H I G H L I G H T S
• COUPS AND THE KREMLIN
• FOURTH COVID WAVE
COUPS AND THE KREMLIN
While the world’s attention is on the Ukraine, Russia is extending its influence into Francophone regions of the Sahel in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter two countries recently had coup d’etats against weak democratic governments, joining other military takeovers in nearby Guinea and Chad. While Burkina Faso and Mali both have a long history of coups, these were partly precipitated by army anger over the incompetence of the civilian governments in tackling regional Islamicist insurgencies. The new military regimes feel they can resist economic sanctions and political pressure from France and regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States in part because of the helping hand being offered by the Russian military company, the Wagner Group.
Burkinabe Takeover. The Burkina Faso coup took place on January 24 and placed Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba in charge of the country. Burkina Faso and Mali are frontline states in French-led efforts to contain violent local Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates. The Burkinabe military were known to be unhappy with the perceived ineptitude of President Roch Kabore in handling the insurgents. The new junta has announced elections would be held after a “reasonable timeframe” but declined to specify a date.
France has struggled to restore democracy in Mali even while working with the military rulers to sustain its counterinsurgency operations. The Wagner Group has positioned itself as a less politically demanding security partner. The group has already sent a letter to the new Burkinabe regime offering assistance. Russian flags have been waved by pro-coup rallies and social media campaigns praising Russia and touting the Wagner Group’s successes in the Central African Republic have flooded the country.
The Mali junta, led by Colonel Assimi Goita, took over in August 2020 and defied demands by ECOWAS and the European Union that they announce early election dates. France, which has spent €880 million and lost 52 soldiers over the past nine years fighting Islamicists in Mali, is considering ending its military operations. The Mali regime has already ordered troops from Denmark and Sweden, who were part of the French military coalition, to leave. Russia and China blocked an ECOWAS and European attempt to get a United Nations resolution supporting sanctions against the Malian regime. Mali has turned to Mauritania and military-ruled Guinea to overcome some of the ECOWAS sanctions. The junta has negotiated the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries, of whom 450 have arrived in Bamako, reportedly at a cost of $ 10 million a month.
The junta ruling Chad, meanwhile, has postponed by three months a scheduled forum to discuss the country’s political future. The military had promised to restore democracy after 18 months but seem to be going the path of their fellow coupsters in Mali in postponing any political transition.
Wagner Group. While a private military company, the Wagner Group has served as the entry point for greater if unofficial Russian influence in Africa. In the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group arrived in the country after French troops were replaced with a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Wagner’s support for President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s regime was subsequently rewarded with the control of gold and diamond mines. Wagner soldiers now serve as his bodyguards and one soldier is his national security advisor. The company has been largely successful in ending the country’s endemic civil strife. Unusually for a mercenary force it has now made local universities and schools to introduce mandatory Russian language classes.
The Wagner Group is now present in five African states and is seeking to move next into Burkina Faso. The group’s soldiers have been accused of flagrant human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings and overt political interference. Much of their spreading influence has been at the cost of French influence, one reason Paris has in the past raised Wagner’s activities with Moscow and accused the group of doing “Russia’s work.” The company is linked to the GRU, Russian military intelligence, and a catering oligarch Yevgeny Prighozhin.
A Samsung tablet captured from a Wagner fighter in Libya indicates that the Russians operate in small units, separate from the local soldiers they are supporting, and extensively use drones and targeted munitions to win their battles.
Russia has produced a few films about the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa. The most recent is called Granite, loosely based on a failed Wagner Group military effort against Cabo Delgado insurgents in Mozambique that led to the death of the soldier after whom the movie is named. The movie, probably funded by the company as its distribution rights are held by a Prigozhin-owned firm, cast their activities as humanitarian and heroic, speaks more about ideological rather than financial motives. The last such movie was Tourist. Granite was filmed in the Central African Republic, the company’s base country in the continent.
Last November, in a sign that Moscow may want to institutionalise its approach to Africa, the Russian Foreign Ministry sponsored the “Situation Analytical Report” on the future of Russia-Africa relations. It was prepared by 25 policy experts and headed by well-known Russian strategic scholar Sergei A. Karaganov. The report argued for Russia to be more aligned with Africa’s development needs, was critical of Moscow’s failure to come through on promised projects and assistance – such as Sputnik V Covid vaccines, but said policy must keep Russia’s security and commercial interests in mind. It said Russia could consider working with third countries like Cuba, Vietnam and South Korea in the continent.
