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Putin’s ally Wagner is poised to further expand militarily and politically across Africa — report

Putin’s ally Wagner is poised to further expand militarily and politically across Africa — report
(Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Grigory Sysoevs / Sputnik) | iStock)

A new report says the Russian private military company has its eyes on Cameroon and Burkina Faso as its next targets.

The sinister Wagner private security company with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin seems poised to further extend its already considerable operations across Africa. 

This warning has been issued in a comprehensive new report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crimes (GI-Toc) entitled The Grey Zone: Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa, written by Julia Stanyard, Thierry Vircoulon and  Julian Rademeyer and supported by Germany’s  Hanns Seidel Foundation.

The authors detail the Wagner Group’s extensive military, economic, political, criminal and disinformation activities, mainly in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Sudan, but also several other countries such as Madagascar. And they caution that Wagner seems to be preparing to explore new frontiers, particularly in Burkina Faso and Cameroon. 

The report suspects Wagner is about to expand into these new countries despite having withdrawn considerable numbers of its troops from Africa to bolster Russia’s stymied effort to seize Ukraine. Wagner was founded and is still run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been described as “Putin’s chef” because he used to provide catering services to the Kremlin. After years of denial, Prigozhin finally admitted his ownership of Wagner in September 2022. The mercenary company has been playing a significant role in Russia’s war against Ukraine, including recruiting convicts to be thrown into the front line as cannon fodder. 

The authors suggest that rather than prompting Wagner to withdraw from Africa, the Ukraine war has given it a new incentive for greater involvement because the money it earns through dodgy mining contracts in countries like CAR and Sudan is helping Russia to offset the economic impact of heavy Western sanctions imposed on it because of the invasion of Ukraine. 

The Grey Zone notes that the US and the European Union and others had already sanctioned Wagner and Prigozhin for their activities in Ukraine and Africa. Last month the US went further, designating Wagner as a “transnational criminal organisation” paving the way for even tougher sanctions. But the authors recommend that other nations should considerably intensify sanctions against Wagner to try to curb its nefarious activities in Africa especially. 

These include “systemic and grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution,” the report says, quoting from a UN report on Wagner’s activities in CAR. But the report notes that other reports have echoed these accusations in Mali and elsewhere. 


Wagner has widely been seen as a deniable proxy for the Russian government in Africa, aggressively advancing Moscow’s interests on the continent, especially in countering the influence of Western countries, particularly France, while allowing Putin’s government to distance itself from the activities. 

“In a few short years, Wagner has become the most influential Russian actor in Africa,” the report says. “Wagner’s engagement in Africa is an example of the interconnection between crime, business and politics, and the group has had a severely detrimental effect on the security of civilians in many of the countries where it operates.”

The authors see the Wagner Group with its complex range of associated companies, as the ultimate example of the way Russian criminal organisations have evolved from the “vory” or violent criminal gangs of the immediate post-Soviet 1990s into “avtoritet”, which are more subtle and complex entities, embedded in legitimate business but also pursuing  illegal activities.  The report says this evolution of criminal organisations in Russia has been accompanied by Putin exerting ultimate control over these enterprises — which were operating quite independently in the Boris Yeltsin era — so that they now essentially act as extensions of the state. 

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The authors say organisations like Wagner serve Putin’s political ends abroad and make their own profits in exchange for achieving Russia’s foreign policy aims in symbiotic relationships. 

“Wagner Group’s operations in Africa can be seen as an extreme example of this trend,” it says while noting that there are several other Russian companies and organisations, including private military companies, also operating on the continent.

The report maps out Wagner’s extensive reach into Africa with a combination of military, economic and political operations. It is operating militarily in CAR, Sudan, Mali and Libya — and was also engaged in Mozambique for just two months in 2019, helping the government fight Islamist insurgents before suffering high casualties and withdrawing. 

Politically and economically, the Wagner group has engaged quite heavily with Madagascar, particularly when it offered money to several candidates in the 2018 presidential elections before settling on the winning candidate Andry Rajoelina. The aim was partly to win mining contracts, the report says.  The report notes that similar operatives have been observed moving back into Madagascar in the run-up to this year’s presidential elections. 

