plants may well feed the energy-hungry regions as well as provide for significant electricity exporting potential. Another proven advantage of nuclear power is its environmental friendliness. NPP’s do not emit any harmful substances in the atmosphere during their operation and they are totally free of the greenhouse gas emission. The main advantage of nuclear power is the unique and large-scale impact it has on social and economic development of the whole country.
Nuclear power is much more than just energy. When a country goes with nuclear, it is stimulating development of local industry, including civil construction and equipment manufacturing competencies. Development of nuclear power provides for creation of a large number of jobs – both on construction and operation stages – and these are also jobs created in related areas, not only at the actual NPP site.
Another important aspect is encouraging the development of sciences and education, as nuclear power is high technology, which requires qualified staff and strong scientific base. For some of countries, “nuclear” status would not only mean their own energy security, but also set conditions for change of their regional status and influence of the country mainly due to an opportunity of electricity export to neighboring countries. All in all, nuclear power plays a role of a certain driver for active development in other spheres of economy and social infrastructure.
Can you also discuss other aspects, for example, the use of nuclear energy as applied in agricultural, health and other sectors on the economy?
VP: Nuclear technologies include not only NPP construction. The peaceful atom concept manifests itself in nuclear medicine, a major area of our interest that includes nuclear imaging techniques and proton beam treatment for cancer and other diseases. Along with oncology, nuclear medical technologies can be applied in cardiology, endocrinology and neurology.
Rosatom focuses on the development of nuclear medicine – something whose use is still very limited in Russia – and collaborates with the Federal Biomedical Agency and international companies in manufacturing a wide range of products used in nuclear medicine, from isotopes to imaging equipment. In its efforts to make nuclear medicine affordable for the Russian people, Rosatom strives to be a global leader in producing the high-end materials needed in nuclear medicine. All such efforts are carried out under the Radiation Technologies umbrella programme and are coordinated by the United Corporation for Innovations.
As part of these activities, Rosatom has launched production of Molybdenum-99, an important radionuclide used for extraction of Technetium-99m generators, a key radioactive tracer with applications as a diagnostic tool. Molybdenum-99 is now available in Russia for testing purposes.
The Russian Federation Institute for Atomic Research (known as RIAR) provides a unique research platform for its highly skilled staff. RIAR is the No. 2 producer of isotopes in Russia. It offers the broadest range of products available in the country, including Iodine-131, Iodine-125, Tungsten-188, Strontium-89 (a Rhenium-188 generator), Lutetium-177, etc.
Another area of significant interest within the nuclear medicine field is the production of CT scanners and medical accelerators. Rosatom is ready to produce equipment for nuclear medicine centers, including self-engineered gamma cameras, emission scanners, cyclotrons for short-living isotopes production. This product line makes possible comprehensive fitting out PET centers.
Rosatom’s interest in innovations goes beyond the nuclear field – we are active in developing carbon fibre composite materials containing 92–99.99% of carbon. When compared to conventional construction materials (aluminium, steel, etc.), carbon fibre composites boast extremely high ratings for material strength, fatigue resistance, elasticity modulus, chemical and corrosion resistance – many times higher than the equivalent steel properties, while weighing much less. We are now able to produce carbon composites that are 10 times stronger and 5 times lighter than steel. These materials are essential in load bearing structures where it is critical to increase strength while reducing weight. Polymer composites are widely used in the aerospace, nuclear, automotive, construction, and ship building industries, as well as for the construction of bridges and pipelines.
Russia operates the world’s only nuclear icebreaker fleet and, therefore, has unique expertise in the design, construction and maintenance of such vessels. The Russian nuclear fleet consists of four icebreakers and four service ships. Nuclear icebreakers are operated by Rosatomflot, a subsidiary of Rosatom, and are used to maintain the Northern Sea Route and the North Pole floating research stations, as well as for cruises to the North Pole.
To what extent, the use of nuclear power safe and secured for Africa? What technical precautions (measures) can you suggest for ensuring nuclear security?
VP: Rosatom provides an integrated solution for emerging countries in which energy solution of generation III+ construction itself combines with our key operating principles – job creation, attracting international investments, infrastructure development and general social responsibility.
VVER technology is one of the most referential in the world (70 units were constructed). 55 VVER units in 11 countries are successfully operated (18 units are in EU). Safety and efficiency of NNPs with VVER are highly respected by expert missions of international organisations, including the IAEA.
The competitive advantages of modern Gen 3+ NPPs with VVER reactors are
– advanced reactor control and shutdown systems, with priority to safety but also providing good fuel economy;
– advanced management of radiation in normal operation: very small radioactive releases, occupational radiation doses, and radioactive waste generation;
– effective protection against external hazards (hyrricanes, flooding, seismic loads, flight accidents etc.);
– unique balance of active and passive safety systems (active systems are able to function provided that, at least, one of alternative power supplies is available; passive systems are able to function independently without power supply and also without human intervention);
– innovative features of passive safety systems;
– full set of systems needed to manage any conceivable severe nuclear accident in a way that eliminates large radioactive releases to the environment, including core catcher, passive heat removal system etc.
– modern Russian NPP projects correspond with all international, including post-Fukushima safety requirements and the IAEA safety standards;
Rosatom is the world’s only company of a complete nuclear power cycle. Rosatom may offer the complete range nuclear power products and services from nuclear fuel supply, technical services and modernization to personnel training and establishing nuclear infrastructure.
The advantages on nuclear among other things are the procurement of local suppliers to partner with Rosatom. This will have a powerful impact to the development of local businesses contributing to the country’s economy and international investment which will boost the country’s GDP. This increases the competitiveness of energy intensive industries in the country.
And cost effectiveness? Is it nuclear power really affordable for Africa? So, what’s Rosatom’s plan for future cooperation with African countries?
VP: Today the market demands offers related to the cost price of one kWh of electric power, which is essential for the consumer. Actually, the consumer is not much interested in how electrical energy is produced; the most important thing is the price. We can guarantee a certain price for electrical energy generated by NPPs built by Rosatom, since we have constructed the entire process chain: from uranium production to construction of NPPs and sale of electrical energy.
Rosatom has been purposefully creating the entire chain specifically in order to achieve this objective, for example, we have included a machine-building division into the Corporation. Now, the control of the cost of every stage of production also enables us to control and guarantee the price of electrical energy generated at nuclear power stations built by Rosatom.
One of the challenges faced nowadays by the nuclear energy sector is to ensure its competitive advantage in comparison with generation on the hydrocarbon raw materials. Today, they often say that nuclear energy is quite expensive, but this depends on calculations. It is true that NPPs are expensive to build, but the process of generation of electrical power is much cheaper in comparison with gas or coal generation. Which is most essential, it is much more predictable.
We have studied the volatility in raw materials markets in recent years, and the way the price for natural uranium and gas has been changing. The price range is quite broad in both cases. But the resulting ultimate cost of electrical energy is different, since for an NPP the share of the fuel component is only 25-30% of the operation cost, and for a gas or coal plant the share of the fuel component is 80-90%!
In this regard, the cost of production of kilowatt-hour of electric energy on the nuclear power plant is subject in the smallest way to changes in the commodity market and is most predictable for the investor and the end user.
NPP construction is a driver for active development in different spheres of economy and social infrastructure. We are ready to offer our integrated solutions. As we have already said these solutions include wide range of products and services – from uranium extraction to NPP construction, consulting national legislative and regulatory frameworks, personnel training and investment attraction.
Rosatom integrated solutions in nuclear power can be adapted to meet the client’s needs and the specifics of a given project. It is only our proposal is able to provide a guarantee of the total cost of nuclear energy during its life cycle. Regarding the financial solution, we understand the importance of this ambitious project for South Africa and the necessity of choosing the right financial model. We are ready to offer our experience in two models (EPC and BOO) and create tailor made financial solution for South Africa, taking into account the scale of the project and duration of its project. We offer strategic partnership in the development of civil nuclear industry for South Africa and other African countries.
Analyzing The American Hybrid War on Ethiopia
Ethiopia has come under unprecedented pressure from the U.S. ever since it commenced a military operation in its northern Tigray Region last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the armed forces to respond to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which used to be the most powerful faction of the former ruling party, after it attacked a military barracks. Addis Ababa now officially considers the TPLF to be a terrorist group. It fell out with PM Abiy after initially facilitating his rise to power as a result of disagreements over his fast-moving socio-political reforms.
The TPLF refused to join PM Abiy’s Prosperity Party upon its formation in December 2019. It also regarded his decision to postpone national elections last August until this June due to the COVID-19 pandemic as resulting in him illegitimately remaining in power. In response, the TPLF organized its own elections in the Tigray Region in September 2020 that were not recognized by the central government. This set a tense backdrop against which the group attacked the military a few months later in early November, which was what triggered the ongoing conflict.
The U.S. and its allies claim that Ethiopia is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, which Addis Ababa, of course, denies. This set the basis upon which the U.S. began to sanction the country. The first sanctions were imposed in late May to target Ethiopian officials as well as some of their Eritrean allies who, the U.S. claimed, were supporting them in their military campaign. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) pulled out of Tigray a month later in June, claiming that this unilateral move would facilitate the international community’s relief efforts in the war-torn region that had attracted so much global attention.
The conflict did not end, however, but actually expanded. The TPLF felt emboldened to invade the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, parts of which it continues to occupy. Addis Ababa suspected that the group was receiving various equipment and other forms of support under the cover of UN aid shipments. It also accused the TPLF of manipulating international perceptions about the region’s humanitarian crisis in order to generate more support and increase pressure on the Ethiopian government. PM Abiy published an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden last month, urging him to reconsider his country’s policy towards the conflict.
It regrettably went unheeded but deserves to be read in full, since the Ethiopian leader compellingly argued that the American policy is counterproductive and influenced by the TPLF’s lobbyists. Shortly after that, his government expelled seven UN officials at the end of September, who it accused of meddling. In early October, CNN published a report claiming that Ethiopian Airlines was illegally transporting weapons to and from Eritrea during the early stages of the conflict. This, in turn, prompted more sanctions threats from the U.S. The situation is such that the U.S. is now actively working in support of the TPLF against PM Abiy’s government.
This American hybrid war on Ethiopia is waged in various ways that deserve further study. They closely resemble the American hybrid war on Syria in the sense that the U.S. is using humanitarian pretexts to justify meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Its motivations to backstab its regional ally are entirely self-interested and zero-sum. The U.S. is uncomfortable with PM Abiy’s geopolitical balancing between Washington and Beijing. Although the former TPLF-led government was also close to China, the U.S. likely expected PM Abiy to distance Ethiopia from it, considering the pressure that Washington exerts upon its partners to do so.
He came to power in early 2018 around the time when the U.S. began to intensify its ongoing New Cold War with China. From the American perspective, it is unacceptable for the country’s partners to retain close ties with its top geopolitical rival. It is for this reason why the US far from appreciates PM Abiy’s balancing act since it likely expected for him to move away from China. This leads to the next motivation for the American Hybrid War on Ethiopia, which is to return the TPLF to power there, if not in a national capacity, then at least in its home region. Such an explanation will now be elaborated on more at length.
Ethiopia finds itself at a crossroads whereby the country can either continue on the path of centralization, like PM Abiy has attempted to do, or pursue the course of further federalization to the point where its regions receive more autonomy than before. One of the TPLF’s primary criticisms of the Ethiopian leader is that he is allegedly going against the country’s post-civil war federal foundation. If it can succeed at least in securing broad autonomy for its home region by force after failing to do so peacefully, this might then trigger radical reforms that result in advancing its federal vision throughout the rest of the country.
The U.S. could exploit the broad autonomy that these regions might receive in order to individually pressure them to distance themselves from China. Ethiopia is, after all, Africa’s second most populous country and used to have one of the world’s fastest rates of economic growth before the COVID-19 pandemic. From a continental standpoint, the U.S. might believe that turning Ethiopia against China could eventually become a game-changer in the New Cold War’s African theater. In other words, everything that the U.S. is doing against Ethiopia is motivated by its desire to “contain” China. It is now time to explain its modus operandi in detail.
The U.S. immediately exploited the TPLF-provoked conflict in Ethiopia to pressure PM Abiy to treat the group as his political equals. This was unacceptable for him, since doing so would legitimize all other groups that attack the armed forces in pursuit of their political objectives. The Ethiopian leader rightly feared that it could also trigger a domino effect that results in the country’s “Balkanization”, which would advance American interests in the sense of taking the country out of the “geopolitical game” with China. In response to his recalcitrance, the U.S. alleged that his government was carrying out ethnic cleansing.
American officials knew that this would attract global attention that they could manipulate to put multilateral pressure upon his government. Even so, PM Abiy still did not relent but continued waging his war in the interests of national unity. With time, the U.S. began to portray him as a “rogue leader” who did not deserve his Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving his country’s frozen conflict with the neighboring Eritrea. Its perception managers presented him as a power-hungry dictator, who was ruthlessly killing the ethnic minorities that opposed his government, including by deliberately starving them to death.
The ENDF’s withdrawal from the Tigray Region over the summer was interpreted by the U.S. as having been commenced from a position of weakness. It believed that ramping up the pressure at this sensitive point in the conflict could lead to him politically capitulating to the TPLF’s demands. This was a wrong assessment since PM Abiy hoped that everything would stabilize after his decision facilitated international relief efforts to the war-torn region. These were unfortunately exploited, according to Addis Ababa, in order to provide more support for the TPLF, which is why his government recently expelled those seven UN officials.
The U.S. “humanitarian imperialism”, as one can now call its policy against Ethiopia, is very pernicious. It focuses solely on the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray Region while ignoring the ones that the TPLF caused in the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions. This policy also manipulates perceptions about the situation in Tigray in order to delegitimize PM Abiy, the ENDF and the political cause of national unity that they are fighting for. The purpose is to encourage more members of the international community to pressure Ethiopia to the point where it finally feels compelled to politically capitulate. This policy, however, has proven to be counterproductive.
Far from giving up the fight, Ethiopia is doubling down and is now more motivated than ever before to see the war to its end, though ideally through a political rather than military solution due to humanitarian considerations. This does not imply treating the terrorist-designated TPLF as an equal but envisions replacing its leadership in the Tigray Region with a pro-government/unity party instead. That is, of course, easier said than done, which is why military means might continue to be relied upon to this political end. Throughout the course of its struggle, Ethiopia has begun to be seen as an anti-imperialist icon across Africa and the rest of the Global South.
PM Abiy’s open letter to Biden was full of powerful statements articulating Ethiopia’s sovereign interests. It showed that African leaders can resist the U.S., which could inspire the Ethiopian leader’s counterparts who might also come under similar pressure from their partner sometime in the future—due to its zero-sum New Cold War geopolitical calculations. Ethiopia’s sheer size makes it an African leader, not to mention it hosting the headquarters of the African Union, so it can influence the rest of the continent. It also has a very proud anti-imperialist history which motivates its people not to submit to foreign pressure.
China, Russia and India have politically supported Ethiopia against the U.S. at the UN, thereby debunking The Economist’s lie last week that “Ethiopia is losing friends and influence”. To the contrary, Ethiopia is gaining friends and influence, especially among the rising powers and the rest of the Global South. Its principled resistance to the American hybrid war on it has shown others that there is an alternative to capitulation. It is indeed possible to fight back in the interests of national unity. Not all American destabilization plots are guaranteed success. Just like the U.S. failed to topple the Syrian government, so too has it failed to topple the Ethiopian regime.
Ethiopia, however, is many orders of magnitude larger than Syria. This makes its hitherto successful resistance to the American hybrid war all the more significant. The leader in the Horn of Africa is a very diverse country, whose many people could be pitted against one another through information warfare to provoke another round of civil war that would help the TPLF’s U.S.-backed anti-government crusade. That worst-case scenario has not materialized, though, due to the majority of the population’s commitment to national unity even among some of those who might have misgivings about the present government.
This year’s elections saw the Prosperity Party win by a landslide, which shows how much genuine support it and its founder have among the masses. Furthermore, PM Abiy’s concept of “medemer” (“coming together”) aims to counteract “Balkanization” processes by pragmatically reforming socio-political relations inside the country. It is a very promising idea that could inspire other very diverse states across the Global South and help them ideologically thwart divide-and-rule plots like the one presently waged against Ethiopia.
Assessing the strategic situation as it presently stands, the American Hybrid War on Ethiopia is expected to intensify on manipulated humanitarian pretexts. More sanctions and even the threatened revocation of Ethiopia’s access to the U.S. market through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) could worsen the economic situation for millions of people. The purpose in doing so would be to provoke anti-government protests that the U.S. hopes would be violent enough to catalyze a self-sustaining cycle of destabilization throughout the country after the security services crack down on the rioters.
The supplementary purpose is to encourage some Ethiopians to join anti-government terrorist groups allied or working in coordination with the TPLF unless the U.S. succeeds in pulling off a Color Revolution. This modus operandi is identical to the one that it relied upon in its hybrid war on Syria. In the Ethiopian context, the U.S. hopes to forcefully “Balkanize” the country, whether de jure or de facto through an extreme form of federalization. The point is to punish Ethiopia for balancing between China and the U.S., which showed other Global South states that such a pragmatic approach is possible instead of the U.S.-practised zero-sum one.
Nevertheless, the U.S. might still fail. The ENDF and other security services retain control throughout all the country’s regions with the exception of Tigray. It is therefore unlikely that any Color Revolution or Unconventional War there will succeed. Furthermore, Ethiopia enjoys close ties with the rising multipolar powers like China, Russia and India who can help it weather the current crisis by neutralizing U.S. attempts to isolate the country. In addition, the “medemer” concept ensures that national unity remains at the core of the Ethiopian society, reducing the appeal of foreign-backed “Balkanization” narratives.
Altogether, it can be said that Ethiopia is successfully resisting the U.S. hybrid war against it. There have certainly been some serious costs to its international reputation, but it remains committed to the cause of national unity, and it does not seem likely to politically capitulate to the terrorist-designed TPLF’s foreign-backed demands. Expelling those seven UN officials for meddling was a major move which speaks to how serious the country is about protecting its sovereignty. The same can also be said about PM Abiy’s open letter to Biden which preceded that development and explained why the U.S. is wrong for meddling in Ethiopia.
The American Hybrid War on Ethiopia will likely continue since the US doesn’t like to lose. It keenly understands what’s at stake in the realm of international perceptions, and it’s that the US cannot afford to have an African country – let alone one as large and influential as Ethiopia is – successfully resist its pressure campaign. Ethiopia’s resolute resistance can inspire other countries across the Global South, which can complicate the US’ efforts to pressure them into curtailing ties with China in the New Cold War. Had the US simply accepted Ethiopia’s balancing act, then the conflict might have ended by now, but its zero-sum policies prevented that.
From our partner RIAC
Reducing industrial pollution in the Niger River Basin
The Niger River is the third-longest river in Africa, running for 4,180 km (2,600 miles) from its source in south-eastern Guinea, through Mali, Niger and Nigeria, before discharging via the Niger Delta into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Tributaries that run through a further five countries feed into the mighty Niger.
Hundreds of millions of people in West Africa depend on the river and its tributaries, for drinking water, for fish to eat, for irrigation to grow crops, for use in productive processes, and for hydroelectric power.
The health of the Niger River Basin is vitally important for the people and for the environment of West Africa. But this health is endangered by land degradation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, invading aquatic vegetal species and climate change.
To both assess and address these environmental issues, a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project has brought together international, regional and national entities to work on integrated water resources management for the benefit of communities and the resilience of ecosystems. (Project details can be found here.)
One part of the early project research found that as the Niger River passes through Tembakounda, Bamako, Gao, Niamey, Lokoja and Onithsa – major trading, agro-processing and industrial cities – wastewater and other polluting substances are discharged directly into the river, often without consideration for the environment. National governments of the countries which the river runs through are either unable to deal with the accumulated environmental problems and/or are ineffective at preventing, regulating, reducing and managing pollution from industrial activities.
For this reason, one component of the GEF project, implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), will facilitate the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) to reduce wastewater discharges and pollution loads into the Niger River.
Despite the limitations on travel resulting from measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, in August this year, UNIDO successfully identified and engaged with 19 pilot enterprises in various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, mining and agribusiness, operating in ‘pollution hotspots’ in the countries of the Niger River Basin. This number exceeds the original target of one enterprise per country.
UNIDO experts are now introducing and sharing the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) methodology with the pilot enterprises. In essence, this will mean the application of a set of tools including Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production, Environmental Management Systems, and Environmental Management Accounting, which will lead to the adoption of best practices, new skills and a new management culture.
Armed with these tools, the enterprises will be able to reduce product costs and increase productivity, while reducing the adverse environmental consequences of their operations. An awareness-raising campaign will be carried out so that the demonstration effect resonates across the Niger River Basin, prompting other enterprises to follow suit.
Wagner: Putin’s secret weapon on the way to Mali?
France is outraged at the prospect of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group arriving in Mali. However, Paris is seeking a way out of an unwinnable conflict.
On September 13, a Reuters news agency article citing unnamed sources and reporting advanced negotiations between Mali and the Russian mercenary company Wagner sparked a firestorm of reactions. The United States, Germany, and the United Nations have all warned Bamako’s military against such collaboration. According to them, the arrival of Russian mercenaries – a thousand have been estimated – would jeopardize the West’s commitment to fighting the jihadists who control a large portion of Malian territory.
But France, understandably, is the most vocal against such a move. The former colonial power has maintained a military presence in the country since 2013, when it halted the jihadists’ advance on the capital. Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, visited Bamako on September 20th to warn Malian colonels in power following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Wagner’s choice, she said, would be that of “isolation” at a time when “the international community has never been so numerous in fighting jihadists in the Sahel”.
What the minister does not mention is that France’s commitment to Mali is waning. Emmanuel Macron used the second Malian coup d’état last June, less than a year before the French presidential election, to announce a “redeployment” of French forces in Mali. Although Paris refuses to discuss a de facto withdrawal, even if it is partial, the truth is that the tricolored soldiers will abandon the isolated bases of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Tessalit in the country’s north by next year, concentrating on the area further south of the three borders with Niger and Burkina Faso.
Europeans, who are expected to be more supportive of France, are also perplexed. The humiliation of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has served as a wake-up call. The Afghan government’s sudden collapse in the face of the Taliban has demonstrated how difficult it is to build a strong army and institutions. This scenario appears to be repeating itself in Mali.
The possibility of a rapprochement between Bamako and Moscow is taken seriously because Putschists in Mali have always been sensitive to Russian offerings. Colonel Sadio Camara, Mali’s Defense Minister, visited Russia on September 4. Disagreements over a reversal of Mali’s alliances are said to have been one of the causes of the Malian colonels’ second coup, which ousted the civilian transitional government last May.
Russia also acts as a boogeyman for the Malian military. According to a Daily Beast investigation, the Malian army organized a supposedly spontaneous demonstration last May demanding Russian intervention. This was also a warning to the international community, which is growing weary of the country’s poor governance and repeated coups.
Is Mali transitioning from the French to the Russian spheres of influence? Since Moscow gained a foothold in the Central African Republic, the scenario is not a figment of the imagination. Russian instructors and Wagner’s mercenaries have proven their worth in this former French backyard. Even though the UN condemns Russia’s atrocities in this conflict, the Russians were able to push back the rebels who were threatening the capital Bangui last December with the help of UN peacekeepers and Rwandan reinforcements.
The Kremlin denies any involvement with the Wagner group. However, the company is actually run by a close associate of Vladimir Putin. The use of private mercenaries allows Moscow to avoid military commitments abroad, as it did previously in Ukraine and Libya. “Russia is not negotiating a military presence in Mali,” said a Kremlin spokesman in mid-September. When questioned by the magazine Jeune Afrique on September 20th, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra swore that he had “not signed anything with Wagner.” “In the Central African Republic, we have companies that were established in accordance with the law and operate on liberalized markets,” he explained.
Nothing has been decided on Wagner, it is repeated in Bamako. According to the military, the selection of foreign “partners” is a matter of Mali’s “sovereignty.” They regard these “rumors” as an attempt to “discredit the country.” The Malian junta is under siege, not only from jihadists but also from the international community. The latter is calling for elections to be held in February to return power to civilians, as stipulated in the military-agreed transition charter. Electoral reform must come before the election. However, Colonel Assimi Gota, the transitional president, has shown little interest in preparing for these elections. The Malian junta may also be hoping that Russia’s partners will be less stringent on democratic requirements.
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