It is easy to understand what African rulers see in the mercenary group Wagner. Its fighters can be deployed quickly. It brings sophisticated arms with it and can apply force speedily and ruthlessly.
Alternative sources of military muscle have flaws: United Nations missions lack robust mandates; African Union (AU) forces lack the arms and motivation; European Union interveners bear the legacy of colonial repression. The US has little interest in Africa beyond supporting fights against Salafi terrorists.
The Wagner Group was set up by Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2014 as a private military company to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine that year. For over a decade, Prigozhin could not operate without Russian president Vladimir Putin’s permission. During this period the interests of Russia and Wagner might have differed – but they did not compete and they heavily overlapped.
Of course, the Wagner rebellion that began on 23 June 2023 – after this article was first drafted – and then fizzled out makes Wagner’s future in Africa highly uncertain.
Since completing my dissertation on Soviet-American competition in Africa in 1992, I have followed the great power competition on the continent. This has included the slowly escalating Sino-American competition in Africa over the past 20 years. I was re-alerted to the “return” of Russia to Africa in preparing a textbook, Africa’s International Relations, published in 2018.
Based on this experience my view is that Wagner is likely to continue to bring misery to the African continent in multiple forms. No outsiders are likely to stop it. Its presence will continue also because individual African actors, state and non-state, benefit from its presence. Its utility to certain regimes helps explain the African Union’s conspicuous silence on the menace it poses. The passivity towards Wagner also reflects a deeper ambivalence about Russia and Russian imperialism.
Overall, Wagner has done nearly nothing to make life better for Africans: its activities have served to entrench dictators and undermine democracies; to extend and deepen civil conflicts; to murder innocent civilians; to exploit natural resources for Russia’s gain; and to vilify the only alternative that Africans have to China for investment.
This means that, in due course, the AU and responsible African governments are likely to resent Wagner’s presence and regret their failure to oppose it.
Wagner has helped abusive regimes maintain power on the continent.
It assisted Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir to train troops, guard resources and suppress dissent between 2017 and his overthrow in April 2019.
Wagner joined the civil war in Libya in October 2018, eventually sending in over 1,000 troops to assist the rebel leader Khalifa Hiftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces. This is Russia’s clearest violation of international law in deploying Wagner. Wagner’s use of mines and booby traps, which killed many civilians, also violated laws of war.
In the Central African Republic (CAR) Wagner has engaged in direct combat with a coalition of rebels. According to a leading research centre, 40% of combat engagements between December 2020 and July 2022 involved Wagner.
In Mozambique the government has hired Wagner to fight an al-Shabaab-linked group.
Russia and Wagner are involved in the civil war that broke out in Sudan in April this year.
Everywhere it goes, Wagner has been indifferent to human life, indiscriminately killing civilians as well as Islamic militants and other insurgents. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project research group found that between 52% and 71% of Wagner’s uses of force in the CAR and Mali targeted civilians.
There are a number of reasons for this involvement.
Firstly, the Russian government has been on the lookout for military bases in Africa. Even before Wagner first got involved in Africa in 2017, Russia already had military cooperation agreements with 18 African countries. These have ranged from democracies like Ghana and Nigeria to ungoverned Eastern Libya, which has become a logistics hub for Russia as well as Wagner.
Secondly, Russia is using is redoubtable propaganda apparatus to spread misinformation about the US and Europe in Africa in support of the Ukraine war.
Thirdly, the motive is profit. Aside from the government payments it receives, Wagner has negotiated agreements for exclusive access to gold, diamonds and uranium resources in several places it operates in. These include the CAR, Mali and Sudan.
A vacuum of opposition
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.
Nor is there likely to be collective pressure under the umbrella of the AU. It can only organise collective action – as it did against apartheid – when there is a broad consensus on an issue.
The same analysis applies to Africa’s numerous regional economic communities. These have recently taken a larger role in security, but none has taken an anti-Wagner stance.
On top of this is the ambivalence of a number of African countries towards Russia. Twenty-four African states either abstained or were absent for the UN General Assembly Resolution that condemned Russia’s illegal annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine.
Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia all voted in favour.
What about Africa’s leading regional powers? Ethiopia and Nigeria are influential enough to matter. But each is too preoccupied with internal problems to take up the matter.
Only South Africa could take a stand against Wagner. But it won’t. The African National Congress, which rules South Africa, has a deep nostalgia for Soviet assistance during the apartheid days. South African elites also value both Russia and China as counterbalances to the perceived western dominance that they still loathe. And the country relishes the prestige that comes with membership in the BRICS group.
Nor is there likely to be any effective international mobilisation against Wagner. This is because western condemnation would go unheard or even backfire. As Joseph Sany, an esteemed peace-building expert at the US Institute of Peace, observed recently: “Western condemnation of immoral Russian violence and corruption” is tone deaf because it’s “tainted with hypocrisy by the west’s history in the continent.
The US, in any case, has few options to deter Wagner as American leaders are rarely focused on the continent. And France has increasingly withdrawn from Africa.
The only relevant external great power for Africa is China. But, in my view, China will play no role in constraining Wagner. For the time being, at least, the Ukraine War has made Russia and China allies. In addition, China has extensive business interests, particularly sourcing minerals from Francophone and Lusophone African states.
Lastly, China has been deploying its own private security companies on the continent, mainly to secure access to minerals. These organisations are not yet directly involved in politics, like Wagner, but their presence serves to legitimise further the use of private security companies.