What the Failed Wagner Mutiny Means for Africa

What the Failed Wagner Mutiny Means for Africa

What the Failed Wagner Mutiny Means for Africa

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary army might have been disbanded in Russia, but in Africa—where the group props up dictators, extracts mineral wealth, and siphons off billions from legitimate business—Wagner’s siren song is far from silent.


The abortive rebellion in Russia by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Private Military Corporation (PMC) Wagner didn’t only leave Vladimir Putin wondering about his grip on power. Across the African continent, from the steaming jungles of the Central African Republic (CAR) to the deserts of Libya, presidents and generals were left wondering, panicking, even, about what would happen to the Wagner Group. This was in large part because Prigozhin’s band of mercenaries have become an integral part of many of the continent’s fighting forces. On June 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took to the state-funded broadcaster RT to reassure African leaders that they would not lose their fighting forces. “The governments of CAR and Mali have official contacts with our leadership. At their request, several hundred soldiers are working in CAR as instructors,” Lavrov said. “That work will continue.”

But in Syria, where the group also operates, several Wagner commanders were apprehended by Russian military police. On Friday, June 30, Wagner troops also showed they were vulnerable when they were hit by drone strike in Libya. Reportedly, a Turkish-made drone popular with the Tripoli-based government had been use to hit Wagner’s al-Kharruba air base. No casualties were reported and the Tripoli government has denied involvement.

Almost no one—perhaps even Putin himself—truly yet knows what will become of the mercenary force in the wake of Prigozhin’s mutiny, or of the web of businesses that it has developed on the African continent in the wake of Prigozhin’s rebellion, but it’s clear some kind of deal has been struck. (Since the mutiny, Prigozhin has reportedly been in Russia, picking up weapons he owns and has released messages thanking supporters on Telegram.) On Monday this week, the Kremlin acknowledged that Putin and Prigozhin met in person for three hours only five days after the mutiny, and a piece in Bloomberg News suggested that the Russian government had allowed Wagner to keep some of its operations in Africa, citing two unnamed sources with knowledge of the discussions.

Among analysts, security consultants and Washington observers, the consensus is that the status quo—the Russian government’s monopoly on force—has been severely weakened. But no one believes that Wagner in Africa is going anywhere for the time being—even if some of its mercenaries have divided their loyalties. Perhaps the company will undergo something of a rebrand as Moscow seeks to consolidate its control over the company, or perhaps little will change, because, indeed, little can change.

“I think we’re going to have to wait and see,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, an NGO that monitors conflicts. “Wagner operations in Africa will continue. We don’t know in what shape or form, but generally we can assume that the Wagner operations in Africa have been very useful for the Kremlin, not just as a foreign policy tool, but also as a means of generating revenue.”

Authoritarian leaders in Africa have found that they can enjoy military, logistical, and media support from Russia for their regimes without hewing to any particular domestic political agenda. Russia asks merely for access to resources and support at international forums, like the United Nations. “They use a similar playbook as the Chinese,” a US government contractor who has worked on Russian influence in Africa told me, pointing to Beijing’s successful powerplays in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “They say, ‘We’re not going to do anything political. We’re not going to interfere in your domestic policy,’” he continued. “They just say, ‘We’ll give you money and military support, and you give us mineral rights.’” The United States, he said, is seen by African leaders to be promoting anti-corruption efforts in countries where the politically involved benefit from corruption, and social issues like LGBTQ+ rights, which rankle the continent’s socially conservative mainstream.

The Doctrine of Maskirovka

No one group has exemplified Moscow’s ascendency in Africa as much as Wagner. The private army, which was founded in 2014, has since been used by the Kremlin in order to fulfill strategic objectives abroad at arm’s length without becoming directly implicated. On June 27, Putin announced that Wagner was paid $1 billion in one year alone out of the Russian defense and state budget—something that Prigozhin had already announced but the Kremlin kept quiet about. “It was really applying what the Russians call the doctrine of maskirovka, which means camouflage—I say something and I do the opposite,” Federica Saini Fasanotti, a nonresident scholar in foreign policy with the Brookings Institution, told me. “And it worked very well. So now Wagner could be substituted or repositioned, it changes its name or so on, but I think that it will be very difficult to see the Russian army operating there”—Africa, that is—“it’s not their style.” Besides, she continued, the Russian army most probably “cannot at the moment afford to make such a move to Africa, because at this point they are fighting for their own existence. They will never send their own soldiers to Africa, so they need contractors. And this is just thinking aloud, but probably this is one of the reasons that Prigozhin is still alive.”

The company’s operations in Africa have also burnished Wagner’s image at home, which often subsisted on a positive feedback loop with Moscow’s propaganda machine. “This patriotic public, they want to be a superpower. So the fact that Russia is present in Africa, it adds to the feeling that we’re a great empire, which they are longing for,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who has now left Russia and broken with the Kremlin. “Wagner is an operator of this process. So they are treated with respect.”