It also lists South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo as countries where Wagner has engaged politically or militarily. It believes Wagner is using Kenya as a transit point for its operations in Sudan and Cameroon as a short route to the sea for its operations — including mineral exports — from CAR. But the report suggests Wagner is eying Cameroon as perhaps another Mali, noting that Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with Cameroon in April 2022 — as it had signed a similar agreement with Mali just before entering the country. 

CAR and Mali are the countries where Wagner has made its most conspicuous interventions. 

In CAR, Wagner has essentially captured the state, providing the military muscle to prop up the shaky regime of Faustin-Archange Touadera against his many rebel enemies, in exchange for considerable mining concessions, some of which were arbitrarily confiscated from other foreign mining companies. Though the report does not mention this, it seems that it was partly because of such an arbitrary seizure of a concession which had been granted to a South African company that the South African government terminated its secret sponsorship of the CAR embassy in Pretoria last December. 

The GI-Toc report notes that in CAR, as elsewhere, Prigozhin-owned companies in the broader Wagner Group stable have reaped the financial rewards. The main one is called Midas Resources. 

“Wagner forces have provided the muscle necessary to defend these economic interests. Local testimony has alleged that Russian mercenaries and CAR troops have violently expelled local miners from the deposits and carried out summary executions around the mining areas granted to Midas.”

One of the political aims which Wagner has been pursuing on behalf of Putin in CAR is to supplant France, the former colonial power, which had exerted considerable influence ever since independence.

That seems to have been Wagner’s political aim also in Mali. French forces saved the country from an Islamist/separatist insurgency from the north in 2012. But the country — or at least the military junta which seized power in two coups in 2020 and 2021 — has not shown much gratitude and has essentially evicted France diplomatically and militarily.

Wagner has moved in to fill the vacuum, deploying troops in November 2021 to help Mali fight the insurgents, with the numbers having now swelled to at least 1,000 the report says. Their arrival has been greeted with many public demonstrations or support for Russia and condemnation of France — though the GI-Toc report suggests these protests might have been staged by Wagner. 

It also cites another piece of political theatre by Wagner — the transmission of a video purportedly showing French troops burying some 350 victims of their own atrocity in a mass grave in the village of Moura. The report says France managed to prove that the video was fake. 

The authors note that Wagner does not seem to have inserted its economic tentacles deeply into Mali — yet. But it notes that Mali can ill-afford the $10-million a month in protection money it is reputedly paying Wagner and so suggests that Mali will soon probably have to pay in kind through mining or other natural resources concessions. 

The Grey Zone suggests that Wagner is likely to repeat the Mali playbook in Burkina Faso. Its elected government has also been ousted by a military junta which is hostile to France and is battling to counter a radical Islamist insurgency. Wagner seems to be sniffing at the door. 

The report also documents the considerable presence of Wagner in Sudan and strongly suggests that it has been a factor in frustrating the country’s stop-start transition to civilian democracy, through its support of the military old guard. It also notes that Wagner has been rewarded for its support with gold mining concessions.

And the report describes Wagner’s intervention in the civil war in Libya, particularly its strong military support for the Benghazi-based strongman Khalifa Haftar when he tried to take Tripoli in 2019. Turkish forces basically saved the Tripoli government then, frustrating Haftar, Wagner and Putin. But the report suggests the Wagner mercenaries are still in the country biding their time.  

The authors make a wide range of recommendations, mostly focussing on the need for increased sanctions against Wagner and for heightened efforts to counter its considerable disinformation campaigns

The report says countries which have not yet done so should consider sanctions against Wagner and other Russian entities and that banks and other financial institutions should also impose sanctions. Western governments should intensify their relationships with vulnerable African countries to counter Wagner’s influence. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Squeeze them until only Iran, North Korea, Israel, Russia, Syria, Dubai and such will provide banking services.

    Good luck to them trying to spend their money with a bank that has no reciprocity anywhere else that is meaningful.

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