File photo by Wagner Account/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The apparent assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin in the crash of his private jet between Moscow and St. Petersburg represents an inflection point in Russian-African relations.
Prigozhin, as leader of the notorious Wagner Group, had been the point man for Russia in Africa since Wagner first began operations on the continent in 2017. More than a single entity, the Wagner Group is an amalgamation of shell companies deploying paramilitary forces, disinformation and political interference in Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Its leaders have been sanctioned by 30 countries for the group’s destabilising activities.
Prigozhin was believed to be living on borrowed time after he led a short-lived insurrection – part of a power struggle with the Russian military leadership – in June. While he quickly backed down, the action embarrassed Russian president Vladimir Putin and triggered chatter that Putin’s perceived weakness would embolden other challengers to his authority.
Prigozhin advanced Russian influence in Africa by propping up politically isolated and unpopular authoritarian leaders. As a result of Wagner’s support, these leaders were beholden to Russian interests. Wagner’s backing took a variety of irregular forms, like paramilitary forces, disinformation campaigns, election interference, intimidation of political opponents, and arms for resources deals. Prigozhin referred to this interlocking set of influence operations as “The Orchestra”, which he conducted.
Wagner deployed forces to Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan. It has also been interfering in domestic politics and information narratives in some two dozen African countries.
I research the role of governance in advancing security and development as well as the influence of external actors in Africa, including Russia. Democratic transitions and institutions of democratic accountability are among my interests.
The breadth of Russian political interference in Africa points to Russia’s strategic objectives for the continent. It aims to secure a foothold in North Africa and the Red Sea, undermine western influence, normalise authoritarianism and displace the UN-based international system.
None of these objectives are about making Africa more prosperous or stable. Rather, the continent is primarily a theatre to advance Russia’s geostrategic interests.
Attempting to maintain the lucrative and influential operations of the Wagner Group in Africa after Prigozhin’s death will make it hard for Russia to deny that it uses irregular and illegal actions to extend its influence.
Maintaining Wagner without Prigozhin
The Wagner model has seen Russian influence expand rapidly in Africa. That’s despite Russia investing very little on the continent. Most of Wagner’s costs have been covered through cash and mineral concessions provided by host regimes. By some accounts revenues from mining operations in the Central African Republic and Sudan generate billions.
It is no surprise that Russia would want to keep the Wagner enterprise going. Tellingly, on the day of Prigozhin’s plane crash, deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was in Libya to reassure warlord Khalifa Haftar of Russia’s ongoing support. Yevkurov later visited the military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso to deliver the same message.
The question will be whether the Russian military has the capacity. Russia needs soldiers in Ukraine. So, it may not have experienced fighters to spare in Africa. It is also an open question whether Wagner troops will agree to sign contracts with the Russian defence ministry, given the way their leader was dispatched.
The Russian government would also need to recreate the multidimensional dealings that made Wagner’s operations effective in shoring up client regimes. For years, Russia has promoted hybrid warfare – the fusion of conventional and subversive tools. Synchronising this across multiple African contexts will require greater dexterity than the Russian security bureaucracy is likely capable of, however.
Finally, Russia has benefited from the plausible deniability that Wagner has provided while doing Putin’s bidding. In every context in which Wagner forces have been deployed, they have been credibly accused of human rights abuses including rape, torture and extrajudicial killings. In Mali, Wagner is linked to more than 320 incidents of human rights abuses and hundreds of civilian deaths. Wagner has also been accused of driving away local communities where it has secured mining concessions, effectively annexing African territory.
By directly taking over the mantle of Wagner operations in Africa, the Russian government can no longer claim ignorance or impotence to do anything about these unlawful and destabilising actions. Russia has largely escaped serious reputational costs for Wagner’s thuggish activities in Africa. But this will change when it owns the repressive tactics Wagner has deployed.
Reassessments in Africa
What of Wagner’s African clients? Leaders of these regimes have come to power through extraconstitutional means. They restrict opposition voices and media. They are isolated internationally. Simply put, they cannot survive without Moscow’s support. So, we should not expect a change in receptivity from the military juntas in Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso, the co-opted leadership in the Central African Republic, or the Libyan warlord, Haftar.
What will be telling is the reaction from other governments on the continent. Some will continue to see value in flirting with Russia as a way of hedging against international criticism.
Russia’s reach in Africa may be exceeding its grasp, however. There is a growing awakening on the continent of how little Russia actually brings to Africa in terms of investment, trade, jobs creation or security. Its deployment of mercenaries, disinformation, political interference and arms for resources deals mean it actually amplifies instability on the continent.
The symbolism of this was vividly brought home in the days before the Russia-Africa Summit at the end of July. Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal that had enabled 33 million tonnes of grain to get from Ukraine to Africa and other parts of the world. The deal had eased supply chain restrictions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Not only did Russia scuttle the deal: it bombed the Ukrainian ports that were exporting the grain, wasting 180,000 tonnes in the process. The contempt Putin showed for African interests by this action was hard to ignore.
This disregard, coupled with recognition that Russia offers relatively little to Africa, contributed to only 17 African heads of state attending the St. Petersburg summit. By comparison 43 African heads of state attended the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in 2019.
The way that Prigozhin was eliminated must also give African leaders pause.
Putin speaks often of his desire to create a new international order. Russia’s lawlessness at home and abroad is bringing into sharp focus what his world order would look like. And that’s not a vision many African leaders share.
Siegle is Director of Research, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, University of Maryland. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Mail & Guardian.
This article was first published by The Conversation.