The Wagner Group’s units in Africa will not withdraw anytime soon, despite the recent aborted uprising against the Kremlin by their leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and President Vladimir Putin’s call for them to be absorbed into the Russian army.
That’s the view of most security analysts and members of intelligence agencies contacted by The Epoch Times.
The Washington DC-based think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, estimates there are at least 5,000 Wagner mercenaries on the continent in countries including Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, and Mali.
Unofficially, said Jasmine Opperman, a private security consultant specializing in extremism and political violence in Africa, the Wagner Group has a presence across all of Africa.
“Its Internet Research Agency, which interferes in voting and other democratic processes, is everywhere, and wherever there are natural resources, you will find Wagner front companies, like in Sudan,” she told The Epoch Times.
Professor Hennie Strydom of the University of Johannesburg’s international relations department, said the African Union had “opened the door” to Wagner by not acting to prevent its mercenaries from “gaining a foothold for Moscow” on the continent.
“Wagner units go around killing Africans and stealing resources, but the AU does and says nothing. In this context, why should Putin withdraw Wagner from a continent whose leaders welcome it?” Strydom told The Epoch Times.
AU headquarters in Addis Ababa did not respond to requests for comment from The Epoch Times.
“It’s quite clear that the presence of the Wagner Group is part of an attempt by Moscow to counter Western military involvement in Africa, specifically American and French. For that reason alone, it’s unlikely we’ll see a mass withdrawal of these mercenaries anytime soon,” said Strydom.
Opperman said the mercenaries had “entrenched their positions” following Prighozhin’s advance on Moscow.
The Wagner leader described his actions as a “protest” against the Kremlin’s generals’ handling of the war in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin called the rebellion “treason” and suggested it was an attempted coup.
“In this context it makes sense for Wagner fighters to dig in where they’re present in Africa,” said Opperman, a former South Africa intelligence service agent.
“No one’s sure now about the future of Wagner, but one thing I am certain of is that unless Moscow offers the battalions stationed in Africa a lot of money, they are not going to abandon all the oil fields, gold mines, diamond mines and other resources that they’ve captured since they began operations in Africa about six years ago.”
Prigozhin is currently in Belarus, according to that country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko.
“Apparently, Putin has pardoned Prigozhin but he (Prigozhin) will know that Putin’s pardon means nothing. And how can Prigozhin stay in exile in Belarus, which is firmly allied with the Kremlin and all it represents, and feel safe? I would not be surprised if the Wagner commander turns up in Africa. After all, outside of Ukraine and Russia, Wagner in Africa is the biggest Russian force in the world.”
Wagner first deployed fighters to Africa in 2018, sending “military instructors” to CAR and Sudan. These “instructors” have been propping up illegitimate regimes, like Mali’s military junta, and plundering natural resources.
Human rights groups have also accused the group of committing widespread atrocities, including rape, torture, and mass executions, in countries such as CAR and Mozambique.
Wagner currently has a large force in lawless Libya, supporting warlords in exchange for oil and other resources. There, the group is also alleged to be involved in human trafficking.
“Four years ago, Wagner had many thousands of fighters in Libya. They tried to help rebel leader (General Khalifa) Haftar to seize Tripoli from the government, but they were not successful. Most of these Wagner guys were redeployed to Ukraine but many remain in Libya,” he said.
Given the country’s strategic importance, he said Putin would likely retain these mercenaries in Libya.
“He may at some point even choose to bolster Russia’s military presence in Libya, because it allows Moscow an easy access point into Europe; it allows the Russian navy to maintain a strong presence in the Mediterranean.”
Dr. Samuel Ramini, conflict analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told The Epoch Times Putin’s interest in Africa was “purely mercenary, so it makes sense for him to continue using Wagner” on the continent.
“Russia, primarily by means of Wagner, has only established a presence in African countries where there are resources that enrich Prigozhin and his connections in the Russian establishment,” said Ramini.
“Mali has lots of gold. CAR, for example, has uranium, diamonds, gold and oil. Wagner gets a big share of this cake in exchange for helping President Faustin-Archange Touadéra fight off various rebel groups. Wagner mercenaries also function as his personal bodyguards.”
Opperman said Wagner members had “wreaked havoc and terrorism” wherever they’d gone in Africa.
“In Libya they rigged booby traps in family homes and killed children. They also executed civilians. They also did this in Mali, where they killed more than 500 people in one week in the town of Moura.”
The Biden administration has accused Wagner of “serious criminal activity,” including “mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse” in CAR and Mali.
On June 27, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four companies and one individual connected to the “violent Russian military group PMC Wagner (Wagner Group)” and Prigozhin.
