More than mere mercenaries: The Wagner Group in Africa

By Jacques du Preez

Analysis in brief: Media has been abuzz over the past two weeks with reports of how a regional power was seemingly almost toppled by the world’s largest private army. Though the meteoric rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, appears to have reached its zenith, his group’s influence in Africa is far from over. With a new dawn for private military contracting on the continent apparently underway, it serves to ask what this will mean for security – both in Africa and the world at large.

Neither fear nor fidelity

The old saying goes “Neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men.” This age-old maxim amongst students of politics and international relations shows that mercenaries are fundamentally unreliable. This piece of wisdom was rendered in perfect clarity on 23 June 2023 when Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the private military company Wagner Group, seemingly locked swords with Putin’s inner circle in Moscow and brought a nuclear armed nation within a hair’s breadth of civil conflict. 

Prigozhin, the former caterer and restaurateur turned owner of a globe spanning mercenary empire 1, had for many months made social media posts, decrying what he felt was the Russian Ministry of Defence’s mishandling of the Ukraine conflict. Few could have predicted the events that unfolded on 23 June when Wagner forces mutinied, seized the town of Rostov-on-Don and began racing north to Moscow, apparently intent on a confrontation with Putin’s inner circle. Hours of pandemonium followed. Plane and metro tickets out of Moscow were sold out, oligarchs fled the city in droves, helicopters were downed by Wagner and the Russian government scrambled national guard units in a desperate attempt to establish some type of ramshackle defence .2 Then, as quickly as it had come, with Wagner’s convoy a mere two hours away from Moscow’s city centre, the crisis evaporated. Announcements were made of unspoken deals reached with the help of the Belarussian President, and it seemed that armageddon had been averted.

Since then, analysts have feverishly tried to piece together what exactly this deal entails. It has been speculated amongst other things that Prigozhin will be exiled to Belarus and that a sizeable proportion of Wagner troops will be rolled up into formal employment under the Russian Ministry of Defence. Many have resultantly wondered whether Wagner’s sprawling operations in Africa had similarly reached their high tide, but subsequent announcements by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have put this idea to bed. Regardless of what ultimately unfolds in Eastern Europe, Russia has won too much through Wagner’s African operations to simply walk away. Wagner’s presence in Africa has granted the Kremlin security contracts, political alliances, media influence and mineral concessions. Between this and China’s well-documented economic influence, Western nations are facing an increasing uphill battle to maintain their geopolitical relevance in Africa.

Setting the stage

Africa and ‘soldiers of fortune’ are synonymous in the popular imagination – and for good reason. The continent’s many trials and tribulations in the immediate post-colonial period gave birth to the ‘mercenary’ as a modern concept. Mercenaries played an essential role in the West’s strategy during the Congo crisis of the 1960s, where such soldiers played an important role in salvaging a series of friendly regimes including that of Moise Tshombe. A more recent example includes Executive Outcomes, which came to play major roles in the Angolan and Sierra Leonean civil wars during the 1990s. Such incidents, though widely publicised and romanticised, have been quite short lived. Both the UN and the African Union have sought to banish the practice altogether, favouring the utilisation of UN troops and occasional interventions by EU-financed local forces, but these haven’t always proven effective antidotes to the numerous post-cold war conflagrations that the continent has experienced. UN troops in particular are now infamous for their indecisiveness and failure to stop abuses,3 and local forces frequently lack the capacity and doctrine to end insurgencies. In Sierra Leone, for example, Executive Outcomes’ UN peacekeeper replacements proved entirely ineffectual, eventually forcing the UK to formally intervene in May 2000.

The US’s humiliating withdrawal from Somalia in 1991 turned that country forever against the idea of becoming militarily engaged in Africa. Subsequent US invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the long seemingly hopeless struggle against local insurgents in the 2000s turned the US public sharply against foreign adventurism and also encouraged the spread of Islamist insurgency across the Muslim world as a sure-fire way of taking on well-armed secular governments. As al-Qaeda and its breakaway, the Islamic State, gained prominence for their exploits in the Middle East, they also spread their ideology amongst disaffected generations of young recruits in countries as far afield as Libya, Mozambique and Nigeria, all at a time when global interest in spending on African security was at a minimum.

Wagner enters the scene

These factors culminated in a security shakeup in the 2010s. In 2011, the Arab spring came close to unseating Libyan dictator Muamar Gaddafi. NATO forces helped topple his regime with air strikes. Besides destabilising a vast area of North Africa and the Sahel, where Gaddafi’s regime had once held sway, this move rammed home that Western powers have little to no regard for the diplomatic efforts of the African Union, which had hoped to handle the matter internally through mediation and dialogue. Then in 2015 came the now infamous Valetta conference, where African and European leaders had initially hoped to procure a deal to stop the ongoing migrant crisis, but then gave up after both sides failed to reach consensus and accused the other of dealing in bad faith.4

It was into this fraught milieu that the Wagner Group inserted itself. Backed diplomatically by Russia and leveraging its experience from the Syrian civil war, it positioned itself as an anti-Islamist force that could ‘do what had to be done’ at a far lower financial or diplomatic cost than any formal Western assistance. The result was a flurry of contracts, which saw Wagner troops deployed in numerous burgeoning conflicts. 2018 saw Wagner sign a contract with Central African Republic leader Faustin-Archange Touadéra to help quell an ongoing rebel offensive to oust him. Next, the Group was reported as supporting Libyan general Haftar in his short-lived attempt at war with the UN-backed government in Tripoli in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, with a new Islamist insurgency wreaking havoc in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique, Wagner outbid far more qualified and experienced South African contractors, finding themselves embroiled in what would ultimately become an ill-fated endeavour.

