Cameroon has resisted foreign interference of any form in the Anglophone Crisis, but Russia is prowling in the wings. Here’s why:
The famous £1.5 billion British New Age gas deal, announced to great fanfare by the then-International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, has slowly been rumbling along in the background. The deal concerned the development of the offshore Etinde gas field, located off the coast of the Southwest region of Cameroon. London-based New Age (African Global Energy) Ltd. has an interesting history, being backed by Och-Ziff, a US hedge fund that has previously paid over $400 million to settle bribery suits following an investigation from the US government- after bribing officials in various African countries to the tune of some $100 million. While there is no evidence to suggest that the same occurred with the Etinde gas deal, it does potentially hint at a pattern of behaviour.
What is forgotten, however, is that whilst New Age has a 37.5% stake, and Bowleven has a 25% stake, Russian firm Lukoil also has a 37.5% stake in the Etinde field.
In the past few years, Russia has extended significant efforts towards increasing its presence and influence in Africa, particularly in Central Africa. Positing itself as an alternative to the West, and particularly to the former colonial powers , Putin’s Russia has almost imperceptibly moved in to a position of power. Far away from the goal-tied investments of the west and their vocal concern for human rights, and differing from the financial might of China, Russia has found success with the export of military muscle and natural resource development. Whilst exporting arms and training military units is part and parcel of trade and diplomacy, Russia has also developed a habit of leaving ‘little green men’ across the region- often mercenaries working for the Russian PMC ‘Wagner Group’, which itself has ties to the Russian regime. Assumedly part of Russia’s hybrid warfare approach, as used to great success in Ukraine, the Wagner Group have been involved in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and Mozambique. Russia’s approach is effectively tailor-made to support the strongmen of Africa.
Why is this relevant to the Anglophone Crisis?
Firstly, the Wagner Group’s involvement has been associated with the presence of Russian natural resource companies, including Lukoil. In the CAR, Wagner Group troops were used to guard lucrative mines, and similar has been reported elsewhere.
Secondly, the Russian Ambassador Anatoliy Bashkine met with the Cameroonian government in early March. The Russian ambassador came out strongly against humanitarian intervention in the Anglophone regions, which is significant in and of itself- but it was the fine detail that is the most interesting. It was announced that Russian Lukoil was negotiating the reconstruction of the SONARA refinery in Limbe, which was devastated by fire in mid-2019. Russia will thus likely have people on the ground in the Anglophone regions in the coming months, as they look to bring the SONARA refinery back online.
Thirdly, New Age (African Global Energy) recently signed a Letter of Intent with Victoria Oil & Gas for the supply of gas from the Etinde field. Again, it is the fine print that is interesting here, as Victoria state that: ‘to access Etinde gas, GDC will need to install a 60 km high-pressure gas pipeline from Limbe to Bekoko where it would connect with the existing low-pressure pipeline network which operates throughout Douala‘, before hinting at gas infrastructure towards the towns of Tiko, Muntengene, Buea and others. Whilst there is a major BIR base at Limbe, protecting such linear infrastructure (and its development) is going to pose a serious security challenge for the Cameroonian government. Even Limbe has seen its share of violence during the crisis so far, and a high-profile gas pipeline is an obvious strategic target for non-state armed groups. Events that would likely increase instability – such as the death of the serving president of Cameroon – would raise the risk of this operation even higher. Already involved at SONARA, and with a significant stake in this development too, it is not hard to imagine which country will be ready to protect its investments and support the government.
Finally, Russia has been involved in disinformation campaigns in African states, using social media to support the ruling party. Whilst the most detailed instances of these campaigns involved Libya, Mozambique and elsewhere, it is notable that Cameroon was also targeted by a Russian campaign. I have reached out to the author of the study to understand the Cameroon-specific elements of this further.
To conclude, it is evident that Russia has made a major geopolitical shift towards Africa, and Cameroon appears to be the next target in line. Recent developments elsewhere on the continent have shown how Russian investments in unstable areas often come with military muscle attached, relying on the concept of plausible deniability. Supporting strongmen with military solutions enables Russia to form closer ties with the host nation, whilst reducing the risk to its lucrative investments. In theory, Russia’s approach could increase the profitability of risky conflict zone investments by minimizing disruptions. Thus for Russia, a strongman is their perfect ally, and is one where the West seldom wishes to tread. In Cameroon, it is easy to see exactly why Russia is pushing for closer ties with the Biya regime, and the previously outlined evidence illustrates how this relationship continues to develop.
Ultimately, Lukoil’s Etinde field investment and the repair of the SONARA plant are located in the contested Southwest region, and on the balance of evidence, that is why I would not be surprised if some Russian ‘little green men’ appear around Limbe in the months and years ahead.