Roll over Prigozhin – here comes Paul Kagame

Roll over Prigozhin – here comes Paul Kagame
epa10363640 President of Rwanda Paul Kagame delivers remarks at the U.S. Africa Space Forum during the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, USA, 13 December 2022. The U.S-Africa Leaders Summit brings together heads of state, government officials, business leaders, and civil society to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Africa. EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW

Wagner’s African adventurism was neatly summed up when Russian TV, set loose to insult Yevgeny Prigozhin in the wake of the failed putsch, labelled him the ‘wannabe Robin Hood west who was robbing the hood’. The leader who stands to gain most if Wagner’s African empire is weakened is Rwanda’s strongman, President Paul Kagame.

The news from Bangui is that hundreds of Wagners have left during the past couple of weeks, presumably shipped back to Russia. This would indicate that Russia needs every experienced fighter it can deploy to keep the dam from breaking in Ukraine. 

It might also explain why Prigozhin is walking around in Moscow, even taking his commanders to meet with Vladimir Putin, after being branded a traitor – and has not fallen out of a window yet.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Prigozhin’s rebellion has thrown future of Wagner drive, Russian influence in Africa into doubt

As the fate of the mercenary entrepreneur continues to baffle Kremlin watchers, the leader who stands to gain most if Wagner’s African empire is weakened is Rwanda’s strongman, President Paul Kagame.

Wagner’s critical selling point in those places where Jihadists have launched brutal insurgencies is that they are prepared to go where others fear to tread – especially since the decline of French military power on the continent.

But Rwanda has shown greater military professionalism and success in some of the worst conflict zones.

Servicemen from Wagner Group ride in downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on 24 June 2023. Security and armoured vehicles were deployed after Wagner Group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video that his troops had occupied the headquarters of the Southern Military District, demanding a meeting with Russia’s defence chiefs. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ARKADY BUDNITSKY)

Duplicate business models?

And yet the business models of Rwanda and Wagner are not that dissimilar: both are developing commercial empires off their military foothold.

A report last week from the International Crisis Group on the Central African Republic, where both Rwandan and Wagner forces are on ground, details how Kigali has forged these economic partnerships.

In 2020, 1,000 men from Rwanda joined forces with Wagner and remnants of the Central African Republic (CAR) army to repel a rebel attack on Bangui. The Rwandans won popular support for this victory, and for reopening the Bangui-Beloko Road, the main artery connecting the CAR to Cameroon, the country’s key access to the sea.

Following this counteroffensive, according to the Crisis Group, the Rwandans and Wagner carved out separate areas of control. The Rwandans chose Damara and Bokoko, close to their business enterprises, and not too far from the Wagner base at Berengo.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wagner mercenaries have entirely captured Central African Republic, The Sentry report finds

President of Rwanda Paul Kagame EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW|Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Kagame managed to get Rwandans appointed to key UN positions such as the Secretary General’s Special Representative to the CAR and head of the police of Minusca (a real mouthful – that’s the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic).

Kigali housed its commercial projects with Crystal Ventures, a holding company owned by Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, with assets valued at $500-million.

More than 100 Rwandan firms produce consumer goods such as mineral water and yoghurt, and hold stakes in transport, logistics, restaurants, hotels, real estate and public infrastructure projects.

Rwandan national Airline RwandAir has twice-weekly flights to Bangui.

In Lobaye and Ombella-M’Poko prefectures, CAR nationals manage farms bought by Rwandans. A regular flow of Rwandan immigrants is moving to the CAR, particularly former soldiers returning as settlers.

Replicated Mozambique model

Kagame has replicated this model in Mozambique where Rwanda sent 1,000 troops and police to Cabo Delgado in July 2021 to help crush the Islamist insurgency and where Wagner had taken a mauling 18 months earlier and withdrawn. 

Rwandan troops have since been strategically deployed to protect the ruby and graphite industries further south.

Crystal Ventures runs engineering, construction and consumer goods companies in Mozambique – and has interests in local mining.

In the CAR, the clash of interests has led to ill-feeling between the Rwandans and Wagner mercenaries. Rwandans have refused to patrol with the Russians, and a few encounters last year nearly erupted into armed conflict. The Crisis Group warned of the danger of armed confrontation between the two forces.

The Group has also warned against the dual purpose of the Rwandan operations in CAR – providing security while seeking a profit – and the Rwandan presence has created tension with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kinshasa suspects the patrols to be a cover for supplying M23 rebels in eastern DRC, who are regarded as a creation of the Rwandan state.

It’s a fair bet to say that Rwanda and its budding commercial wings will continue to expand across the continent, especially if Wagner is now largely out of the game.

French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to persuade Kagame to come to the assistance of other Francophone nations after Rwanda helped rescue Total Energies’ massive $20-billion Liquified Natural Gas project in Mozambique.

Wagner Group servicemen in downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on 24 June 2023. Armoured vehicles were deployed after Wagner Group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said his troops had occupied the headquarters of the Southern Military District. (Photo: EPA-EFE/STRINGER)

Rwanda’s role

In the Joe Biden era of realpolitik, Rwanda is regarded as a “strategic partner” of the US. Wagner claims that the US is using Rwanda to eliminate the Russian presence in Africa.

During the Cold War, the Americans used to say that Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of Zaire, was a “sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch” – the difference now is that it’s hard to view Kagame as anyone’s sonofabitch.

Many in the business community in the West see Rwanda, which will have a growth rate of more than 9% this year, as one of Africa’s great success stories.

But pro-democracy activists have a very different take on a country that runs a de facto one-party state, has perpetrated killings in neighbouring DRC, and assassinates its political opponents in foreign countries.

As we can see from Sudan – where the world is witnessing ethnic cleansing in Darfur in real time without being able to stop it – international powers are not rushing to fill the security vacuum in the Sahel and Central Africa. That’s how Africa got Wagner in the first place.

The fact that so many are willing to overlook the dark side of Rwanda and embrace its role as a regional policeman, tells us that the international community has few answers about how to protect those parts of the continent where villages are being burnt, children abducted, women and girls raped, and 20,000 Africans slaughtered every year. DM


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