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Wagner in Africa: The impact of Prigozhin's death

Philipp Sandner
August 25, 2023

Russia's presence in Africa depends heavily on the Wagner Group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. But with his death in a plane crash in Russia, there is now uncertainty about the private military's role.

Protesters holds a banner reading "Thank you Wagner", the name of the Russian private security firm present in Mali.
Malians welcomed the Wagner Group in the hope they would help defeat the Islamist insurgencyImage: Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's influence in Africa is intertwined with the mercenary activities of the Wagner Group in various countries, particularly in West and Central Africa. Next to China, Russia has become the leading global player, exerting its influence on the continent through aid, economic development, trade and military cooperation.

But following reports that Wagner's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a plane crash in Russia — confirmed by Russian investigsators on Augst 27 — many now wonder if military support from Russia in Africa will remain unchanged. 

For Ryan Cummings, Director at Signal Risk, Centre for Strategies and International Studies, it seems that Wagner's operations in Africa will "continue as they have been doing for the past few months or even years in certain contexts."

How could Wagner Group revolt impact Africa?

Assimilation of Wagner

Cummings told DW that the future of the mercenary group in Africa remains intact. "If you look at the structure of the Wagner group in countries such as the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and Libya, there is no immediate indication that there has been a compromise in the relation between the country commanders and the Putin administration."

Even though Prizgozhin is no longer in the picture or commanding Wagner, Cummings stressed that they have continued their operations without significant disruption. 

Cummings said he would be very surprised if Russia's President Vladimir Putin were to take control of the Wagner Group. "If anything, there could be some leadership changes at the top of the movement, if that has not already occurred — there might be an assimilation of Wagner:"

In Niger, security analyst Alkasou Abdourahamane thinks that the impact of Prigozhin's presumed death — whether it is linked to the Kremlin or if he died in a plane crash — will not be the same for the countries that work together with the Russian mercenaries, especially Mali, Central African Republic and Niger. 

"For now, there is no evidence from a reliable source that shows the tentacles of a collaboration between the state and the groups," Abdourahamane told DW.

The security analyst Raoufa'l Sani in Niger is of that view, that long before Prizgoshin's presumed death, the Wagner leader did not have the same force he had before. "Since his aborted attempt to take power in Moscow, the Russian authorities have ensured that they take over his main activities in the world," Sani told DW.

He thinks nothing will change and that the importance of Wager in Niger or the Sahel is a question of belief: "The opinion in these countries is that the military and therefore the Western presence has not produced the desired results." 

Business as usual in CAR

In an exclusive interview with DW, Fidele Gouandjika, an advisor to Central African Republic (CAR) President Faustin-Archange Touadera, said that bilateral relations between his country and Russia would remain the same.

"We have a defense agreement with Russia, and the paramilitaries who are with us will continue their work as before. They will find another chief," he told DW.

"As for trade relations, we have a mining license, a brewery and a forestry license with the Russians. That will not change, even if Yevgeny Prigozhin is no longer there."

However, not everyone shares this optimistic view: Since a comprehensive peace agreement was reached in CAR only in February 2019 after decades of civil war, the Wagner Group's influence has extended even further. Wagner mercenaries have been in charge of protecting — and guiding — Touadera, whose advisors have long included a man with closer ties to Prigozhin.

A monument depicting four armed men protecting a mother and her children, next to the university of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
This monument of Russian soldiers was erected in CAR's capital Bangui in honor of Russia's security contributionImage: Barbara Debout/AFP

CAR: A hostage of Wagner?

Former Communications Minister Adrien Poussou, who is also the author of the book "Africa Doesn't Need Putin," regards Wagner as practically pulling every string in the country now: "President Touadera is a hostage of Wagner, and he knows it," Poussou told DW.

"So despite the aborted rebellion of the Wagner Group, the situation remains deadlocked until an even bigger power interferes in this dance."

The CAR government has described the idea that it has lost control as "nonsense."

Still, even more measured voices have expressed their concern over the extent of Wagner's influence — with or without Prigozhin — in CAR: Paul Crescent Beninga, a civil society representative, says that the Wagner Group's interference in CAR's internal political affairs has now led to "a point where this undermines the ability of the Central African state to conduct its politics without pressure."

"The Central African Republic is not profiting from these developments," he added. "Rather, the winners are the Russians."

Russia's silence on the latest developments

Meanwhile, Moscow remains silent on the circumstances surrounding the plane crash. The Russian aviation authority claims that Wagner boss Prigozhin was on board and that all ten occupants are believed dead. 

But much is still unclear, including whether foul play was involved.

Before Prigozhin's attempted coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, the Kremlin had praised Wagner's activities in Africa, especially in Mali and the Central African Republic. Its operations were expected to continue and even expand.

People carry a body bag away from the wreckage of a crashed private jet, near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia.
News spread on Wednesday evening that a private jet carrying Wagner boss Prighozin had crashedImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Jean-Pierre Mara, a former lawmaker in the Central African Republic, said there was "no question" that Wagner would continue its operations in Africa, as this was also in Russia's best interest.

Win-win relationship for Russia and Wagner

Russian historian Irina Filatova described Russia's relationship with the Wagner Group in Africa as a "win-win situation," with Wagner benefiting from Russia's prestige and Russian weapons and Russia having preferential access to Africa's natural resources.

"The relationship is very much like the pattern of European trading companies in the 19th century," Filatova told DW, drawing parallels to colonial times. 

"They got a mandate from their respective state, acted independently, but the state benefited from their presence in Africa."

Cooperation between the private military and the Russian government occurs, especially where raw materials are abundant, with Wagner controlling the business interests on the continent.

Filatova explained that Russia benefitted from this relationship through Wagner's extensive network of sub-companies: "They can be rebranded or remain under the same name, as they are already a brand in Africa. They can act independently."

Mali's jaw-dropping Wagner bill

Meanwhile, in Mali, there's even more financial entanglement between the government and Wagner and its subsidiaries: In late 2021, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, identified a new military base being built in the country.

Eyewitnesses on the ground then confirmed that the base was for Wagner troops.

On top of this, reports showed that Mali — one of the poorest countries in the world — was spending $10 million (€9 million) a month on Wagner mercenaries, amounting to more than €100 million annually.

Wagner also has a significant stake in Mali's oil sector, effectively controlling the price of fossil fuels for export.

Elsewhere, the group is active in mining other riches, including gold. In recent years, a Canadian and a South African company lost their mining licenses, while a Madagascan company — closely linked to Russia — received a new concession.

How each arm of Wagner may position itself in a potential post-Prigozhin future "is totally unclear," historian Filatova stressed while suggesting that Russia would continue to seek to deepen its influence in Africa.

Mara took it further, explaining that Russia's activities through Wagner in Africa were part of its war strategy in Ukraine: "(Russia) needs the Central African gold, the Malian gold, to finance the war. So nothing will change." 

Martina Schwikowski, Bob Barry, Sandrine Blanchard, Jean-Michel Bos and Mahamadou Kane in Bamako contributed to this article

This article was adapted from German by Chrispin Mwakideu and edited by Sertan Sanderson.

It was first published on June 30, 2023, and updated on August 25, 2023

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