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Prigozhin Is Gone, But Wagner’s Power in Africa Is Only Growing
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death on Aug. 23 caused many journalists to cast doubt over the future of the Wagner Group’s leadership, and specifically the private military company’s operations in Africa. Questions remain over who will succeed Prigozhin and whether the group can thrive with its charismatic leader gone. Some media outlets wonder whether Wagner will continue to exist as a single, coherent paramilitary group.
But claims that Prigozhin’s death will have a profound impact on the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa fail to consider the adaptability of Wagner’s business model. Wagner shapes its interests and goals to fit each country’s unique context. Its flexible approach to operations in different African countries ensures that Wagner will continue to succeed.
Further, Moscow has an explicit interest in Wagner’s success. The group operates as an informal extension of the Russian state in Africa. It allows Moscow to exert its influence abroad without official state military involvement and without taking accountability for the group’s actions. Wagner will continue to extend Russian foreign policy into Africa, cultivating relations with national leaders and securing access to raw materials, including gold and diamonds.
Russia relies on its relationships with African leaders to bolster its broader foreign policy goals and to maintain strategic positioning at international institutions such as the United Nations. Moscow will not allow these benefits to be lost just because the Wagner Group is being restructured.
The Strategic Importance of Russia in Africa
Shortly after Prigozhin’s death, outlets such as Voice of America and The Economist stated that Wagner’s activities in Russia would be disrupted while the Kremlin searched for Prigozhin’s replacement. They reported that potential successors lacked the foreign contacts and connections needed to maintain Wagner’s influential position in Africa. The Economist claimed that Wagner’s activities are “a cake that is now being carved up.”
This reporting implies a fragility to Wagner’s operations in Africa. It interprets Wagner as Prigozhin’s empire and contends that without him at the helm, Wagner’s infrastructure will come crumbling down. But the Wagner Group is a resilient organization. Its extensive, flexible operations will continue.
The Russian state draws African counterparts away from the West by invoking its historical anti-colonial position and by offering attractive services to African actors. Wagner’s deployments in Africa are key to this approach, as they help bring African leaders in line with the Kremlin’s foreign policy. The Wagner Group – and by extension, Russia – is willing to operate in places where the West is either pulling its resources or is largely disinterested. This makes Wagner’s counterterrorism and security services attractive to African governments. A significant example of this can be seen in the aftermath of France’s military withdrawal from the Sahel. African states in the region now choose to partner with Wagner, which is eager to expand its influence throughout the continent.
Wagner’s strategic position in Africa gives Russia access to Africa’s raw materials and allows it to build relationships in the Global South. Indeed, there is already evidence of Russia’s foreign policy making its way into the voting patterns of African states at the United Nations. When the U.N. General Assembly held a vote in February calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, notable African states with Wagner involvement abstained, including Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Moscow will continue using Wagner’s involvement in Africa to expand the Kremlin’s international influence by compelling African partners to vote with Russia on key U.N. resolutions.
Wagner’s Adaptive Business Model
What makes Wagner’s business model uniquely suited to support Russia’s foreign policy is the group’s lack of a specific playbook. In the Central African Republic and Mali, Wagner provides counterterrorism forces and personal security details for government officials. Its network in these countries is deeply entrenched. It has withstood external pressure caused by the war in Ukraine, and it has weathered increasing economic pressure from the West encouraging African countries to cut ties with Wagner.
The Wagner Group arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2018. Its mission was to protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who employed Wagner personnel as his personal guards, and to fight increasing rebel activities. The Wagner Group was CAR’s best option at the time. French troops had withdrawn at the end of Paris’ Operation Sangaris military intervention, but the Central African Republic still faced widespread violent clashes with rebel groups – clashes U.N. peacekeepers failed to quell. Since their arrival, more than 1,500 Wagner troops have trained local security forces and helped the CAR army repel armed rebel groups from major towns. In exchange for this support, CAR awarded gold and diamond mining rights to Prigozhin-linked companies including Invest. Within a few years, Wagner made CAR a “military hub” for its organization, establishing a foothold in Africa.
Despite a rumored departure of Wagner troops following Prigozhin’s June mutiny in Russia, hundreds of Wagner personnel were redeployed to CAR in July 2023. Their assignment was to help Touadéra secure a constitutional referendum that would remove the presidential two-term limit, allowing him to run for a third term.
