HOW curious it was to see a video address by the late Russian Wagner group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin surface this week from what appeared to be somewhere in Africa.  

I say “appeared”, because with Prigozhin you could never be sure as to his actual whereabouts. Ukraine one day, Russia the next, Belarus or West Africa the day after – he had a habit of getting around, mainly to places where Wagner’s presence only adds to the trouble unfolding. 

No sooner had the man once dubbed "Putin’s chef" popped up vowing to make Africa “more free” and “Russia even greater on every continent,” than he was declared dead, killed following a plane crash in Russia that claimed the lives of all onboard. Among these were other senior Wagner figures, including Dmitry Utkin, a former officer with the Russian military intelligence the GRU and a founder of Wagner. 

How curious it was too that around the same time that Prigozhin’s plane was falling from the sky, his former Kremlin pal Russian president Vladimir Putin was making a video appearance of his own yesterday at the Brics summit in Johannesburg.  

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Putin of course could not actually be there in person, wanted as he is for war crimes under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the conflict in Ukraine.

With host South Africa being party to the treaty that created the ICC, it would have been obliged to arrest the Russian president if he had travelled there.

That, however, did not prevent Putin delivering his recorded message over a giant video screen in the conference centre. United by a common purpose of challenging perceived Western dominance of global affairs through alliances like the Group of 7, the Brics bloc of five countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa - is the perfect platform from which Putin can cosy up to other African nations via the continent’s “superpower” South Africa.

Which brings me to the core of the matter here, the way in which the African continent of 1.3 billion people has now found itself once again at the epicentre of a struggle for influence among the world’s major powers.

We have of course been here before back in the Cold War when Africa became the battle ground for superpower politics between East and West, Communism and the so called “Free World”. And some of those battles were significant ones indeed even if now consigned to a seemingly forgotten history.

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For example, I wonder how many people reading this will be familiar with the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale that was fought off and on in the country of Angola between August 1987 and March 1988. How many too would be surprised to know that it was the biggest conventional battle on the African continent since the Second World War.

At one point it embroiled not just Angola but neighbouring South Africa along with a myriad of proxies in the shape of armed political groups on both sides including the African National Congress (ANC) South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) along with military advisors and soldiers from Cuba, USSR and Vietnam.

In Angola’s civil war, the CIA played its part on behalf of US interests while the KGB did the Soviet Union’s bidding.

Watching Prigozhin and Putin not to mention US, French and British manoeuvrings right now, I can’t help being reminded of those past times when ultimately those that suffered most from such superpower tussles were countless Africans across the continent.

Prigozhin’s death will not change Russia’s ambitions in Africa where Wagner until now led the charge. Wagner’s future in Africa might be in question, but Russia’s military intelligence GRU has long wanted to call the shots on its own over policy in Africa and that might be one of many reasons why a decision was perhaps made that Prigozhin and Wagner were surplus to requirements. 

Without Prigozhin and though something of a latecomer compared to China in this latest battle for influence and resources in Africa, Moscow has doubled down in seeking deeper political, economic and military ties there, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago.  

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Cast your eye across the continent and everywhere from Central African Republic (CAR) to Libya, Mali to Burkina Faso, Russia – sometimes using Wagner – is inserting itself in countries and taking advantage of Western policy shortcomings, growing anti-European sentiment, and long-standing failures of international and local actors to address the root causes of regional instability.

As the Kremlin seeks to undermine US and French influence in central and western Africa, the rivalry between Russia and the West in Africa is rapidly escalating.

While for many observers – myself included – the growing great power rivalry smacks of the Cold War, it’s a comparison the US administration under Joe Biden would rather not contemplate or at least try to avoid.

Only last year Biden was at pains while in South Africa to reassure that Washington’s strategy across the continent was to value African nations as partners rather than levers in a global rivalry with Russia and China.

But faced with Moscow’s increasingly assertive role, Biden might have to think again, unpalatable as that is. The situation is hot helped by the fact that perhaps the continent’s most powerful nation, South Africa, has immense economic and political problems of its own, neutering to some degree its capacity to bring a wider positive diplomatic influence to bear.

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In recent years Africa has seen an escalation of unconstitutional changes of power and military coups, Sudan and Niger being recent points in case. Accusations too of stolen elections or emerging electoral autocracies have become commonplace, the most recent being levelled at Zimbabwe’s presidential ballot yesterday.

In short, many nations that comprise this vast and complex continent are vulnerable to outside interference in ways not seen for decades and malign forces are already seeking to exploit that.

Speaking just a few months ago, the chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat made this very point.

“In this international context of confrontation of divergent political interests, the will of each side threatens to transform Africa into a geostrategic battleground, thereby creating a new Cold War,” Mahamat warned.

“In this zero-sum game, where the gains of others would translate into losses for Africa, we must resist all forms of instrumentalisation of our member states,” he added in an address at AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Mahamat’s words ring true, for Africans themselves know best the lessons that need to be learned from the past.

Whether, however, Mahamat’s warning is heeded remains to be seen. The signs, it must be said, are not good. Prigozhin’s death only means new masters for Russia’s Africa ambitions, most likely the GRU. 

With every day that passesm East and West are being drawn into another showdown in Africa, a repeat of which is the last thing both the continent and the wider world needs right now.