Sudanese protests. Sudan is racked with a new wave of civilian protests against its military regime. Sudan’s fragile roadmap back to civilian rule fell apart when Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned on January 2nd after the military reneged on a November “non-interference” agreement. The military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, declared his unhappiness with Hamdok’s choice of senior government bureaucrats and relaunched the country’s notorious National Intelligence Service of Sudan under a new name. The intelligence agency has been implicated in the arrest, torture and killing of civilian protestors in the past. The prime minister resigned soon after. The military then appointed 15 new ministers to the government effectively restoring the status quo ante of three months ago when civilian protests against the military takeover led to over 70 protestors being killed. The US suspended the provision of aid to the country but the US undersecretary of state for Africa, Molly Phee, and special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, met General al Burhan in the third week of January and agreed on the creation of an inclusive civilian-military roundtable to discuss the return to civilian rule and ending the “current crisis.”
FOURTH COVID WAVE
Africa has started to come out of its fourth Covid-19 wave. “Early indications suggest that Africa’s fourth wave has been steep and brief but no less destabilizing”, said WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti. Omicron outpaced Delta within two weeks in the worst-hit African countries. Southern Africa, where Omicron was first discovered, saw a huge increase in infections during the pandemic wave but recorded a 14% decline in confirmed cases in the second week of January. East and Central Africa experienced falling numbers as well, but North and West Africa are still seeing a rise in infection. Africa’s low vaccination rates – only 10% of the population is vaccinated – continue to be a problem in controlling the pandemic in Africa and the rest of the world. “The crucial pandemic countermeasure badly needed in Africa still stands, and that is rapidly and significantly increasing Covid-19 vaccinations,” said a senior WHO official.
Funding issues. African countries have allocated $63 billion of their national budgets to Covid responses in the 2020-2021 financial year, 2.3% of Africa’s GDP. While significant, in absolute terms it remains well below what other governments and regions are spending. Despite many Covid vaccine donations, African governments spent $8.4 billion on jabs last year. This was one reason 337 million Africans have been fully vaccinated, but 70% of them are concentrated in 10 African countries.
The African Development Bank estimated that in 2020-21, African governments would need additional financing of over $150 billion to respond to Covid and its fallout. Estimates by Development Reimagined suggest they have collectively raised about $130 billion of this, but hoped for foreign assistance has fallen short of expectations. The World Bank has committed $39 billion, for example, but a relatively small share of this has actually been distributed.
Vaccine expiration. After stories of African governments destroying thousands of vaccines because they had expired, Africa’s leading public health bodies in January called for donors to ensure vaccines still have three to six months shelf-life left before being donated. This would give the governments concerned time to plan vaccine rollouts and transport them to places of need. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said 2.8 million doses of vaccine had expired on the continent, roughly 0.5% of the 572 million doses delivered to date. African governments had been criticised for “wasting” vaccines but often the vaccines, including those under the Covax donor programme, were arriving just before their expiry dates. Some African governments now refuse vaccines which have only 30 to 60 days of shelf life left. Otherwise, African countries have now distributed over 60% of their vaccine supply and countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Mozambique have distributed over 80% of their procured vaccines.
Make in Africa. After a year of having vaccine making countries, including India, cutting off supplies when they faced domestic Covid outbreaks, a number of African governments are trying to set up domestic vaccine manufacturing centres. The African Union wants to produce 60% of the vaccines needed in Africa by 2040. But the technical hurdles for the production of vaccines are very high. The construction of specialized production and filling facilities is costly. Also, the training of qualified personnel requires massive investments.
South African-born US billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on January 16 inaugurated a new vaccine manufacturing plant in a business park in Cape Town that is expected to produce the continent’s first locally manufactured Covid vaccines. Dr Soon-Shiong, a transplant surgeon who made a fortune from the cancer drug Abraxane, has an estimated fortune of $7.5 billion.
A number of such initiatives are financed and supported by the European Union, the World Bank and other international donors. The few existing production facilities in Africa, such as those of the Pasteur Institutes in Senegal, Tunisia, and Algeria, are largely financed by development cooperation. Most of these are produced under license from a foreign firm. South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare has been the quickest to respond to calls for local vaccine production and is so far the only facility on the continent producing a Covid-19 vaccine – on behalf of Johnson & Johnson. Egyptian company VACSERA plans to begin manufacturing the Chinese Sinovac vaccine in the coming weeks.
Even slower are plans where the appropriate production or filling facilities have yet to be built. It takes around 18 months to set up a fill-and-finish production line, says Simon Agwale, biotech entrepreneur and director of the African Vaccine Manufacturers Alliance. “Because of the pandemic, there’s a long waiting list right now for manufacturers of such equipment.” He does not believe the ambitious timelines of some governments that have announced locally produced vaccines for this year can be met.
New Old Coffee. A team of researchers have re-discovered a wild coffee variety known as Coffea stenophylla in Sierra Leone. Farmed until the beginning of the 20th century, it was a mainstay of European high society. But due to its scarcity, it was gradually replaced by arabica and robusta strains. Forgotten by farmers, stenophylla was thought to have completely disappeared by 1954. The new find has generated much excitement in Sierra Leone because of its potential to revolutionise the global coffee sector.