The group’s operations on the continent are dizzying in their array. Wagner has operated in some 13 African countries, including Mozambique, where it failed to dislodge Islamists; Sudan, where it provided training and support for a paramilitary group that is now trying to overthrow the government; Libya, where it was hired by the United Arab Emirates to fight for a warlord; and Madagascar, where it allegedly helped the current president win power using Internet techniques and bots. (In Russia, Prigozhin also founded the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” that was accused of being a center of Russian disinformation during the 2016 US election.) In Mali, a junta that has been in power since 2021 has leaned on Wagner even as it has ejected French troops who had been operating in the country since 2013. The military rulers in Mali reportedly agreed to pay the group $10 million a month in return for Wagner stationing 1,400 mercenaries in the country.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner is even more deeply embedded. Since late 2018, a force of around 1,890 Wagner mercenaries has kept the government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra from collapsing, and the mercenaries have pacified a country that suffered from a brutal and extended civil war. Remove the Wagner Jenga block from the Central African tower, and it is in danger of collapsing.

Wagner’s methods in the CAR have been widely criticized by human rights advocates. A recent report by The Sentry, an investigative nonprofit, accuses Wagner of mass killings, rape, and torture in the country, stating, “In CAR, Wagner has perfected a blueprint for state capture, supporting a criminalized state hijacked by the Central African president and his inner circle, amassing military power, securing access to and plundering precious minerals, and subduing the population with terror.”

The Sentry is pushing for the United States to designate the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization, but people who work in Africa told me NGOs must work with and coordinate with private security groups to provide even the most basic of functions. Wagner has become a kind of necessary evil. Bax told me that the International Crisis Group is against such a designation for the company. “For example, in the CAR, some of the NGOs or organizations that deliver humanitarian aid have to sometimes call Wagner officials to ask them if they can access certain roads or certain areas,” she said. “ICG are against the designation of Wagner as a foreign terrorist organization because that would really restrict the ability of humanitarian organizations to work in those countries.”

From Hot-Dog Seller to Warlord

The role of PMC Wagner in Africa is very important,” Prigozhin said just before the June 24 rebellion. “PMC Wagner shows the African peoples that they can fight against external aggression, as well as against the actions of terrorists and gangs in Africa. PMC Wagner proves that African peoples can be protected. The UN and other states are not engaged at all in doing this. They only think about how to suck out the African subsoil.”

But Wagner is also involved in hefty mineral extraction on the continent. Prigozhin, a one-time convict and hot-dog seller who rose in the ranks of Russia’s oligarchy under Putin, became stratospherically wealthy in large part thanks to his mercenary group’s operations on the continent. In the CAR, a country rich in gold and diamonds, the company co-opted already-existing businesses to siphon off hundreds of millions and perhaps even billions, according to the pan-African news magazine Jeune Afrique. The company also runs other businesses in the country, like a radio station and brewery.

Four days after the attempted coup, the United States Treasury Department added four companies based in the CAR, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates that they said were part of Wagner’s funding network. US officials said that these companies were involved in funneling illicit revenues from gold mines in Africa to fund the group. A couple of sources in Washington told me that the Treasury believes that now is the right time to sanction the group, as it is in disarray and could be severely weakened by economic action.

The French newspaper Le Monde suggested that a fight over resources in Africa played a role in fostering tensions between Prigozhin and the Kremlin. “Wagner was demanding more money and matériel to continue its African operations,” a French diplomat told the paper. “It all started there.” A security contractor who works in Central Africa told me to be a little circumspect about French views on Wagner. “The French got such a smash in the face in Mali that they have really tried to push back against Wagner,” he said, including spreading propaganda about the group.

A Wake-Up Call

Toward the end of 2021, photos began to circulate on social media of young African men and women holding banners that read “Je Suis Wagner”—“I am Wagner.” When Vladimir Putin’s forces began to attack Ukraine several months later, videos emerged of Congolese and Cameroonian men pledging to go and fight to defend Russia.

But now that Wagner and Russia have split, perceptions and propaganda might work against them. Indications are that African governments have chosen to side with the Russian government, rather than the mercenary leaders.

What’s more, Prigozhin’s revolt might also serve as something of a wake-up call to governments that have welcomed Wagner and other mercenaries into the fold. Accounts of mercenary-backed coups are scattered across the pages of Africa’s recent history. If Prigozhin can stage a rebellion against the likes of Vladimir Putin, inside Russia, what is there to stop his forces from doing the same in their countries? Or as Saini Fasanotti, the analyst at Brookings, put it when we spoke, they have come to realize that “when you start live with snakes, sooner or later you will be bitten by them.”

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy