Since June 24, questions have been raised about the operations in Africa of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, after destabilizing the Kremlin and threatening to take over Moscow. In this edition of Fragmentos de África, we also address the tragedy in Melilla, when migrants lost their lives trying to cross into Spain. Today, Amnesty International accuses Rabat and Madrid of obstructing an investigation. We are also going to Mali, where the junto requested the UN that its peace mission, the Minusma, withdraw.
This is Fragments of Africa, our biweekly compilation of the most relevant events in African news.
1) Tracing the origins, expansion and future of the Wagner Group in Africa
In the years 2017 and 2018, the Russian militiamen of the Wagner paramilitary group took their first steps in Africa, entering through the Central African Republic. They were summoned by the Government of Bangui, the capital, with the purpose of providing security to the recently inaugurated President Faustin Archange Touadéra and helping to regain control of areas of the territory in the hands of armed groups.
According to Mathieu Olivier, a journalist specializing in Wagner, in conversations with France 24, this deployment began with negotiations between the authorities of the Central African Republic and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Since then, the paramilitaries have consolidated their power in Bangui, controlling not only the security apparatus, but also the mines, particularly the diamond ones.
The group subsequently turned its attention to Mali where it arrived in late 2021, using an approach similar to that implemented in the Central African Republic. Currently, it is estimated that there are between 1,000 and 1,400 Russian mercenaries deployed in the Central African Republic, while around 1,500 are in Mali.
In addition to these countries, the group has also extended its presence in other key nations in the region. In Libya, they have access to airbases, and in Sudan, since 2017, it has established agreements to provide training to the regular army in exchange for access to gold mines in certain regions of the country.
From the Central African Republic to Sudan, and passing through Mali, Wagner’s strategy follows a common pattern: they offer security and military cooperation in exchange for the exploitation of resources such as diamonds, gold, timber and coffee, among other products.
In addition, the group has cultivated an effective anti-colonialist narrative in the countries where it operates, especially directed against France. Mathieu Olivier, who describes Yevgeny Prigozhin as “a master of propaganda”, points out that Wagner’s success lies in his understanding of anti-French sentiment in various African countries, as well as his ability to exploit it and find support in civil society and in certain media.
However, with the departure of Prigozhin, who has gone into exile in Belarus, questions are raised about the future of the relationship between the Kremlin, Wagner and Africa. Although the Prigozhin rebellion is seen as prompting Vladimir Putin to regain some control over the group’s propaganda system and security operations, there is no indication that the mercenaries will withdraw from the mainland or cease their activities there.
2) One year after the tragedy in Melilla, justice for the victims is still pending
Twelve months ago, around 2,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa, seeking safety and better living conditions in Europe, gathered on the border between Morocco and Spain. What they hoped would be a step towards a hopeful future turned into a nightmare, with a tragic end for dozens of them. On June 24, 2022, at least 37 people lost their lives and another 76 are still missing. However, to date, neither the Spanish nor the Moroccan authorities have carried out an investigation to clarify what happened and provide the families of the victims with the truth about how their loved ones died.
“It is becoming more and more evident that we are facing a deliberate and concerted attempt to cover up,” denounces Amnesty International. Both the Spanish and Moroccan authorities not only deny any responsibility for this massacre, but also hinder any attempt to learn the truth,” said Agnès Callamard, the NGO’s general secretary.
One year ago, 37 people were unlawfully killed, 76 are still missing, looking for a better life crossing the border at Melilla. Moroccan and Spanish authorities have so far failed to conduct an investigation, leaving scores of grieving families in anguish. https://t.co/jnW9W4MgjQ
—Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) June 25, 2023
Sofía Catalá, correspondent for France 24 in Spanish in Morocco, added that the Moroccan authorities have not taken any measures to repatriate the remains.
These failures are not the only ones on the part of the authorities of both countries. The possible commission of crimes under international law, human rights violations, as well as acts of racism and discrimination at the border have not been adequately investigated.
