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Human rights abuses and anti-democratic disinformation are hallmarks of Wagner, other mercenary groups in Africa

Human rights abuses and anti-democratic disinformation are hallmarks of Wagner, other mercenary groups in Africa

Private military contractors have developed into worldwide high-stakes businesses, with the Wagner Group smuggling gold out of Sudan to the tune of $130bn annually. However, there has been a deafening silence from the African Union and influential states such as South Africa on the activities of Wagner on the continent.

The Wagner Group first emerged after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, the group has fought in Syria, Ukraine and several African countries.

The Wagner Group is a complex network of mercenaries and businesses, rather than a single entity, with close ties to the Russian intelligence and military community. Many private military contractors (PMCs), especially those operating in Africa, such as Wagner, have been accused of mass human rights abuses according to Human Rights Watch. Most notably in Mali, where Wagner fighters were caught by French forces digging a mass grave.

‘Transnational criminal organisation’ classification

Due to the organisation’s illegal activities, the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, on 26 January 2023, in an effort to degrade Russia’s capacity to wage war in Ukraine, classified Wagner as a transnational criminal organisation.

Minerally rich and institutionally poor African states are where Wagner enjoys supremacy.

PMCs, often called “soldiers of fortune” or mercenaries, consist of individuals who participate in military conflicts and related activities on behalf of third parties, who then reimburse them for their services.

Their work ranges from providing hundreds of highly trained combat units equipped with powerful weapons, which include attack helicopters and tanks, to conducting small-scale training missions. 

Sudan’s smuggling mechanisms

Today, PMCs have developed into worldwide high-stakes businesses, with Wagner smuggling gold out of Sudan to the tune of $130-billion annually.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wagner Group mercenaries ‘preparing to take new road to Africa’ after aborted mutiny in Russia

The prospect of economic gain drives the interest of PMCs in many African wars. For example, the majority of Wagner’s operations in Africa relate to security issues, typically operating in countries extraordinarily rich in mineral resources. Minerally rich and institutionally poor African states are where Wagner enjoys supremacy.

The group has often provided paramilitary assistance, security services and conducted disinformation campaigns for troubled regimes in exchange for diplomatic support and resource concessions.

Russian mercenaries have been accused of exploiting Africa’s mineral resources in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and elsewhere, in many instances acting on behalf of the Kremlin (as Vladimir Putin admitted to providing Wagner with 86-billion rubles to carry out specialist operations in locations where Wagner enjoys a presence; namely CAR, Ukraine and Mali).

According to a report by The Sentry released in June 2023, Russia delivered the first shipment of weapons to the CAR using a Russian military aircraft, alongside five military and 170 Russian instructors, revealed to be Wagner personnel in 2018.

Funding a Kremlin war machine

According to the US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Wagner Group of mercenaries has exploited these resources to fund the Kremlin’s war machine in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine.

For example, says The Sentry, the group has potentially been able to use its transactional networks in Russia, Madagascar, CAR, Cameroon and Sudan to build and operate an industrial-scale gold exploitation unit. 

A special report by The Soufan Center, released in June 2023, shows that approximately 90% of Sudan’s gold is smuggled out of the country, primarily through the United Arab Emirates.

In essence, PMCs are highly controversial and operate like multinational corporations do, with branches in major capital cities across the world, and are not easily distinguished from state or national military forces.

Criminal warfare HQ?

Furthermore, 30 of the most powerful PMCs have headquarters in cities such as London and Pretoria. Therefore, the use of PMCs has enabled states to carry out otherwise criminal warfare and blame it on PMCs, a concept known as “plausible deniability”. Russia is guilty of this, initially denying any relation to Wagner, with the emergence of news that Wagner has inflicted war crimes in African states such as Mali and CAR.

This has incentivised foreign powers that desire influence in the political and economic affairs of African states to use PMCs to accomplish their goals and gain access to mineral resources, as it is always easier to acquire resources in states plagued by violence and instability.

PMCs such as Dyck Advisory Group and Executive Outcomes have also gained access to minerals in African states such as Mali and Mozambique.

Wagner has targeted and discredited democratic NGOs and run disinformation campaigns. The Internet Resource Agency, also owned by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, outsourced work to individuals in Ghana and Nigeria to inflame political divisions online ahead of the 2016 presidential elections in the US.

Similarly, the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (Afric), has also sponsored phoney “election monitoring” in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Both the IRA and Afric have worked alongside Wagner.

Hampering a democratic culture

This hampers a robust democratic culture from taking shape, one that could put an end to violence and restore stability. 

According to The Soufan Center, Wagner’s disinformation operations have increasingly sought to undermine western actors in the region, including the UN and its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, as well as former colonial power, France.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A dangerous moment for West Africa as Niger coup fuels escalation of regional jihadist wars

Wagner’s human rights abuses intersected with its disinformation campaign when it tried to blame French forces for a massacre in Moura.

The increased flow of arms between PMCs, authoritarian governments and various non-state actors has had a detrimental impact on establishing peace. The outbreak of violence between Sudanese forces and Rapid Support Forces saw Wagner arming Sudanese forces with missiles, fuelling the proliferation of the conflict.

A special report by The Soufan Center, released in June 2023, shows that approximately 90% of Sudan’s gold is smuggled out of the country, primarily through the United Arab Emirates.

In particular, the Wagner Group shoulders much of the responsibility for the spread of small arms in the CAR, Mali and Sudan. As more citizens and non-state actors feel emboldened by the acquisition of weapons to engage in armed conflict against the state, air grievances and gain access to mineral wealth, this raises the risk of armed violence.

It is evident that the presence of PMCs in Africa has not been beneficial, especially to the civilians who live in regions where these groups operate.

Deafening silence

However, there has been a deafening silence from the African Union (AU) and influential states such as South Africa on the activities of Wagner on the continent. These activities undoubtedly pose a significant challenge to the AU’s efforts in “silencing the guns 2020”, and broader peace and security efforts as espoused in the AU’s Agenda 2063.

Several frameworks exist to eliminate mercenarism in Africa. 

One such framework is the 1977 Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa signed in Libreville, Gabon. Another is the UN’s 1989 International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.

A recent report by The Sentry recommends that the AU should continue to call for the withdrawal of private mercenaries in Africa. 

The report also recommends that the AU Commission accelerate the revision of the OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, adopted in 1977 and entered into force in 1985.

Africa is never short of frameworks; it is in implementation where the work needs to be done. DM

Shaun Kinnes and Keanen Isaacs are 2023 Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Scholars at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

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