Is Madagascar the last front of the new cold war with Russia?
As COVID-19 tore the world apart in 2020, Andry Rajoelina, the incumbent president of Madagascar, referred his citizens to a herbal tonic to ward off the deadly virus. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, who also avoided vaccines, prescribed vodka and sauna.
Disproved health remedies aside, little seems to connect these two leaders. But both owe their power to the Russian autocrat and war criminal, Vladimir Poutine. And, to the detriment of the citizens they serve, both leaders allowed Moscow to wield undue influence in their home countries to maintain their power.
Cheese fries ostensibly sent troops to quell protests against “Europe’s last dictator” in 2020, supporting a beleaguered regime in Belarus that has lasted nearly three decades. The Russian leader also secretly sent his opaque private military company – the Wagner Group – to Madagascarnot to fight the disadvantages of democracy but to manipulate the Malagasy people and insert their elected representative.
For both countries, there would be a price to pay. But where companies rushed to leave Belarus on their own in the wake of sanctions for helping Putin’s war in Ukraine, Western companies are now being driven out of Madagascar by a president with bills to pay.
Rajoelina’s loyalty began in the 2019 election year, as the former DJ-turned-media mogul struggled in the polls. Enter the Wagner boys. A familiar playbook was presented: troll farms and robots, briefcases full of money for candidates, and mock protests outside Western embassies. Out of nowhere, Rajoelina scored a resounding victory.
But it is not altruism that drives the Russian countryside. Each country “helped” by Moscow is rich in resources. In a pattern repeated across Africa, Putin prepares unstable and corrupt states, then unleashes his poorly trained mercenaries. Recruited largely from among criminals, they commit a litany of human rights abuses and promote chaos instead of bringing peace. The perpetual instability creates an additional dependence on the Wagner group for their survival. Russia later payment request in concessions for natural resource contracts, or in strategic assets, such as military bases or ports.
Unless the West engages more in some of the continent’s most controversial policies, it leaves the door open for Russia – whose mercenaries have operated in at least a dozen of its nations. This vast international network creates a flow of resources to Russia that dilutes Western sanctions. It also gives Moscow diplomatic clout at the United Nations. Consider that all African countries where Russia is active either abstained or voted to block resolutions against its invasion of Ukraine. And now it threatens key Western strategic assets in those same countries.
Madagascar is further down the rabbit hole than most. Companies are already under attack by the government and its Russian backers. Phantom charges are prosecuted against them in the Malagasy courts, badly noted by liberty house in judicial independence where “outcomes are often predetermined”. These are complemented by manufactured threats to pressure companies into setting up shop.
Last year, authorities arrested two French nationals, Philippe Marc Francois and Paul Maillot Rafanohara, after police claimed they found an email on Rafanohara’s computer. ask for 10 million dollars in exchange for the assassination of Rajoelina. The real target was Madagascar Oil, a British company. The bogus charges claimed that Al Njoo, a Singaporean businessman and chairman and CEO of Madagascar Oil, ordered the hit. An independent investigation, of course, found no such email on any computer. Others under pressure for cash, shares and assets include US energy company Symbion Power for a power plant and to dispossess a luxury hotel. It’s only a matter of time before more are targeted.
Several of these cases have a common thread: a self-proclaimed “entrepreneur and visionary” named Zouzar Bouka attracts Western companies to the country. Then he uses his political connections and shady local courts to shake them up. He trumpeted his personal relationship with the First Lady of Madagascar and the fact that he is the best friend of Minister of Justice Johnny Andriamahefarivo.
There is perhaps little coincidence that he is also a Russian fanboy and associate of “Friends of Russia in Madagascar– a Russian Embassy-sponsored NGO that teaches in Malagasy schools and organizes grand Russian cultural events for children. Getting them while they’re young seems to be the name of the Kremlin game. Concerns in France about Bouka’s association with the well-being of their interests and assets in Madagascar were clearly sufficient to warrant an article about his activities in a centre-right newspaper with links to French intelligence.
Bouka’s closeness to former President Hery Rajaonarimampianina should be another concern of Western diplomats. Rajaonarimampianina – who Bouka proudly shows off by her side in a number of his social media posts – has long been known as a Russian asset, his re-election backed by “Head Putin” Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group money and technology, a sordid arrangement revealed by the New York Times. When Rajaonarimampianina failed to qualify for the second round, his supporters – both the Russians, their resources and of course Bouka – switched to Andry Rajoelina.
All of this jeopardizes Western businesses. But it also bodes ill for the country. Asset stripping for payers ultimately leads to a self-perpetuating dependence on Russia: the more companies that leave or are expelled, the more they look to Moscow as a partner with no better option. The real beneficiaries are not in Antananarivo, but in the Kremlin.
All of this poses a strategic challenge to the West. Africa is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world and is rich in natural resources. Western sanctions will remain ineffective if Russia can rely on its mercenary diplomacy to funnel money into its coffers and votes at the United Nations. America seems to have finally woken up to this, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken touring the continent as we speak – hot on the heels of his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
But the West cannot afford to adopt the lofty position of the immediate post-Cold War years, when countries had to be sufficiently democratic before engaging with them. Instead, thorough, long-term policy and relationship building must start now. Otherwise, nations across the continent will simply turn to other partners. As Africa reassesses its place on the world stage, it is time for the West to renew its commitment to the continent.
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