Despite not having carried out any investigation, Madrid continues to affirm that the Spanish security forces have not carried out reprehensible actions. For its part, Rabat denies the possibility that the use of force by its agents has caused the death of migrants and refugees
Not only have the victims’ relatives’ search for justice been ignored, but the survivors themselves have been criminalized. A total of 87 people have been sentenced to prison for crimes such as “illegal entry into Moroccan soil”, “violence against agents of the authority” or “armed assembly”, without taking into account their status as asylum seekers.
It is evident that the case of Melilla cannot escape the racial component and the dehumanized treatment that black people receive at the European borders. In November 2022, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance stated that the violence in Melilla was “representative” of this.
3) Mali’s ruling junta asks the Minusma to pack its bags…
In Mali, the junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita continues to distance itself from its Western partners in favor of rapprochement with Russia in the fight against jihadist groups. His recent request to withdraw from the United Nations Mission in Mali (Minusma) is another step in this separation process. The military who assumed power in two coups in August 2020 and May 2021, demanded on June 16 the “immediate departure” of the Minusma. In response, the UN voted unanimously, two weeks later, in favor of a phased withdrawal of its peacekeepers by the end of 2023.
UN troops have been deployed in the country for approximately ten years with the aim of restoring the rule of law and protecting the civilian population. However, the junta and part of the population accuse them of having failed in their mission, an argument that is difficult to refute considering that the terrorist threat has not diminished in the last decade.
“Au regard de tout ce qui précède, the Government of Mali demands the portrait sans délai de la MINUSMA. However, the Government is willing to cooperate with the United Nations from this perspective.
The Government of Mali remains willing to cooperate with the partners who… pic.twitter.com/oKKo2RQ2R3
– Amb. Abdoulaye Diop (@AbdoulayeDiop8) June 20, 2023
In recent months, Bamako has challenged the UN mission more intensely. However, relations deteriorated further after the publication of a report on the Moura massacre, where at least 500 people were killed by the Malian army and the private military company Wagner in March 2022.
Today, many people are concerned about the impact that the withdrawal of peacekeepers could have on the country. Despite its limitations and criticism, the mission provided a deterrent presence in the north and center of the country against jihadist groups and abuses by Malian soldiers and their Wagner allies.
4) The centenary of Ousmane Sembène, icon of African cinema
Ousmane Sembene. This name continues to resonate as the father of African cinema; an author and filmmaker whose work remains one of the most influential on the continent. In commemoration of the centenary of his birth, France 24 reviews the career of this prominent intellectual.
Over the course of nearly five decades, Sembène published ten books and directed a dozen films. Recognized during his lifetime, his legacy has lived on after his passing in 2007, leaving a mark on new generations of writers and directors. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sembène did not obtain his literary training through the French colonial educational system. Challenging this system, Sembène taught himself.
Born in 1923 to a fishing family in Casamance, he lived in the capital Dakar before serving in the French army during World War II. In 1946 he moved to France, where he worked as a stevedore in the port of Marseille for several years. His first novel, “Le docker noir”, was published in 1956 and deals with the difficulties faced by a black worker in his attempt to become a published author.
His most emblematic novel, (‘Les bouts de bois de Dieu’, 1960) (‘The pieces of wood from God’, in Spanish), is inspired by the railway strikes of 1947-1948. In it, Sembène illustrates his Marxist and pan-Africanist vision of anti-colonialism, arguing that the liberation of peoples would only occur if they united across their ethnic or national differences.
oœIt was in the 1960s that Sembène ventured into film, realizing during a trip across the continent that many working people in Africa did not know how to read or had access to their books, but could connect through the language of cinema. He studied cinema in Moscow and his films explore themes such as the upheaval for independence in Africa, depicting the transition of rule from a colonial elite to another type of elite (Borom Sarret, 1962). In addition to their political content, his works stand out for their richness and aesthetic diversity.
In the 1970s, he directed some of his most ambitious films: Emitaï, Xala and Ceddo. Throughout his decades of work, his works, driven by powerful scripts, condense social, political and historical realities. However, many of them were censored in Senegal due to the discomfort they generated among the political class regarding Sembène’s positions.
Those not yet familiar with his work should read his book ‘God’s Pieces of Wood’ or look for recent versions of his classic films, such as ‘Black Girl’ and ‘Xala’. Sembène’s works are still relevant today, as the issues she addresses, whether political or social, continue to be relevant in our time.