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Wagner’s next act in Africa

How Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s son have rebranded the mercenary group in the Sahel.

By Lisa Klaassen

“There’s a little Russia growing inside Burkina Faso,” a Burkinabe official told me. “First you put down one settlement, somewhere you can speak safely, where you don’t have any Americans or French. Then you multiply, like mushrooms.”  

In the seven months since Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “unclarified” plane crash, a shadowy battle has been playing out to determine the fate of the Wagner Group in Africa. Junta leaders in Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic (CAR) are becoming alarmed about the mercenary group’s atrophy in their countries, not to mention the unclear future of Prigozhin’s commercial empire.

The influence of Prigozhin’s paramilitary force has been steadily rising in central and western Africa since the president of CAR, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, first turned to the “Russian instructors” for security support in 2018. Those plotting coups in the Sahel have welcomed Prigozhin’s offers to prop up shaky regimes with weapons and disinformation in exchange for diamonds and gold. While the West neglected the region, military rulers in Mali, Burkina Faso and, most recently, Niger, have become dependent on “the Company” to remain in power. US government documents leaked last April revealed that Wagner was conspiring with rebels in Chad to overthrow the regime, as part of its scheme to create a “unified ‘confederation’ of African states” stretching over a territorial belt from Guinea to Eritrea.

When Prigozhin staged a mutiny in Russia last June, uncertainty loomed over the military-business network he had meticulously woven across the continent. The fatal crash that claimed his life two months later was expected to disrupt the Wagner machine. Yet since the swaggering warlord’s death, Russia’s security operations in Africa have resurged to a scale and pace unseen since the end of the Cold War.

In an ironic twist, the paramilitary leader’s son, 25-year-old Pavel Prigozhin, has been colluding with the Russian defence ministry and Rosgavardiya – Russia’s National Guard – to centralise Wagner’s operations domestically, and rebrand the group as “Africa Corps” on the continent. The powerplay bears an uncanny likeness to that of Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, whose father was killed by Vladimir Putin’s warlords in Chechnya. Like Ramzan, Pavel is now one of Putin’s biggest beneficiaries.

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Far from being curtailed by the war in Ukraine, Moscow’s hybrid Sahel strategy has been revitalised. While prisoners in CAR are being coerced to repay their debts to Wagner in the form of cannon fodder in Ukraine, the plunder of virgin redwood forests and minerals are providing an economic lifeline for Putin’s war. In Mali, military bases that had been all but abandoned by the company under the late Prigozhin are now undergoing large-scale renovations. In CAR, the Ndassima gold mine – operated by Midas Resources, a Wagner-linked corporation – is steadily expanding.

Little Russia settlements are burgeoning inside Niger and Burkina Faso. The creation of a settlement begins with a thin veil of diplomacy, such as the inauguration of the Russian embassy in Burkina Faso last December, after more than 30 years of closure. A fortnight later, the ribbons of La Maison de la Russie are cut in the capital Ouagadougou, a new “cultural centre” where Russian and African elites could strike deals.

Then from the shadows something more sinister starts to emerge. On 24 January, Africa Corps published the first images of soldiers in Burkina Faso on its Telegram channel. “A Russian contingent of 100 people will ensure the safety of the country’s leader, Ibrahim Traoré, and the Burkinabe people from terrorist attacks,” an accompanying statement reads. “In the near future, units will be replenished with another 200 military personnel from Russia.” And so, the establishment of another Little Russia is complete.

[See also: Anarchy unbound: the new scramble for Africa]

The development of Africa Corps serves the dual purpose of averting a domestic mutiny by the younger Prigozhin, and giving Moscow tabula rasa for its security operations in Africa. The new name offers a much-needed antidote to the Wagner atrocities committed under the group’s “anti-terror” guise. As a result of its devotion to the Stalinist doctrine that it’s people that are the problem, the company has been accused of complicity in the massacre of more than 1,800 African civilians since 2017, according to the Economist, which used data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project NGO. Three Russian journalists investigating Wagner’s Kremlin-backed operations in Africa have been murdered. In Mali alone, terrorist violence against civilians has tripled since 2021, when Wagner began to fill the security vacuum left by France.