Despite Prigozhin’s death, Wagner’s domination of mining operations in CAR and its entrenched troop presence in the country will continue. Wagner will exploit CAR’s natural resources for profit, while the Kremlin utilizes the group’s presence as a springboard to closer relations with Touadéra.
In Mali, decreasing Western engagement has created a power vacuum. Malian officials, who are limited in their capacity to fight a growing jihadist threat, have few options but to turn to Wagner to fill the void in the security sector. As of June 2023, 1,000 Wagner troops are believed to be on the ground to train Malian forces, provide security assurances, and carry out counterterrorism missions against jihadist armed groups in northern and central Mali.
In exchange for this support, Wagner is paid $10.8 million monthly and has been given access to three mining sites. Under the guise of providing security, Wagner has thus exploited rising instability in Mali to secure access to mining operations for its own financial gain. Wagner further uses its presence in Mali to strengthen ties with Malian officials and promote Russia’s foreign policy. It will continue to do so.
Sudan shows another example of Wagner’s adaptability. The group entered Sudan at the request of President Omar al-Bashir. It has since exploited gold concessions and gained control of gold-processing plants. In these activities, Wagner formed ties with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In turn, Hemedti protected Russian merchants engaged in gold-buying operations and defended Russia’s gold-processing plant.
During this time, Wagner personnel advised Sudanese government officials on economic development and financial sector reforms. They also trained local forces and provided protection for officials.
Wagner has adapted to rapid and persistent changes in Sudan, benefiting from unrest and state failure. After al-Bashir was ousted in 2019, Wagner maintained close ties with the RSF, offering military assistance and support, and even supplying the RSF with missiles to fight against the Sudanese Armed Forces. Shortly before his death, Prigozhin met with a delegation of RSF commanders who brought a gift of gold bars to thank him for his support in the fight against the Sudanese Armed Forces. Despite Prigozhin’s death, Wagner has already cemented a powerful relationship with the Rapid Support Forces, and these ties will likely remain strong as Russia seeks to expand its influence in Africa.
New Opportunities for Wagner in Africa
As the West focuses its attention on priorities elsewhere, Wagner will continue to expand its influence in Africa. It will sustain operations in countries such as CAR and Mali, while also forming new relationships with African leaders.
France’s withdrawal from CAR, completed in December 2022, came amid growing friction between the two countries and increased anti-French sentiment engineered by Moscow. Meanwhile, the announcement that U.N. peacekeepers will fully withdraw from Mali opens the door for continued Wagner troop presence in that country. Russia has pledged to continue its support in Mali, further signaling that Wagner will stay. Russia will not allow fallout from the death of Prigozhin to jeopardize its standing in Bamako.
This year, Wagner forces have been seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they were providing troop support amid renewed fighting in the country’s east. Following a seizure of land by Tutsi rebels near the border with Rwanda and Uganda, the DRC’s army reengaged, and it has suffered heavy losses. Wagner is exploiting a deteriorating security situation in the DRC, using instability in the region to expand its influence on the continent.
If Not Prigozhin, What’s Next?
In the wake of Prigozhin’s death, Russia is looking for a new leader who can serve as a public figurehead while the group’s business continues to expand across Africa. Russia aims to show there is no break in Wagner operations during this transition period, and that Wagner’s influence in Africa will not decline.
Shortly after Prigozhin’s death, a Russian delegation led by Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov met with Khalifa Haftar in Libya, then continued to Burkina Faso and held talks with interim President Ibrahim Traore. Russia wants African partners to be assured of its commitment to the continent, and will continue to offer this assurance.
Wagner’s presence in Africa continues to benefit from Western preoccupation outside the continent. U.N. and French withdrawal from the continent demonstrate that the West has no interest in expending resources to support African partners, instead focusing on areas such as the war in Ukraine. Wagner offers security support that African governments desperately need in the face of rising instability.
As Russia uses Wagner to build relationships with African leaders, Russian power in Africa pushes against Western priorities. The West should prioritize improving security in Africa and building personal relationships with African leaders. This would provide those leaders with an alternative to Wagner, thereby reducing Russian influence across the continent.