Brief: Russia’s Africa Corps Appears to Be Recruiting African Militants

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 9

What appears to be an IPOB fighter also wearing Wagner patches. (Source: Image from X/@Murtalaibin video)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia is seeking to augment the ranks of its Africa Corps by recruiting militants from African separatist groups. More broadly, it appears that countries are increasingly turning to private military organizations to secure their interests in Africa.
  • Other countries are also following Russia’s path, including Türkiye, which is supplementing its forces in Africa with veterans of the Syrian Civil War, as well as China, which relies on a network of private security companies.

During the heyday of Libyan geopolitical influence in Africa, Muammar Qaddafi attempted to recruit African separatists to train in Libya (Vanguard [Nigeria], June 14, 2014; BBC, October 17, 2011; Al Jazeera, January 20, 2012). These included Tuaregs from Mali and disaffected Nigerians from the Niger Delta regions, especially Biafra. Qaddafi’s strategy not only bolstered Libya’s border defenses and strengthened his authoritarian regime, but also allowed him to exert influence abroad. For example, if the Tuareg separatists had been able to obtain full autonomy in northern Mali, the region likely would be allied with Libya. Likewise, instability in the Niger Delta would have had the direct effect of boosting Libyan oil prices.

Now, however, it seems possible that Russia will seek to augment the ranks of its Africa Corps by recruiting from separatist African militant groups (Le Monde, December 17, 2023). The Russian Africa Corps has succeeded the Wagner Group in Africa since Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in August 2023 (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 12, 2023). One example of this emerging trend appeared in May, when a Russian-speaking Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) fighter with both a Wagner and a Biafran flag patch on his military fatigues claimed to be part of a Wagner regiment. Were that not enough, an armed Russian fighter was also present, standing directly next to the IPOB militant (X/@Murtalaibin, May 11).

The context of the video indicated that it took place in Ukraine. Given the challenges Russia is facing in meeting its manpower needs, recruiting from Africa would be a logical move to achieve its military objectives in Ukraine (Semafor, April 4; see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 20, 2023, December 20, 2023, January 8, July 1). Further, if supporting Wagner ultimately benefits IPOB by providing the group’s members with combat training and experience, it would be logical for IPOB and other separatists to support Wagner or other groups like it. Should IPOB ever relaunch an insurgency against the Nigerian state, battlefield exposure in Ukraine or elsewhere would prove invaluable. Moreover, as Wagner and/or the Russian Africa Corps become increasingly involved in buttressing post-coup regimes in West Africa, natural synergies will arise from the former groups recruiting West African fighters. The individuals would likely come from IPOB or organizations like it (Le Monde, February 1, 2023).

Interestingly, it also appears that Türkiye is seeking to supplement its forces in Africa, albeit not necessarily with Africans themselves. The country is reportedly recruiting fighters from the Sultan Murad Division in Syria to travel to West Africa to aid in counter-terrorism efforts there. Türkiye may be attempting to replicate aspects of Russia’s power projection in Africa through Wagner with a similar program (Enab Baladi, May 13; for a more comprehensive examination of Turkish influence in Africa, see CATS Network, June 3, 2022).

Other countries are also coming to rely on private military contractors (PMCs) to secure their interests on the continent. China has significant economic investments in Africa but little direct military presence, except on naval bases on the East African coast (Africa Defense Forum Magazine, April 25, 2023). Instead, Beijing has increasingly come to rely on a network of private security companies (PSCs; to read more, see Jamestown’s recent project on the subject, Guardians of the Belt and Road). Beyond protecting economic investments, the use of PMCs and/or PSCs offers actors a chance to secure resources and prop up friendly regimes. With Russia, China, and Türkiye expanding their involvement with counter-terrorism efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa through these putatively non-state military organizations, it stands to reason that other countries with economic interests to protect in the region will increasingly follow suit.