Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that thousands of mercenaries from the Wagner Group will remain deployed in Africa, even though Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin led a mutiny against the Russian military over the weekend and then sought refuge in Belarus with some of his forces.
Lavrov said in an interview with Russian state media that Wagner employees will continue working as “instructors” and “private military contractors” in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, Wagner’s two biggest customers in Africa.
“Both the CAR and Mali appealed to the Wagner PMCs with a request to ensure the safety of their leadership,” Lavrov said.
“Regarding the reports about who is panicking and about what, I did not see any panic. I did not see any changes in the relations of the relevant African countries with the Russian Federation,” he added.
Contrary to Lavrov’s breezy dismissal, there has been a good deal of anxiety in the CAR and Mali since Prigozhin launched his eight-hour mutiny on Saturday. Both countries have become heavily dependent on Wagner mercenaries and their presence is felt in other African nations as well.
Wagner has such a huge presence in the CAR that some observers believe the organization, often derided as Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s shadowy “private army,” has effectively taken control of the country, using incredibly brutal tactics.
A human rights watchdog group called The Sentry published a report on Tuesday documenting Wagner “deploying orchestrated violence so extreme that even hardened national soldiers and local militias under Wagner’s control describe living in a state of terror.”
The Sentry report said the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera nominally hired Wagner to hunt down insurgents and protect vital national resources but, in the years since 2018, the mercenary company has taken advantage of instability to establish control over the CAR military, terrorize the population, and plunder the country.
Wagner reportedly teaches CAR security personnel how to torture and murder their countrymen on a horrifying scale and, when they deploy to the field, Wagner forces wipe out entire villages under the motto “Leave No Trace.” The Sentry quoted research that found the CAR now has the highest per capita death rate in the world, due in part to Wagner’s ruthless efficiency at erasing villages.
Wagner’s presence in Mali has expanded since the government fell to a coup in May 2021 and the junta began evicting French and U.N. counter-terrorism forces. The Malian junta speaks highly of Wagner’s ruthless efficiency against insurgents sponsored by ISIS and al-Qaeda and the public appears to prefer the Wagner mercenaries to departing U.N. peacekeepers.
French President Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, derisively called Wagner the “life insurance of failing regimes” in February and warned African leaders they were courting misery by doing business with the mercenary company.
Wagner forces can also be found in Libya, fighting alongside Russia-supported warlord Khalifa Haftar; Burkina Faso, where they have displaced French counter-terrorism forces, as in Mali; Mozambique, where they are fighting terrorists linked to Somalia’s al-Shabaab for control of vast natural gas reserve; and Sudan, where the U.S. accuses them of supporting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in a brutal factional struggle for control of the state.
Writing at The Conversation over the weekend, Florida International University professor of politics and international relations John Clark argued that Wagner has been a disaster for Africa and the African Union might eventually take steps to push the mercenaries off the continent – but, for the time being, too many wobbly African regimes are dependent on Wagner for their security and too many are reluctant to antagonize Moscow.
“There appears little chance that any major forces from inside or outside Africa will seriously oppose its activities. Individual African actors, state and non-state, benefit from its presence. This small number of beneficiaries will stymie action against Wagner’s mercenaryism, which is banned under international law,” Clark wrote.
On that point, Clark noted China has also been deploying private military contractors to Africa on a much smaller scale to protect its investments on the continent and, while China’s mercenaries are less brutal and less involved with African politics than Wagner, their presence tends to “legitimize further the use of private security companies.”
Close observers of various African nations saw no unusual movements of Wagner forces over the weekend, suggesting the mercenaries will be staying put for the time being.
“There may well be a change at the top of the group but I don’t think events in Moscow will cause Wagner to disappear altogether from Libya. Logistical support from the Russian state for Wagner might diminish for a while but the mission will likely go on running itself,” Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui of the Royal United Services Institute told the UK Guardian on Monday.
Senior investigator Nathalia Dukhan of The Sentry unhappily agreed that Wagner’s operations in Africa are too “resilient, creative, fearless, and predatory” to “instantly fall like a house of cards” now that Prigozhin is heading to exile in Belarus.
“Wagner itself has developed over time as an organization that’s gone from being a purely private military contracting entity into a multiplicity of business alliances and relations, and a network of companies. Some of them front companies across the countries in which they operate on the African continent,” analyst Julian Rademayer told Deutsche Welle (DW).
Rademayer described Wagner as “the most influential Russian actor operating in Africa today” and warned “its activities and the network of front companies that bolster it are a malign influence on the continent.”
Many analysts suspect the Russian state already has a high degree of influence over Wagner’s murky activities in Africa – which, taken as a whole, are more about looting the continent than developing or protecting it. Rather than picking a difficult fight with Wagner loyalists in Africa or trying to replace them, Moscow might simply tighten and formalize its control over the group, leaving all of those desirable African income streams as undisturbed as possible.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) added one more wrinkle to prognostications of Wagner’s future after Prigozhin by wondering what China might think of “heavily armed splinter cells of the Wagner Group roaming free in Africa” and jeopardizing Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China might only be reassured by securing some assurances from Moscow that Wagner will be kept on a leash and Beijing will be able to call the Kremlin when it needs to draw some “red lines that should not be crossed.”