In a press release, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian Nelson, stated: “The Wagner Group exploits insecurity around the world, committing atrocities and criminal acts that threaten the safety, good governance, prosperity, and human rights of nations, as well as exploiting their natural resources. The targeted entities in the Central African Republic (CAR), United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia have engaged in illicit gold dealings to fund the Wagner Group to sustain and expand its armed forces, including in Ukraine and Africa, while the targeted individual has been central to activities of Wagner Group units in Mali.”
The “targeted individual” referred to by Nelson is Andrey Nikolayevich Ivanov.
According to the U.S. Treasury, Ivanov has facilitated weapons and mining deals with senior Malian government officials.
Opperman said Ivanov also managed Africa Politology, a company that’s an “offshoot” of Wagner PMC.
“This firm is very shady, and it is expanding its footprint across Africa,” said the analyst.
“Africa Politology is basically a propaganda arm of Wagner. It uses African agents, like co-opted community leaders, for example, to launch anti-West and specifically anti-United Nations messaging across social media platforms and on other public platforms.”
Opperman said Ivanov’s firm had instigated recent public protests in Mali demanding that the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force withdraw from the country and be replaced by Russian troops.
Many of the demonstrators carried Russian flags and placards supporting Putin.
Last Friday, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to end its decade-long mission in Mali.
Washington said the move was “engineered” by the Wagner Group.
“This is a major success by Wagner and Putin knows it. This is just one of the reasons that Wagner is going to remain in Africa for a long time to come,” said Opperman. “Putin craves success, especially at this point in time.”
Strydom said Moscow supplied Wagner members in Africa with weapons and ammunition, while a Prigozhin holding company was responsible for paying them.
“There is no way that Putin is just going to cut supply of weapons and ammo and money to the Wagner guys in Africa, because they are, after all, mercenaries. They will then be free agents and they will simply then join whoever puts guns in their hands and pays them. Most are not loyal to Putin or anyone else; they are loyal to money. So they are going to stay in the Kremlin’s fold, for the time being,” said Strydom.
Putin has said Wagner members should join the Russian army, “go home,” or join Prigozhin in Belarus.
But Opperman and Strydom agreed that this would not apply to Wagner forces in Africa.
“Moscow has invested too much in Africa to simply throw it all away. My guess is some kind of a compromise will be reached with regard to Africa,” said Strydom.
Ramini said it was important to remember that the Wagner Group had not invaded Africa.
“It’s in African countries because those governments have welcomed the Russian mercenaries.”
But he added: “It’s also true that sometimes these governments get a lot more than they bargained for, and not in a good way. In CAR, for example, Wagner has control of public service corporations. It’s a real infiltration of a country, a real and purposeful strategy to capture entire states.
“Once they’re in a country, even if it’s just a small number of them, given their military hardware, organization, training and resources, it’s hard for governments to push them back. That’s especially because in accepting this Russian mercenary assistance, that generally means the West leaves these countries, so isn’t there to help them when Wagner starts taking over. France cut off military aid to CAR, right? It means these countries have no one else to turn to and they have to stick with Russia, whether Russia’s giving them what they want or not.”
In the short term, said Ramini, Wagner would not change how it operated in Africa.
“(Russian Foreign Affairs Minister) Sergey Lavrov’s also made this clear. Maybe later, I think, there’ll be a transition to more of an oligopolistic approach towards Russian private security, or mercenary, companies operating in Africa.”
In other words, he said, Wagner would not monopolize the field of private military security in Africa; other Russian mercenary firms would enter the sphere, all cooperating to further Moscow’s interests.
“It’s also very possible Gazprom (Russia’s state-owned energy corporation) will start deploying private security contractors,” said Ramini. “Gazprom has said it’s going to be investing a lot more in Africa in the future, in oil and gas, so you could see Wagner guarding Russian energy facilities in Africa in the future.”
But Strydom said Wagner members were unlikely to be satisfied with roles like that because they generally enjoyed combat operations.
“They like to seize and control. If they’re not actively engaging jihadists, for example, in firefights, then they’re seizing mines and raiding villages and towns and terrorizing citizens. These are not run-of-the-mill security guards who like to sit in guardhouses or patrol perimeter fences. They’re combat veterans and they enjoy violence and they enjoy taking what is not theirs. They’re hardened criminals, in fact.”
Strydom said the AU’s reaction to the Wagner Group would be “fundamental” to its future in Africa.
“There’s a long history in Africa of opposition to mercenaries, particularly white mercenaries seen to benefit from black African pain and suffering. Yet there’s a lack of decisive action by the AU and the various regional blocs, as regard the presence of Wagner. Given the dark history of mercenaries in Africa, and the destabilization of democracy that they cause, through their support for rogue governments and rogue politicians, and their human rights violations, one would’ve thought the AU would’ve reacted strongly against Wagner. But there’s silence.”