The future of the Wagner group in Africa after Prigogine's death

The Kremlin's confirmation of Yevgeny Prigogine's death in recent weeks has raised concerns in a number of African capitals, including Tripoli, Bangui, and Bamako.
18 September 2023
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Mohammad Nik-Khah

The Kremlin's confirmation of Yevgeny Prigogine's death in recent weeks has raised concerns in a number of African capitals, including Tripoli, Bangui, and Bamako. In the past few years, Wagner Group has cooperated with almost half of the countries of this continent, including Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Mali, Central African Republic, Niger, Chad, etc., using the security gaps in the African continent. It is predicted that when the leader of this group dies, at least 5,000 of this group's forces, mostly mercenaries and military bases, and a complex network of various trade, smuggling, and security companies and gangs in the countries of the Black Continent from relatively stable areas of the continent such as Ghana and Nigeria until unstable areas such as Sudan and Libya are present. However, this presence and influence have been much stronger in countries such as Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Mali.

The civil war in Libya was the entrance of the Wagner Group to Africa. Wagner members have been fighting alongside Khalifa Belqasim Haftar since 2014, and by 2020, there were about 2,000 Wagner forces in Libya, playing a key role in Haftar's attempt to capture Tripoli in 2019 and 2020. Although the number of Wagner forces decreased a bit in Libya after the Ukrainian war, and some of them directly joined the war fronts in Ukraine, the Russian army and the Wagner group still have two separate bases in this country. On the other side, Russian-affiliated forces, including Khalifa Haftar, do not see much of a future for themselves without the help of the Russians and the Wagner group.

In Sudan, the Wagner Group has cooperated with the Sudanese security forces since the time of Omar al-Bashir. The Americans have accused Wagner in Sudan of bypassing Sudan's sanctions and smuggling large amounts of gold from Sudan to Russia, and in 2020, they added the Wagner group to the list of sanctions related to Sudan. In 2023, the Americans claimed that there is a strong trace of Wagner in the recent conflicts in Sudan, and this group in the latest action by sending significant amounts of ammunition, including surface-to-air missiles for Sudan's rapid reaction forces fighting against its army, bypassing international efforts to establish a ceasefire between the parties involved in Sudan and continue the conflict.

In Mali, according to reports, the West African country's military and the Wagner group signed a contract in 2021 to support operations against radical Islamists, which coincided with the increase of Russian weapons in Mali. According to the contract, 1,000 to 1,500 Wagner fighters entered Mali country for $ 10 million a month by the Bamako government to hold Wagner Holding. Wagner's presence in Mali, beyond the fight against armed extremists, caused serious changes in the shape and positions of the Mali government, and Bamako gradually adopted an anti-French attitude until, in 2022, citing concerns about Wagner and other diplomatic tensions, France decided to retreat and removed more than 2,000 of his troops from Mali, who were stationed in the region under the fight against terrorism.

In the Central African Republic, the Wagner group first imported some of its fighters under the pretext of supporting the president of this country against the rebels. These forces, which initially started working as Russian advisers, increased rapidly, and according to reports, the number of Wagner Holding forces in this country reached 1,890 this year. After the victories of the Central African Republic government, the Wagner group was able to gain unprecedented control over the gold reserves of this African country and transfer significant amounts of this gold to Russia, which played a very important role in maintaining the negative effects of the sanctions on the Russian ruble. In addition, the unrestricted exploitation that the Central African Republic government had given to the companies covered by Wagner for cutting down tropical trees and the trade of expensive and rare wood of these trees brought a lot of profit to Wagner Holding. The companies affiliated with this group also, in a short period of time, with the support of the Central African Republic government, were able to compete with the old French companies regarding the supply of sugar and established the first factory for the production of alcoholic beverages and beer with a high export capacity in this African country.

