Despite its battlefield failures, Russia has dealt a surprising blow to an unexpected party: world food markets. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the international order, triggered unprecedented Western sanctions, destabilized the global supply chain, and threatened energy markets. The invasion has also precipitated a dramatic increase in the price of food worldwide. Grain prices, including wheat, rice, and corn have risen 17.1 percent in March, contributing to food prices reaching an all-time high on the global market.
These economic tides are buffeting Africa, in particular. According to the African Development Bank, “wheat imports make up 90 percent of Africa’s $4 [billion] trade with Russia and almost half of the continent’s $4.5 [billion] trade with Ukraine.” This has led to a 64 percent increase in the continent’s price of wheat. In addition, the two countries are the top two suppliers of sunflower seed oil, used for cooking around the world.
On a continent already experiencing severe economic setbacks caused by COVID-19, inflated food prices may lead to political instability and upheaval in Africa. Sustained unrest, especially surrounding upcoming elections, could spell trouble. Leaders could seek to shore up their legitimacy by seeking external security assistance from private military contractors like the Wagner Group, particularly in countries with upcoming elections, such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Sudan.
Africa is no stranger to food riots and the resulting political unrest. Experts have linked the Arab Spring, the series of upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East that led to regime change or protests in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Tunisia, to food riots triggered by increased food prices in 2008, particularly grain. In sub-Saharan Africa, increased food prices that year were linked to riots in Mozambique, Niger, and several other countries. Another cycle of unrest and change could be coming due to the war in Ukraine.
Rising food prices come at a politically sensitive time for several countries. Angola and Kenya are due for presidential elections later in 2022, while Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo will follow in 2023. In Angola, the MPLA party, which has been in power since it gained independence in 1975, will seek to maintain political control in elections this August, as concerns of rising authoritarianism dominate the country’s political discourse. Food security is already an issue created by climate change, which could be a sparking point as President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya does not seek re-election and a new wave of challengers compete to replace him.
In Sudan, the military government claims that it will exit politics ahead of the 2023 elections. However, the Wagner Group has already established a footprint in Sudan, and could play a role in 2023 elections. The long-simmering conflict between the Kinshasa-based government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and extremist groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces and the Cooperative for the development of Congo remains a threat to stable governance. This security issue, along with the recent arrest of former security advisor Francois Beya Kasonga, suggests that political tensions surrounding President Felix Tshisekedi’s re-election could boil over. Food riots could disrupt the political status quo in these countries with elections looming.
This troubling trend could align with another problematic development—the expansion of Wagner Group into Africa. Wagner Group is a private military contractor with ties to the Russian state and national security apparatus. Its independent status allows the organization to operate with a level of plausible deniability relative to the Kremlin. Behind this legal obfuscation, the group often accomplishes objectives that align with Russian state interests. The group has intervened in Libya, Mozambique, Central African Republic, Sudan, Madagascar, and most recently Mali. Wagner carries out security assistance programs, including riot suppression, military assistance against rebel groups, and training programs. They have also conducted significant disinformation campaigns, often backing their own presence or supporting the Russian state in these countries. In exchange for their services, Wagner often receives mining and precious metal extraction rights and sites. Wagner’s military or political contributions often come at a high cost, as they have been accused of committing crimes against civilians in Central African Republic, Sudan, and elsewhere. These crimes have included killing journalists, imprisoning civilians without cause, and intimidating protestors.
Wagner’s recent success in Mali featured a clear political victory over France, Mali’s security assistance partner for the last ten years. After it became clear that Wagner Group would be intervening in response to Mali’s long-term insurgency, President Emmanuel Macron removed French forces in February 2022. This development signals to Wagner as well as other African states that Western security assistance is on the decline, and that Wagner offers an “efficient” if inhumane method of solving nagging political and military issues in Africa. Food riots, upcoming elections, and political instability may create the perfect storm for more African leaders to reach out to Wagner Group for support.
African governments facing instability over food prices may be tempted to turn to the Wagner Group for security assistance, to counter protests, and to maintain power. Leaders should think twice before allowing Wagner Group to enter their countries. Although Wagner Group offers short-term benefits for African leaders, their brutal methods and extractive economics will likely delegitimize governments over time. Governments facing the pressures of food riots and elections will need to understand the long-term results, should they commit to employing the Wagner Group. These include human rights violations, failed military campaigns, potential Western sanctions, and economic losses from resource extraction operations. Further, leaders will need to determine whether aligning with the Russian state during this fraught time is a wise idea.
Wagner Group and the Kremlin have their own choices to make as well. Reports have suggested that Wagner Group has deployed some forces to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including from Central African Republic. German military intelligence reportedly intercepted signals recently connecting Wagner Group operatives with war crimes against civilians in Ukraine. If Wagner has begun redeploying his forces to Ukraine, this may represent a shift away from Africa. Until a pronounced strategic shift to Europe occurs, Wagner offers a powerful tool of Russian influence in Africa that can help the Russian state build political and military relationships on the continent.
Image: TASS (Photo by Yegor Aleyev)
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 Wagner performed poorly in Mozambique against a determined armed resistance, and his actions in Mali have not yet been decisive in unseating insurgents.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.