But this hardly broke their stride. In more recent years, the Group has gained prominence by being invited to the ongoing conflicts against Islamist forces in Sahel countries, including Mali and, by some accounts, Burkina Faso – countries where the Group deftly stepped into the void left by the retreating French forces after a series of local coups brought anti-Western leaders into power. Wagner’s ambitions seem to have no limits. Scattered reports indicate that the Group aims to cement its presence across the entirety of the Sahel, including Chad and Sudan, with some estimates stating that the Group already has an informal presence in over twenty African countries.

Wagner Group in Africa

Mercenaries and the media

Wagner are more than mere mercenaries. Besides the conventional service offerings (security, training local forces and fighting alongside them in operations), the Group also offers a suite of what it broadly calls “regime protection services.” These have included sophisticated media campaigns aimed at souring Afro-European relations and shoring up the legitimacy of local autocratic governments. Prigozhin himself owns a company called the Internet Research Agency, a ‘troll farm’ for hire, able to flood online platforms with fake accounts and help push certain agendas. Wagner also has strong ties to various Russian NGOs and think tanks, the most prominent of which is the US-sanctioned Association for Free Research and International Cooperation. This firm serves as a front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa, having sponsoring phony election monitoring missions in the DRC, Madagascar, Mozambique South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Additionally, Russia or Wagner aligned organizations have built up extensive ties to local media channels, media Afrique TV, a Cameroonian news station with an extensive presence in Francophone Africa.5

A demonstrator holds the flags of the CAR & Russia. Maintaining a veneer of broad based local support via local
media organizations and organized protests is a key aspect of how the Wagner group shores up its presence locally

Equally important to these efforts have been the development of various young Pan-Africanist social media personalities. These include French-Beninese Kémi Séba and Cameroonian-Swiss Nathalie Yamb. Yamb’s and Séba’s YouTube channels – La Dame De Sochi (“The Lady of Sochi”) and Kemi Seba officiel respectively – have received more than 28 million views combined and have played an integral part in spreading a pro-Kremlin worldview to youngsters in Francophone Africa. Russia has taken deliberate steps to incorporate these figures into their charm offensive. Yamb, and other figures in the same sphere were invited to speak at a roundtable discussion at the coastal resort town of Sochi during the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019 (an occasion largely organised by the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation).

The wages of Wagner

Why should all this geopolitical wrangling be a problem? Simply put: Wagner Group’s insertion into the continent’s affairs have been disastrous for human rights, security and African states’ sovereignty. From Mozambique to Mali, Wagner troops have been implicated in a litany of abuses, including the Moura massacre, which saw Wagner troops in central Mali collaborate in the ethnically motivated massacres of hundreds of Peul civilians.6 Such actions do nothing to resolve conflicts but rather exacerbate them, but this might be Wagner’s ultimate objective.

Stepping in as muscle for embattled local governments has allowed Wagner to assemble a portfolio of mineral concessions, particularly local gold mines, through which the Group plays its own role in the illicit trade between Africa and Dubai, bypassing Western sanctions. The most egregious case of this is the Ndassima mine in the Central African Republic, which was unceremoniously seized from AXMIN, a Canadian gold exploration company, and subsequently turned over to Midas Resources, owned by none other than Prigozhin himself.7 It is therefore no coincidence that the Group also operates in other Sahelian countries like Mali and perhaps Burkina Faso, which are global hubs for illicit mining and export of gold. Little of these resources will ever benefit local communities where development is so sorely needed.

An aerial shot of the Nddasima mine in the Central African Republic. Prior to its seizure
by Wagner the deposit was estimated to contain over $3.8 Bn worth of gold.
Courtesy: Wall Street Journal/ MAXAR

Furthermore, where the right circumstances don’t exist, mercenary companies are rarely above deliberately engineering events to create a more suitable operating environment. Wagner has come under great suspicion for its potential involvement in the various military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, which saw the new military juntas immediately call for the expulsion of French troops and witnessed spontaneous mass protest movements in local capitals where picketers brandished ready-made Russian flags. In both Chad and Sudan, Wagner has gone so far as to align itself with rebel groups presently fighting their respective governments, in a clear bid to bring pro-Russian governments there to power by force.

Should Wagner achieve their present aims, they would place themselves in a position to have full or indirect control over the entirety of the Sahel. This would place them in an unparalleled position to seize control of the key illicit trade networks bound for Europe and Asia, whether for gold or drugs, or even to traffic human beings, which the Russian government has shown a willingness to utilise as a diplomatic weapon against NATO-aligned countries in Europe.8 Even this would be one of the better outcomes, as it’s equally as likely that Wagner’s excesses will push local conflicts over the brink, inadvertently ceding large parts of Northern Africa to al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked militants who would then have access to vast new sources of funding for their global operations.

