The Wagner group first acknowledged its role as the Kremlin’s mercenary army only a few months ago, during the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it has also been operating on the African continent for years, in particular in Sudan, Libya, Mali , Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. In these countries he has been accused of committing atrocities in combat and against the civilian population.
Lavrov’s African tour, another front in the struggle between the West and Moscow
After the Wagner group’s frustrated rebellion last weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wanted to make it clear that Russia’s “advisers” and “private military contractors” will remain in the CAR and Mali. However, this Friday Lavrov assured at a press conference that the “contracts” signed between African governments and Wagner depend on those governments and stressed that the Russian Ministry of Defense maintains “several hundreds” of military advisers in the Central African Republic.
“Russia is not willing to lose its presence and influence in Africa and will do everything possible to maintain ties with Wagner” on that continent, no matter what happens after the mutiny of Wagner’s leader, Yevgueni Prigozhin, Federica Saini explained to elDiario.es Fasanotti of the Brookings Research Center in Washington.
Those links right now go through Prigozhin, the researcher points out, and therefore will depend to a large extent on the fate that he himself runs: “If Prigozhin is still alive, he does not have to stay in Belarus. He could move to Africa because most of his interests are there right now (…) Probably in Sudan, at this very delicate and confusing moment ”in that country, plunged into an armed conflict since mid-April.
Support for coup plotters and African regimes
Saini adds that the countries where Wagner operates need this group, because they are “weak regimes” that “do not have a monopoly on weapons” and get the backing of Russian mercenaries on the ground and the Kremlin in the eyes of the world, after that the West has turned its back on them because of their undemocratic standards.
In Mali, Moscow has legitimized the coup military junta and Wagner’s mercenaries have replaced the French troops that had been in the African country fighting against radical Islamist groups.
In an operation against suspected jihadists, Malian soldiers and “foreign military personnel” killed around 500 people in March 2022, many of them summarily executed, in the central Mali town of Moura, according to an investigation by the Office of UN Human Rights. The NGO Human Rights Watch pointed out that the foreign fighters who participated in the massacre were Russians.
Meanwhile, internal documents of the Malian Army, to which the newspaper had access Guardianrevealed the presence of members of Wagner —called “Russian instructors”— in “mixed missions” together with Malian soldiers and gendarmes, in which many civilians were killed between January and April 2022. One of those missions, in which more people by far, was that of Moura.
In the Central African Republic, the country with the largest Wagner presence, Russian mercenaries have been key since 2018 in keeping President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in power, despite barely controlling the capital of this failed state. There are even photos that suggest that Touadéra has alleged Russian mercenaries among his bodyguards.
A report published this week by The Sentry, a Washington-based research center, reveals the abuses committed by the Russian group in the African country that ranks 188 (out of 191 countries) on the United Nations Human Development Index. . “Under the cover of a counter-offensive against anti-Touadéra armed groups, Wagner, the president and his close entourage have committed extensive, systematic and well-planned campaigns of mass murder, torture and rape throughout the country,” according to The Sentry.
In addition, his report details that, while “Touadéra and his entourage control military operations within the capital, Bangui, Wagner has managed to establish military control of operations outside Bangui, under the slogan ‘leave no trace’, in other words : ‘kill everyone, including women and children’”.
To commemorate their military exploits, the Government of the Central African Republic erected a statue honoring its soldiers and Russian fighters in the capital.
Important for an isolated Russia
In recent years, Russia has penetrated the African continent from north to south and from east to west thanks to the services that Wagner offers to weak or unstable local governments, such as the Central African Republic, which are now so dependent on these security services as well as the supply of Russian weapons and the political support of the Kremlin, which has managed to attract them into its orbit and away from the Western one.
“Since 2006, there was a new rapprochement between Russia and Africa, and Putin realized that Africa was important and is increasingly important, especially for an isolated Russia that has lost the northern shore of the Mediterranean,” he explained to elDiario. .is the senior researcher at Brookings. However, she has never been “in Russia’s interest to send its own armed forces to Africa, because they would have to come under scrutiny and there would be ongoing clashes with other NATO (member) troops” present on the ground.
