The Wagner Group, a Russian state-funded private military company filled with mercenaries and headed by the dastardly billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, entered the American consciousness with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Even more people got to know them when Prigozhin staged a short-lived mutiny where his forces briefly took the city or Rostov in southwestern Russia. Putin was able to end the mutiny without any damage except to his fearsome reputation.
Since then, Wagnerian fighters in the region have surrendered their weapons to the Russian military and avoided imprisonment or execution for their role in the mutiny. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the paramilitary groups would train the Belarusian military in weapons and tactics.
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What is less discussed about the Wagner group is its activities in other parts of the world, namely the war-torn regions of the Middle East and Africa.
Wagner is known to have operated in many parts of the African continent, including Chad, Libya, Central African Republic and Mali. (There are unconfirmed rumors that they may be invited to Burkina Faso by its new military leadership.)
Many believe Wagner’s goal is not just to extract key valuable resources from the mineral- and oil-rich continent, but to expand Russia’s diplomatic influence by militarily supporting a bloc of African states. With Evgeny Prigozhin’s fate unknown and Wagner’s status uncertain, their presence in these volatile areas presents potentially serious security risks. In other words, it is incredibly dangerous to have heavily armed soldiers of fortune open to the highest bidder and not tied to a nation state in areas where human rights abuses are already common.
Russia assured some African leaders that they would not lose their fighting forces. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised the leaders of African countries like Chad and Mali that “the work will continue”. Russia extracts valuable resources from Africa thanks to Wagner’s presence.
However, questions remain as to whether the loyalty of the Wagnerian mercenaries is not split between the Kremlin and Prigozhin. Although it has been reported that Prigozhin and Putin met in person a few days after the attempted mutiny – and more than likely struck a deal for control of the Wagner group – it’s unclear what mercenaries are thousands of miles from the Kremlin think about it. .
Even though Putin is in charge, his strongman image has been seriously damaged by the attempted mutiny itself. Whether Wagner’s mercenaries would accept his leadership without Prigozhin is anyone’s guess.
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Retired US four-star general Robert Abrams told ABC News he believes Prigozhin is already dead and the meeting between him and Putin was rigged. Although there was no evidence to support this hypothesis at the time, if it were true, it is unclear how Wagner’s mercenaries would accept their leader and co-founder being killed by the Russian state. The potential for desertion or illicit arms sales increases as morale plummets.
Wagner is already present in the Central African Republic (CAR), a state whose political atmosphere has been described as “fragile” by the United Nations. Religion-based sectarian violence has been commonplace since its independence in 1960. A Muslim rebel group called Séléka carried out a successful coup in late 2012. The Séléka was disbanded shortly after taking control of Bangui, but violence between its former members and Balaka Christians” continued. The two groups have since split up, causing more confusion and violence.
The Wagner Group assisted the Central African government in suppressing and deterring the insurgency efforts of these rebel factions. CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 71% of its population below the poverty line, but is home to an abundance of natural resources, including oil, gold and diamonds.
Although it appears that some of Wagner’s forces flew out of the country, the CAR government said these were rotations and indicated that Wagner still had some structure despite the nebulous chain of command in l absence of Prigozhin. What is unclear is whether CAR officials are bluffing Wagner’s staff rotations in order to deter the insurgents from mounting an offensive.
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If the remaining Wagner mercenaries do not have a clear chain of command, or divided loyalties, or even declining morale since Prigozhin’s withdrawal, they are more responsive to offers from the many ex-Séléka and anti-balaka groups in the RCA. (The UN and human rights organizations believe ex-Seleka and anti-balaka groups have committed war crimes.)
Countries like CAR and Chad were violent and unstable and prone to coup attempts long before Wagner arrived. Western contributions to less stability and security in Africa also predate Russia and Wagner.
However, the potential human cost of an unstable mercenary group like Wagner in countries already battling Boko Haram and sectarian warring factions is very high.
As the world rightly focuses on the unjust invasion of Ukraine, we must not lose sight of how the fallout could affect Africa and its people. We see how the developed world and its media have prioritized the lives of Ukrainians, it is time they showed the same respect for the lives of black Africans.
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