Explained | The Wagner group’s actions in Africa

In which countries in Africa is the Wagner group active? What explains its dynamic relations with different countries across the African continent? What has the UN said about the Wagner group? What role does Russia play in the activities of the mercenary group?

April 24, 2023 11:09 pm | Updated April 26, 2023 11:26 am IST

An advertising screen, which promotes the Wagner group, on the facade of a building in Moscow, Russia, on March 27. A slogan on the screen reads: “Join the team of victors!”

An advertising screen, which promotes the Wagner group, on the facade of a building in Moscow, Russia, on March 27. A slogan on the screen reads: “Join the team of victors!” | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: After fighting erupted in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on April 15, questions have been raised over the involvement of the Wagner group, which has been active in African countries for years.

What is the Wagner group?

The Wagner group is a Russian paramilitary organisation headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Though it has been reportedly engaged in counter-militancy operations in Africa, its involvement is believed to have a more extensive scope covering political, economic and military fields. There have also been reports of the group supplying arms and weapons, and training regional forces in fighting jihadist threats. Despite its involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war, the Wagner group’s presence in Africa has continued. By siding with the domestic actors in a civil war situation, the group’s actions have impacted the democratic process in Africa.

Additionally, the West has been raising concerns over human rights violations and abuse of civilians related to the Wagner group’s presence in Africa.

How active is the Wagner group in Africa?

The Wagner group has been active in Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya in Africa. The activities are related to providing direct support to authoritarian governments, supporting rival leadership engaged in internal wars, filling the void created by the withdrawal of the French military engagement, taking part in resource exploitation etc.

The Wagner group presents itself as a security provider to a few governments, mostly authoritarian ones in Africa. It has also been supporting rival leaders engaged in a civil war. In Sudan, it began deployments during former President Omar al-Bashir’s rule in 2017. The group’s ties with Sudan aimed at guarding mineral resources, notably gold mines, and therefore, supported Bashir’s government against international opposition. It also played a direct role in suppressing the Sudanese uprising in 2019 that toppled Bashir’s regime. In Sudan, Russia has recently forged a strong relationship with the Rapid Support Forces (RSP) and its commander, General Mohamed Hamadan Dagalo. The latter is a rival leader fighting against the Sudanese army. However, there are, as of now, only speculations on Wagner’s involvement in the ongoing violence in Sudan. Besides, Russia is set to sign an agreement with Sudan to build a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Interestingly, in the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group is active beyond being engaged in security-related activities. According to a German news source DW, which refers to a report of eleven European media on the group, Wagner makes profits importing timber, “the government in Bangui granted a subsidiary unrestricted logging rights across 1,87,000 hectares.” The same source refers to a contract which gave access to Wagner subsidiaries to the Ndassima gold mine after withdrawing concessions from a Canadian mining company.

The Wagner group is also filling in the void created by anti-French sentiments which led to the withdrawal of the French forces from Africa. In Mali, the Wagner group trains local forces and provides security services in fighting extremist groups. Wagner’s deployment in Mali was followed by a nose-dive in France-Mali relations and the end of France’s Operation Barkhane.

A similar role of the Wagner group could be found in Burkina Faso. The country is reportedly involved with the Wagner group to deal with surging jihadist violence. After officially announcing the end of the French operation in November 2022, Burkina Faso turned towards Moscow taking similar steps as Mali did.

In Libya, approximately 1,200 Wagner mercenaries are believed to have fought for rebel leader Khalifa Haftar. Libya witnessed a civil war for the entirety of the 2010s before a ceasefire which is holding tenuously.

What is the group’s endgame in Africa?

The primary goal of the group is to gain access to natural resources. Numerous reports from CNN in the U.S. to Al Jazeera in West Asia have referred to Russia’s objectives in securing access to Africa’s rich natural resources. The Wagner group’s presence and moves make up one of the strategiesis to achieve this objective for the country.

Secondly, Russia sees the Wagner group as an instrument of diplomacy in Africa. The Russian strategy in Africa comes with minimal cost economically but with heavy political returns. Moscow secured 15 abstentions from African countries in the UN’s resolution condemning its aggression in Ukraine. Moreover, Eritrea and Mali sided with Russia voting against the resolution.

And finally, Russia’s access to African mineral deposits is believed to be providing crucial financial support to continue the war in Ukraine. For Russia, strong ties with African countries mean a pipeline of influence for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

What are the implications for Africa?

For African countries, increasing dependency on Wagner mercenaries implies more violence, intimidation and uncertainties. A UN report in June 2021 said that private military groups, “particularly the Wagner Group,” have violently harassed people and committed sexual violence. France, the U.S. and international human rights organisations accuse the mercenaries of extrajudicial killings in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Secondly, the group posits a threat to democratic governance in Africa. The collapse of relations between the West and Sahel countries, especially Mali and Burkina Faso, paved the way for Russia to position itself as an alternative. In time, Russian gained leverage in Africa through its assistance without conditionalities. However, deepening relations between African leaders and Russian mercenaries pose a significant threat to democratic values. Increasing trends among African governments seeking Russian mercenary assistance for mounting security concerns indicate increasing authoritarian footprints across the continent.

What is the status of the Wagner group globally and inside Russia?

According to the UN’s International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, the states should bear the responsibility for the activities of the mercenaries who violate principles of international law which threaten sovereign equality, political independence, territorial integrity of states and self-determination of people. Legally, Wagner is not a Russia-based private military company though it works closely with the Russian security apparatus. Private mercenary groups are illegal in Russia. However, in 2018, Putin recognised the group saying that the Wagner group has the right to pursue its interests anywhere in the world as long as they do not break the Russian law. His statement read: “I repeat they are not breaking Russian law and have the right to work and promote their business interests wherever they like in the world.” Most recently, after the group was reported engaging with the Russian Army fighting in Bakhmut, a statement from the Russian parliament said: “All those who defend our country — soldiers, volunteers, mobilised men, and members of PMC Wagner — are heroes.”

The author is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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