This presence, which in Western circles is referred to as Russia's malignant influence in Africa, especially after the Ukraine war, has been in much higher coordination with Moscow's goals in challenging the interests of the West in Africa and deepening Russia's influence in the countries of this continent. Although Russia had military and weapons cooperation agreements with at least 18 African countries before the Ukraine war, the presence of this group has been able to significantly increase the need for Russian weapons and security in Africa. The activity of this group is considered one of the effective factors in the negative and abstaining vote of at least 24 African countries to the Western anti-Russian resolution after the Ukraine war.

However, the concern for the African countries associated with Wagner began when Prigogine formed a rebellion on the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war and subsequently fell into the displeasure of the Kremlin. After this rebellion, Putin's orders that Wagner's mercenaries should either return to their homes, go to Belarus, or be recruited into the Russian army raised doubts among some African leaders that Moscow's lack of support for Wagner might be dangerous for them and they become weak against domestic and foreign opponents who have been involved in war with them by relying on the support of this group.

However, until the death of Prigogine, there was at least this hope for the Africans associated with this group that Putin had only suspended Wagner's military activities on the fronts of Ukraine and inside Russia and that Russia's cooperation with Wagner outside Russia's borders, including Africa, will continue. Especially since the Wagner group had warned African leaders many times that their fighters were funded only by Wagner Holding and not by Russia, all this made the Africans hope that a compromise would be formed in the Kremlin, whereby Prigogine would be able to maintain control and ultimate responsibility for operations in Africa, even from his place of exile in Belarus.

But the sudden and suspicious death of Prigogine, along with his successor and some of the most key elements of the group in an aviation accident inside Russia, has added to the serious uncertainties of African countries related to this group, especially the leaders who interacted and cooperated with Wagner more than others because they know that the interests of Russia and this group in Africa are so intertwined that it is not possible to separate them easily and in a short time. In addition, the conflict between these interests and the interests of the West in Africa has been so strong that in the absence of this group, it will surely face serious retaliation by the West. This may have dangerous consequences for all those who facilitated and collaborated with Wagner's entry into Africa.

Part of these uncertainties directly relates to Wagner's mercenary forces' presence in Africa, the question of whether their financing is finished in the middle of the battle and they cannot receive wages or if they are left without sufficient support in countries that are facing themselves suffering from poverty, civil wars, and rebellions, what will be the reaction of these warlords, who are mainly selected from criminals and convicts and sent to Africa? Will they return to their countries or integrate into African society, or will they be attracted by local extremist groups?

The next uncertainty is how the power vacuum created for some of these governments will be filled. For example, while Mali country is surrounded by extremism in the desert and the French forces and even the UN forces have left this country, how will this power vacuum be compensated in the absence of Wagner's forces? Especially when the extremist armed opposition is excited again, or the Westerners want to avenge the past.

Another problem is the interests of the parties that were obtained through formal and informal contracts and relationships with Wagner Holding. A significant part of these interests included non-national and gaming tables where Russian oligarchs and mafia sat on one side and local African influencers on the other. What will be the future of these interests is a question that probably revolves in the minds of the related Africans. In this regard, the fate of many companies that were formed by Wagner or jointly by this group with African governments and influential people is one of the most important concerns, especially since many of these interests are out of the grasp of Western companies and people, and many of them lack valid contracts due to the form of Wagner's activities and are based on personal relationships with local African influencers.

Although Russian officials, including the Minister of Defense, have keyed trips and movements to African countries to reassure their allies that everything is not over with the death of Prigogine and even the name of the big arms dealer Viktor Bout has been proposed as his successor, but according to Prigogine charismatic personality, it seems that Wagner's group will not be able to play the same role if it survives. This importance is not hidden from the eyes of the Africans, who have seen him many times with suitcases full of money and loads of weapons that he personally distributed among the members of his group.

In the event of the complete collapse of the Wagner group in Africa, it is not clear what will happen to some African leaders, elites, and activists who have worked with this group. The basic question is whether Russia will be able to fill Wagner's vacant position in relations with African allies.

Mohammad Nikkhah, a senior expert at the IPIS

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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