The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company that supplies mercenary troops to African countries. Regarded as the most prominent form of Russian engagement in Africa, the group also exerts political and economic influence through its network.
Wagner Group is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who was a long-standing ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin until a very recent coup which was allegedly spearheaded by Prigozhin. Up until the coup, it appeared Wagner Group had a mutually beneficially relationship with the Russian state.
The group is widely associated with criminal activity In fact, in late January, the US government declared Wagner a ‘transnational criminal organization’, opening the door for wider sanctions against Wagner and its associates.
According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), Wagner operates in the ‘Grey Zone’, engaging in both legal and illegal economic activities. Wagner’s activities—like those of most oligarch-led operations—often align with the aims of Russian foreign policy, in that they push the bounds of Russian international influence and oust Western political interests.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred Western sanctions that have pushed Russia into isolation, and disrupted Russian business interests in Africa. Consequently, Africa’s strategic importance to Russia has significantly increased, with Wagner harnessing its political influence as a tool for promoting Russia’s economic and political interests on the continent.
GI-TOC’s report titled “The Grey Zone: Russia’s Military, Mercenary and Criminal Engagement in Africa” analyses Wagner’s influence in Africa in detail.
The report draws on research conducted between July 2022 and February 2023—when the report was published—with a focus on Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Cameroon, Mali, Madagascar, and Libya.
Wagner’s Africa Strategy
Wagner’s Africa strategy is mainly three-fold, comprising military, political element and commercial elements.
Since late 2017, Wagner has deployed troops to five African countries, namely Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso CAR and Libya—although, troops were pulled from the latter two to Russia in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The troops have supported the weakened autocratic governments of these countries in fighting insurgencies, rebel groups or civil wars. In Mali and CAR, Wagner’s troops even helped to displace former colonial power France.
However, until 2022, the group’s involvement in Africa was treated as a clandestine affair. The Russian government denied Wagner’s existence while Wagner’s African partners denied the presence of its troops in their countries.
The group came into the limelight in mid-2022, when Prigozhin finally admitted that he founded the group, and the group became heavily involved in the invasion. Wagner was now a registered legal entity headquartered in St Petersburg with “a central public presence in Russia’s military engagements overseas”.
Politically, Wagner has an even more prominent presence in Africa, having offered political strategy and advice to leaders who have engaged with the group.
On the commercial front, Wagner appears to exert its influence through a related network of (mostly mining) companies which operate in the countries where the group has provided military or political support. In some cases, Wagner has been provided access to extractive resources in exchange for its troops.
While these forms of involvement in and of themselves are not illegal, many of Wagner’s operations have stepped out of the bounds of the law.
Many of Wagner’s military operations and arms imports to Africa were carried out in violation of UN sanction regimes. Its troops have allegedly resorted to torture and execution of civilians—gross human rights violations—during their operations. Wagner-related companies have been accused of illegally exploiting mineral resources and gold smuggling. Wagner has also allegedly conducted illegal election interferences and disinformation campaigns in African countries.
Moreso, private military companies are not legal under Russian law, so its operation as a mercenary organization is not exactly in the right.
Wagner is a representation of Russia’s evolution from more explicitly violent crime groups, to organized crime groups which are deeply embedded in the powerful state’s legal economy.
Unlike in the 90s and early 2000s when ‘violent entrepreneurs’ like Viktor Bout thrived in Africa, Russia’s criminal footprint on the continent has become more sophisticated, with Wagner taking the lead.
Central African Republic
In GI-TOC’s words, “CAR is the most developed example of the Wagner business model in Africa”. Wagner has established a quid pro quo arrangement with the former French colony, receiving access to natural resources like diamonds and gold in exchange for military and political support which has been instrumental in sustaining President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s seat in power.
The CAR-Wagner partnership started back in October 2017, when a high-level meeting between CAR and Russian authorities was held in Sochi, Russia’s largest resort city. Not long after, a team of Russian close security personnel was sent to the presidency in CAR capital Bangui.
In January 2018, Russian military trainers—who would later become embedded with he Central African Armed Forces (FACA)—and a first shipment of weapons made their way to Bangui too.
Russian citizen Valery Zakharov—who has been linked to Prigozhin’s company M Finance and was said to have initially headed the Wagner structure in the country—was appointed as national security advisor to Touadéra. And in 2022, Zakharov was replaced by another Wagner commander, Vitali Perfilev.
In 2019, Wagner operators, including Prigozhin, reportedly played a major role in negotiating a peace agreement between CAR government and rebel groups in Khartoum.
In 2020, FACA worked closely with Wagner troops and a contingent of the Rwandan army to block an uprising by an alliance of rebel groups called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC).The following year, Wagner and co organized a successful counter-offensive against CPC, pushing the latter far from Bangui.
Consequently, Wagner became the go-to for government of CAR, going on to direct FACA operations and even acting independently of FACA to guide national security apparatus. This essentially ousted the influence of UN peace-keeping force MINUSCA and the EU in the country. In fact, Wagner forces have reportedly blocked MINUSCA patrols and harassed UN staff in CAR.
The UN experts on CAR have accused Wagner of ‘committing systemic and grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution’.
Additionally, Human Rights Watch has documented and collated the group’s victims’ accounts of torture, extrajudicial killings and unwarranted detention.
Wagner has also cleverly turned to pop culture to further the Russian agenda in CAR. The group has spearheaded the creation of a pro-Russian radio station called Lengo Songo; sponsored sports and cultural events through its mining companies; and influenced the making of an action film titled ‘Tourist’ which portrays Wagner troops saving the country from rebels and the distribution of related merchandise—shirts with ‘Je suis Wagner’ (‘I am Wagner’) printed on them.
Wagner’s influence in Sudan is mostly of an economic nature, with a focus on gold. The group has, through the help of the East African country’s military elite, profited from gold mining concessions and large-scale gold smuggling since 2017.
Wagner has also conducted military and political operations in Sudan, having deployed several troops and supported former long-serving president Omar al-Bashir whose tumultuous reign ended in 2019.
After al-Bashir left, Wagner sustained its influence by strengthening its relationship with General Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which ousted al-Bashir.
Mozambique, Mali, Libya, Madagascar and the Rest of Africa
In Mozambique, Mali and Libya, Wagner’s engagement has been primarily military in nature. Otherwise, the group has not seen much success in establishing its footprint, yet. The group has provided troops for their fights against insurgency, wars and a former colonial power (in Mali). This started out in 2019 for Mozambique and Libya, but only 2021 for Mali.
In Madagascar and a few other African countries, Wagner’s pro-Russia techniques have comprised election funding, the use of politically biased election observation groups, and Wagner-linked think-tank organizations to influence policy and amplify anti-Western civil society voices.
Some believe that Wagner will again finance candidates in Madagascar’s upcoming presidential election, which is slated to take place on 9th November.
Meanwhile, Wagner operations in Burkina Faso, Kenya and especially Cameroon appear to be budding.
Ousting Wagner from Africa
While some would argue that Wagner has been of benefit to its African partners, the benefits have unfortunately been tainted by blood, corruption and grossly inhumane practices.
Wagner is not a partner Africa should be aligning itself with. Therefore, African countries that have some ties to the group should cut them off smartly and strategically.
Taking it a step further, other African countries should do what they can to encourage Wagner’s African partners to cut ties with the group and carry out investigations into its criminal activities.
Nonetheless, the importance of Wagner’s support to its African partners cannot be overstated. Thus, there should be more intra-African partnerships as well as UN interventions to fill the gap Wagner would leave behind if ousted.