Prigozhin's mutiny saw Wagner take over military facilities in the city of Rostov-on-Don

It has been more than 24 hours since the global media reported the crash of a plane in which the boss of the Russian paramilitary group, Wagner, was listed as a passenger. As at this writing, his death, though widely assumed had not been confirmed. However, the worldwide focus on Yevgeny Prigozhin has inevitably thrown Africa into the frame and highlighted the continent’s vulnerability to severe external pressures.

Over the past few years, Russia's increasingly assertive presence in Africa has raised eyebrows and sparked concerns among Western powers. In Africa itself, increased Russian interest has become a highly controversial and divisive issue because it has been tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with strong ties to the Kremlin, and the mysterious paramilitary group Wagner.

Unlike “official” security and intelligence operations, Wagner’s activities are not only shrouded in secrecy but also not accountable. Widely seen as the unofficial spearhead of Russia’s incursions into Africa, it is nonetheless a private company, and its June 23rd mini-rebellion against Russian President Putin has further created a semblance of independence for the mercenary group.

The Wagner Group has been expanding its activities in Africa, and in a video posted a few days before the plane crash, Prigozhin seemed to imply that it was shifting its focus mainly or even exclusively in Africa.

Western sources describe the activities of the Wagner Group as secretive and often denied by the Russian government. Therefore, precise information on their involvement can be difficult to obtain.

Much of Wagner’s operations are said to be inspired or initiated by Prigozhin, often referred to as Putin's "chef," because he made his fortune in the catering industry and has since emerged as a significant power broker within Russia's political landscape. Prigozhin's interests have expanded beyond Russia's borders, particularly in Africa.

Reports suggest that he has been involved in numerous business ventures on the continent, including securing lucrative contracts through his catering company and venturing into mining and energy sectors. However, his most notable activities relate to his alleged connection with Wagner.

Wagner first gained international attention for its involvement in the Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and has since been reportedly deployed in various conflicts, including Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The group comprises former Russian military personnel who operate as contractors, lending their expertise to a range of military operations.

So far, notable involvement of Wagner in Africa includes but not limited to Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mozambique, Madagascar, and widely believed to be operating in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and lately in Niger.

Western sources say that Wagner's primary objective seems to be furthering Russia's strategic interests in Africa. The group has provided military support to governments and rebel factions alike, often in exchange for mineral rights, natural resources, or other economic advantages. Its involvement has raised concerns about Russia's intent on the continent and the destabilising effects of its actions.

Many have asked what drives Russia's interest in Africa. Russia’s interests in Africa are no different from those of other major countries such as the USA, China, France, the UK, etc. Firstly, Africa holds vast untapped natural resources, including minerals, oil, and gas, making it an attractive target for resource-hungry nations.

Moreover, Africa's growing population and emerging markets offer potential economic opportunities for Russian businesses. However, in addition to all that, Russia's increased presence in Africa can be seen as an attempt to challenge Western dominance and gain geopolitical influence.

Another question is why Russia has to depend on a mercenary force instead of its own security, intelligence and financial resources. The Council on Foreign Relations says that “Wagner’s status as a PMC (private military company) limits the financial costs of Russian intervention and gives the Kremlin plausible deniability, allowing it to hide personnel losses from the Russian public while simultaneously using Russian military infrastructure.”

Furthermore, experts point to the following as speculative reasons:

  • Deniability: By relying on a private military company like the Wagner Group, Russia can distance itself from direct involvement in conflicts and military operations. This provides a level of deniability if any negative consequences or international scrutiny arise.
  • Flexibility and Agility: Private military companies often offer more flexibility and agility compared to official military forces. They can operate discreetly, adapt quickly to changing circumstances, and potentially employ unconventional methods without the same bureaucratic constraints that official military forces may face.
  • Testing Ground: Africa may serve as a testing ground for Russian military capabilities and equipment. By using the Wagner Group, Russia can assess the effectiveness of its military hardware and strategies in real-world scenarios before potentially deploying official forces.
  • Political Objectives: The Wagner Group's activities in Africa could align with Russia's geopolitical interests, serving as a way to project power, gain influence, or establish strategic footholds in the region without overtly committing official military resources.

It is interesting, perhaps worrying, that while the West is obviously concerned about the activities of the Wagner group in Africa, Africa itself has not developed a collective voice on the issue. Indeed, Wagner and Russia have divided opinions among the continent’s political/military establishment and its intellectual and media spheres. Some people welcome Russia and Wagner as a necessary counterweight to centuries of Western exploitation; this is especially true in former French colonies where a new consciousness is challenging the former colonial [power’s political and economic hegemony.

Of even greater worry is the acceptance of Wagner in some quarters as a model because of the failure of the state to provide security and jobs. This has been the case of some of the countries that are battling jihadist operations. In those cases, Wagner is said to be involved in operations as well as recruitment and training of local youth.

Africa’s divided opinion and policy on Wagner contrasts to a near-unified stance against mercenaries more than half a century ago when Mike Hoare, a British-born mercenary known as the Mad Dog, achieved considerable notoriety for his activities in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s.

In the early 1960s, Hoare formed and led "4 Commando," a unit comprised of mercenaries, which gained attention by providing support to Congolese rebels during the Congo Crisis (1960-1965). The group later became known as "5 Commando" and earned the nickname "The Wild Geese." Hoare and his mercenaries became involved in various conflicts across Africa, including Congo, Angola, and Seychelles, among others. The activities of his group left a trail of havoc across swathes of Africa, and he was roundly condemned at the time. Of course, the people and causes that hired him defended him as a force for peace.

Today, while Russian involvement in Africa is not inherently illegitimate, concerns must arise due to its unorthodox methods, lack of transparency, and potential human rights abuses. Pointing to centuries of Western exploitation should not be the excuse for Africa to welcome a force that is ultimately not accountable to any official authority.

The idea of a mercenary force operating freely with impunity should not be tolerated no matter where it comes from. It undermines our continental integrity and the sovereignty of our states. We must not wait and see. We can see clearly that the geopolitical and economic re-carving up of Africa is underway, and this must be resisted. As Nkrumah said, we must not look to the East or the West. We must look forward.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.