Wagner is being funded as Putin’s personal Frankenstein’s monster. In an effort to preserve the militia’s success, Wagner logos, badges and banners continue to festoon soldiers, vehicles, gold mines and other privately owned entities in Mali and CAR. Yet the group’s future existence will largely depend on whether Africa Corps can revive the personal, elite-to-elite loyalties cultivated throughout the region by the larger-than-life elder Prigozhin. When it comes to wooing African kingpins – who rule on patronage-based politics – the ceremonial state visits by Yunus-bek Yevkurov, Russia’s buckram deputy defence minister, have not been successful.

“West Africans like the idea of a Big Man,” a Malian government official told me. “Prigozhin was definitely a Big Man.” As an outgrowth of the way Moscow functions – whereby Russian elites are hierarchised according to their proximity to Putin – the Wagner boss emerged as the linchpin between Russia’s domestic power architecture and foreign operations. It is improbable that the Ministry of Defence will be able to emulate the unconventional warfare honed by Prigozhin when training local armed forces, which was key to Wagner’s success in Africa.

Another pivotal question is what happens to Prigozhin’s lucrative oil, gas, timber and mineral companies. Will they be seized by other oligarchs, his son, or the Russian state? The fate of Evro Polis, a Prigozhin-controlled oil enterprise in Syria that generated a $90m profit in 2020, could be a bellwether for this. Gennady Timchenko, a former KGB operative and billionaire who is alleged to have helped the Russian state evade sanctions via Syrian loan schemes, and a regular Prigozhin business competitor in Syria, is widely believed in Russia to be vying for its ownership with the Russian state. Whether Putin competes with oligarchs for Prigozhin’s empire or works with them will be decisive for the Kremlin.

In January, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced they would withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and form the Alliance of Sahel States. The European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell hinted at Russia’s role in the triad’s withdrawal: “It is very significant that these three states, all of them with military dictatorships, decided to leave the regional body… at the same time that we see the Russian influence increase.” Putin – through Africa Corps – is posturing himself as a security ally and “protector” of those junta-led countries. Others appear to be following. The Chad president Idriss Déby’s January trip to Moscow indicated that Russia is seeking to expand its regional influence by bringing the African nation – despite its close ties with France – closer to the newly formed alliance.

Nonetheless, the extent to which Putin can cajole dictators to his side, especially in international forums like the UN General Assembly, remains uncertain. Mali and CAR abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion on 2 March 2022. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the resolution, in favour of Russia, alongside North Korea, Russia, Belarus and Syria. While the presence of Wagner and now Africa Corps makes it harder for countries to explicitly denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has, so far, not been enough to make them vote resolutely with Russia. On the contrary, most countries with a Russian security presence have repeatedly refrained from taking a side, at the risk of becoming international pariahs.

What all African elites want – regardless of whether they are in democracies or autocracies – is autonomy. Both Putin and Prigozhin have successfully turned Russia into an anti-imperial protector of African countries by riding on a wave of anti-Western sentiment. In most cases, Russia is walking through doors left wide open by former colonial powers. Counter-insurgency operations by France, the US and EU have escalated regional instability by disregarding states’ ethno-political contexts and failing to prioritise the needs of civilians. In 2019, the US established Niger Air Base 201 in the city of Agadez, wilfully ignoring civilian protests. Experts predicted that the drone base would make Niger a target for extremists and heighten government-militia tensions. The unheeded warnings proved accurate. On 16 March, Niger’s junta-led government demanded US military troops leave its territory – the breaking point in the West’s failed Sahel strategy.

“It’s not that we’re pro-Russian or pro-junta,” the Burkinabe official told me. “For me, Wagner symbolises a cry of frustration and desire for change.” New security-for-resources deals struck between elites and Africa Corps will result from the pressures entrenched by extreme poverty, jihadist groups and political instability. The real question is not what Russia will do. It is what the West is choosing not to.

[See also: The Trump bloodbath affair]

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