Corporate mergers and mercenary makeovers

While Wagner forces are likely chomping at the bit to continue their operations with the Kremlin’s blessing, it is likely that recent events will require them to shake up their local operations if they want to maintain what they have gained. Contrary to popular belief, private military contractors have shown themselves to despise protracted publicity of any kind. When Executive Outcomes became a household name in the wake of their deployments to Angola and Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, its founders decided to immediately ditch the name, rebranding themselves as Sandline International before their ill-fated contract with the Papuan government saw them arrested upon landing in that country.9 Similarly, American private security giant Blackwater went through a host of corporate mergers and name changes after their excesses in Iraq had started to tarnish their image in the common imagination.10

With bad publicity against Wagner Group’s behaviour in Africa having already reached a peak before the latest mutiny, it is not unlikely that the Group will undergo a similar reappraisal in the near future, shifting its existing assets around into new entities who have none of the baggage of their infamous predecessors. In other words, little of substance will change, and the Group will simply learn to conduct its business more clandestinely.

The future of mercenaries in Africa

If anything, recent events have ensured that the era of government-sponsored private military companies has only just begun. The latest developments in Russia have set a number of worrying precedents: that private armies of sufficient size can take on governments directly without fear of guaranteed annihilation, and that the acquisition of security and mining contracts in the developing world is just a way to reach the necessary point of critical mass.

Nations have also learned that wielding influence over Africa need not depend on unpopular and expensive deployments of one’s own troops but can simply be outsourced for a far smaller fee and hardly any reputational loss. Where once only Wagner dared to tread, dozens of copycat companies from a host of nations seeking influence in Africa could soon also appear with Chinese, Gulf Arab and Turkish nations, as a few examples. One thing is therefore clear, regardless of what Wagner will ultimately do: mercenaries in Africa are likely here to stay.

The critical points:

  • Wagner’s recent mutiny has highlighted the extent to which private companies have come to play a prominent role around the globe in conflict areas.
  • Wagner’s deployments in Africa are set to continue, highlighting their geopolitical importance in the minds of the Kremlin.
  • Beyond being a mere security company, the firm also provides a host of other services, including the ability to orchestrate sophisticated propaganda campaigns and thus help prop up autocratic regimes who are internationally isolated.
  • Wagner’s deployments are having deleterious impacts on local societies, worsening ethnic and religious tensions and allowing for the exploitation of mineral concessions in contravention of Western sanctions.
  • Wagner’s tarnished reputation will likely compel the firm’s owners to rebrand, but its core operations can be expected to continue under new names and legal titles.
  • The continued success of the Wagner business model will likely promote numerous copycat organisations and spells a grim future for the stability of Northern Africa in particular.
  • However, if Western powers want to counter this influence, they will have to face hard facts and re-evaluate their strategies in appealing both to Africa’s political class and its burgeoning young population.

1 Lee et al, “Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group leader accused of ‘betrayal’ and ‘treason’ by Putin?”, Business Insider, 24 June 2023. https://www.businessinsider.com/who-is-yevgeny-prigozhin-russian-tycoon-and-vladimir-putin-confidant-2022-10

2 Katie Hawkinson, “Russians are lining up at train stations as Wagner forces march toward Moscow”, 24 June 2023. https://www.businessinsider.com/russians-fleeing-as-wagner-marches-towards-moscow-2023-6

3 Isaac Mugabi, “Why UN missions are failing in Africa”, DW, 3 June 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/why-un-peacekeeping-missions-have-failed-to-pacify-africas-hot-spots/a-5776780

4 Crisis Group, “Time to Reset African Union-European Union Relations”, 17 October 2017. https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/255-time-reset-african-union-european-union-relations

5 US State Department, “Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Africa-Wide Disinformation Campaign”, 4 November 2022. https://www.state.gov/disarming-disinformation/yevgeniy-prigozhins-africa-wide-disinformation-campaign/

6 Human Rights Watch, “Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers”, 5 April 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/05/mali-massacre-army-foreign-soldiers

7 Mathieu Olivier, “CAR – Cameroon: An investigation into the Wagner Group’s African financial model”, The Africa Report, 18 January 2023. https://www.theafricareport.com/275235/car-cameroon-an-investigation-into-the-wagner-groups-african-financial-model/

8 Tomasz Grzywaczewski, “Russia and Belarus Are Using Migrants as a Weapon Against the EU”, Foreign Policy, 18 September 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/18/russia-belarus-poland-lithuiania-migrants-eu-weapon/

9 Wilson et al, “Mercenary Mann faces 10 years jail over coup attempt linked to Mark Thatcher”, The Guardian, 28 August 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/aug/28/politics.equatorialguinea

10 Spencer Ackerman, “Blackwater 3.0: Rebranded ‘Academi’ Wants Back in Iraq”, Wired, 12 December 2021. https://www.wired.com/2011/12/blackwater-rebrand-academi/