Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

Despite Loss of Leader, Wagner Group Likely to Continue African Operations


Nothing could rattle the foundation of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group more than the death of founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Yet even that dramatic news is not expected to significantly impact the group’s operations in Africa.

“Based on experience and a look at Wagner’s past, it’s clear that it’s here to stay,” former Wagner commander Marat Gabidullin stated in a recent analysis for Foreign Policy magazine, co-written with analyst John Lechner. “In Africa, the Russian state needs Wagner more than Wagner needs the state. Wagner does not have a permanent structure; it morphs, adapting rapidly depending on the situation and circumstances.”

Wagner’s viability as an instrument of Russian foreign policy began to change profoundly on June 23, when its yearslong power struggle with the Ministry of Defense (MoD) provoked Prigozhin to lead an aborted uprising against top military leaders in Moscow.

Prigozhin died in a plane crash near Moscow on August 23. Days earlier, he filmed a propaganda video, purportedly in Mali, in which he claimed that Wagner was increasing its presence in Africa.

“Prigozhin began a media campaign to portray Nigeriens as begging for Wagner’s intervention in order to help Wagner secure a contract with Niger and thereby save Wagner,” the Institute of Study of War reported in an August 21 assessment, citing Wagner-affiliated sources.

He also spent time in the Central African Republic (CAR), where he assured President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the June mutiny in Russia wouldn’t impact plans to bring new Wagner fighters and investments to his business partners there, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The next day, a Wagner helicopter landed near Bangui with five commanders from Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, the Journal reported. They gave Prigozhin a gift of gold bars from the Darfur mines his fighters have helped them control. He asked for more.

Observers speculated that he was touring Africa in an effort to influence the Kremlin.

“We are not drawing down, and more than that, we are ready to go further and increase our various contingents,” Prigozhin told Cameroon-based Afrique Media in July. “For the moment all our obligations are fulfilled, and they will be, no matter what comes our way.”

The day after Prigozhin’s plane crash, Putin ordered Wagner Group mercenaries to swear an oath of allegiance to Russia, and promise to strictly follow the rules of commanders and senior leaders.

Prigozhin’s death “doesn’t change anything,” a Nigerian intelligence official told the Journal. “Russia is still there. When the Wagner leader is gone, they are still active in Africa. … Maybe now the Kremlin’s hands will be more strengthened.”

Despite numerous reports of Wagner fighters committing war crimes and human rights abuses in Africa, the mercenary group has expanded in the past decade with operatives deployed in CAR, Libya, Mali and Sudan.

Wagner seeks out unstable, authoritarian governments — hence its support for military coups in Niger and Burkina Faso.

It typically provides military training, security services and disinformation operations while taking payment in the form of lucrative mining concessions.

“In Africa, Wagner morphed from a state-backed entity into a state-like entity,” Gabidullin and Lechner wrote. “There is little appetite or capacity from the MoD to intervene.”

There is no question Wagner will stay in Africa, according to Cameron Hudson, a senior associate in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program.

“It does not very much change in places like Mali and CAR because there were already relationships and contracts,” he told Al Jazeera. “And the Russians said they would honor those contracts.

“The real question is what happens in the countries Wagner was trying to expand its presence, places like Burkina Faso and Niger. Will that expansion continue under the Russian government?”

Gabidullin believes “the more important network remains intact.”

And very much active in Africa.

“Illegitimate governments in Africa need security assistance for their hold on power and regime,” Hudson said. “That is the point of all of these: it is not the supply of armed mercenaries, it is the demand of armed mercenaries.”

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