The United States has accused Kremlin-backed Russian military contractors of interfering in the internal affairs of African countries and “increasing the likelihood that violent extremism will grow” in the Sahel region, which is facing increasing attacks, an allegation Russia denied.
US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills lashed out at the Wagner Group at a UN Security Council meeting on West Africa and the Sahel on Tuesday.
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He accused the paramilitary force of failing to address the threat of armed groups, robbing countries of their resources, committing human rights abuses and endangering the safety and security of UN peacekeepers and staff.
France’s political counsellor, Isis Jaraud-Darnault, echoed Mills, saying the “model” used by Wagner mercenaries has proven “totally ineffective in combating terrorism”.
She cited the “nefarious” and devastating impact of their work and human rights violations, including the alleged killing of more than 30 civilians in Mali, and its pillaging of natural resources.
Britain’s Deputy Ambassador James Kariuki cited the deterioration of security in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, and the fear of instability spreading to West African coastal countries. “You cannot ignore the destabilising role the Wagner Group plays in the region. They are part of the problem, not the solution,” he told the council.
Russia’s Deputy Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva rejected what she called attempts “to besmirch Russian assistance to Mali”, where Moscow has a bilateral agreement to assist the transitional government, “and in other countries in Africa”.
“Some countries once again today declared that Russia apparently is pillaging and looting the resources of Africa and is facilitating the growth of the terrorist threat,” she said, accusing those unnamed nations of doing the same thing “throughout the world and in Africa”, especially in neighbouring Libya, which destabilised the entire area.
“Accusations against Russia are just astonishing, given common sense,” and undermine African leaders trying to resolve their own problems and decide who they want to cooperate with, she said.
Evstigneeva never mentioned the Wagner Group by name. The group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and its mercenaries are accused by Western countries and UN experts of numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
Giovanie Biha, the deputy head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, told the council that “insecurity has again deteriorated in large parts of the region”, due to activities of armed groups, “violent extremists” and criminal networks.
As a result, she said, more than 10,000 schools across the Sahel have closed, leaving millions of children without an education. Nearly 7,000 health centres have also shut down.
Armed groups are fighting for supremacy and control of resources, she said, and the central Sahel is facing “unprecedented levels of security and humanitarian challenges; socio-political instability, further compounded by the impact of climate change; and food insecurity which was exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine”.
She added that increasing attacks in countries along the Gulf of Guinea are threatening transport arteries to landlocked countries further north.
According to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ latest report issued this week, more than 18.6 million people in the region are experiencing “severe food insecurity” – an increase of 5.6 million since the end of June 2022 – with Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria being the hardest-hit. About 6.3 million people are displaced across the Sahel, an increase of 300,000 since June.
Russia’s Evstigneeva said Moscow shares concerns about the increasing number of threats in the region, ongoing inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflict, organised crime, drug trafficking and the killing of a large number of civilians by fighters in the second half of 2022.
She pointed to the withdrawal of French counterterrorism forces and the Takuba European military task force under their command on June 30, saying it wasn’t agreed on with Mali’s transitional government and is having “a negative impact” on the security situation in the short-term.
“Nonetheless,” she said, “there is already some progress” and Russia is providing Mali with “appropriate assistance”.
Mills, the US deputy ambassador, said the US is deeply concerned about the security, humanitarian and political crisis in the Sahel causing “a dramatic increase in the strength and influence of violent extremism”.
The problem requires “a democratic governance solution”, he said. “We are also gravely concerned about democratic backsliding across the region and urge the return of democratically elected, civilian-led governments.”
West Africa’s latest wave of coups kicked off in Mali in 2020, followed by another in Guinea in 2021, and then in Burkina Faso in January 2022.
Omar Alieu Touray, president of the West African regional group ECOWAS’ commission, told the council he was pleased to report that transitions to critical elections in the three countries are “on course”, with voting to take place in the next two years.