Senegal’s presidential election is just a month away and it appears Russia is taking a strong interest in the outcome, against a backdrop of increasing Russian influence across the continent. Analysts may have focused more in recent years on China’s influence in Africa, but Russia has been increasingly active, supporting authoritarian governments, backing recent coups across the continent and interfering even more bluntly via the use of Russian private military companies such as the Wagner Group, driving conflict and undermining human rights. It is now feared that Russia has set its sights on exerting similar influence in Senegal.
Senegal, long seen as a democratic beacon in the region due to its strong democratic credentials, was in the spotlight in 2023 due to the announcement that President Macky Sall would not stand in the upcoming election, choosing to honour his country’s term limits and instruct his government to ensure free and transparent elections. This move was welcomed, not only by the African Union, but also by the US and France, as the ultimate proof of strengthened democratic institutions: a leader stepping down to allow a transparent and smooth transition.
It appears that Russia views President Sall’s move rather differently, eyeing an opportunity to install a candidate in Ousmane Sonko who is widely perceived to be affiliated with Russian interests. Sonko himself does not appear to deny or hide his Russian sympathies and connections. Of even more concern is that diplomats and NGOs on the ground in Senegal report that the Russians have already sent their private armed groups into the country, as happened in Mali and Burkina Faso, so that they are installed and waiting ahead of the 25 February presidential election.
It is not only think tanks and analysts who fear Senegal could be vulnerable to a coup similar to those in Burkina Faso and Mali. Pro-Russian influencers such as Kemi Seba have openly declared their intentions. Seba said on his YouTube channel: “You saw that things have changed in Mali, we have greatly contributed to it. “Soon Alassane Ouattara… soon Macky Sall. I’m going to Russia in a few days.” These do not appear to be empty threats. The presence of Russian weapons and Wagner troops directly contributed to turbulence in the Central African Republic and Mali. The same applies to Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad and Mali, where it is widely accepted that Russian mercenaries played a role.
Russian influence is not limited to boots on the ground. There have also been Russian disinformation campaigns designed to sow confusion and undermine democracy and Senegal’s ties to the West. This Russian action also has to be viewed through the prism of Senegal’s vulnerability to militant Islamist violence from groups trying to establish themselves among communities in Senegal’s east, which overlap with those from across the border, with some analysts fearing that Russia deliberately attempts to heighten Islamist activity using disinformation campaigns.
There can be no doubt of Russia’s military, diplomatic, and economic aspirations in Africa. Economically, Russian trade and investment with African countries lags far behind the United States and China, according to the Congressional Research Service. However, Russia is actively pursuing natural resources, such as gold, diamonds, uranium and oil. There is a strong sense among commentators that Russia is trying to punch above its economic weight in Africa by pursuing military and diplomatic paths. There has been an emphasis on weapons trade, but it is also attempting to establish military bases, although in practical terms this is currently limited to an agreement to eventually establish a naval port in Sudan. Diplomatically, Russia seeks to play on disillusionment with Western influence and to seek friends in Africa when the war in Ukraine has burned bridges for Russia on other continents.
To accomplish these goals, Russia works via low-cost intermediaries, including mercenaries and local political allies. The Russian narrative in Africa relies on so-called “memory diplomacy” to tap into lingering anti-colonial sentiment. Russia uses disinformation campaigns to discredit pro-Western candidates and institutions and position Moscow as the ally of choice. Russia’s negative impact in Africa should not be underestimated. The past few years have seen the Wagner Group bolstering authoritarianism, driving conflict over resources and threatening human rights. As Senegal stands ready to transition to a new leader solidify its precedent for orderly political transitions, it would be a tragedy to see Russia undermine the occasion in order to install their own chosen candidate. The international community cannot afford to be naïve or complacent about Russian intentions. More widely the West needs to recommit to engaging with Africa on more equal terms, to avoid leaving a gap in trust for Russia to exploit.