The presence of Western soldiers has not prevented Wagner from penetrating some areas. This is the case of Niger, where the United States helps the local army in the fight against terrorism and whose government is the main recipient of US aid in West Africa.
On the mainland, the Wagner group has committed even more atrocities than have come to light in the Ukraine conflict. These abuses “have been possible because they are mercenaries and they are used to acting like that, and also, in Africa we know that human rights, women’s or children’s rights are not the order of the day, so (the mercenaries) take advantage” of that context, says Saini. And she is very convinced that “they cannot be replaced by Russian soldiers, but by other mercenaries.”
Other Russian private security companies operate in Africa, but “they are not as organized as Wagner” nor can they replace the group at the moment, in the opinion of Saini, who points out that “in many cases it is a question of money.” Russia can “take another group that is already on the ground and help it better pay the mercenaries, who would move from the Wagner group to this possible future group.”
This week Putin has admitted for the first time that the Wagner Group is “fully” financed by Russia. In statements collected by the Russian agency Tass, the Russian president explained that “only between May 2022 and May 2023, the State paid the company [propietaria] Wagner 86,262 million rubles (about 900 million euros) for combatant salaries and incentive payments.
The mercenaries advise, train and fight on the side of African governments, but the Russian government itself benefits from the concessions they obtain in return to exploit natural resources (gold, oil, diamonds, uranium, etc.), commercial contracts and access to strategic points such as ports or military bases. Wagner or other private security companies have acted all this time in Africa without “responsibilities” regarding human rights, as Saini points out in a 2022 report published by Brookings.
The mercenaries also provide intelligence information to Moscow and defend its interests without the direct involvement of the Russian government, which has not had to respond to the actions of these bloodthirsty hired fighters on many occasions. “If Russia had wanted to send its own soldiers to Africa, it would have done so before,” says the Italian researcher. “Wagner’s model is a winner in Africa, why change it?”
Wagner’s lucrative business
The Kremlin, directly or through Wagner, has had access to Africa’s natural resources in recent years, which has helped its economy, especially after the West imposed sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. But the mercenary group itself, Prigozhin and its companies have grown rich in Africa, and the countries where they operate need their services to deal with rebel or terrorist groups and other enemies.
This is the case of Sudan, where Wagner has supported the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (FAR), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, alias ‘Hemedti’, who since mid-April has been facing Sudanese Army troops to seize the absolute control of the country. Hemedti himself has amassed money and power through gold mining.
In mid-2020, Washington sanctioned M Invest, a Prigozhin company, for its activities in Sudan, “which highlight the correlation between Russia’s paramilitary operations, support for the maintenance of authoritarian regimes, and the exploitation of natural resources,” according to the Treasury Department. M Invest was “a cover” for Wagner, which had helped suppress popular protests against former President Omar al-Bashir, which broke out in December 2018. In 2017, M Invest had obtained concessions to explore gold mines in Sudan under the dictator, according to the US government.
This same week, the United States has imposed sanctions on two mining companies based in the Central African Republic, one of them linked to and the other controlled by Prigozhin. Those companies are involved in “illicit gold deals to finance the Wagner Group to maintain and expand its military, in the Ukraine and in Africa,” the Treasury Department said in a statement. It also imposed sanctions on a “key” individual in the operations of Wagner units in Mali.
“The Wagner group finances its brutal operations, in part, by exploiting natural resources in countries like the Central African Republic and Mali,” the US denounced.
Wagner’s rise in economic and military power in Africa goes hand in hand with questionable strategies, as The Sentry has warned: “As Wagner continues to expand into other countries – Burkina Faso is the most recent example and Chad his next target in Africa Central-, it is likely that the group will continue to employ strategies that have been successful. The use of propaganda and psychological terror as a weapon of war has been seen in several African countries in which he has established his presence, notably Mali and the Central African Republic.”