The death of Prigozhin provides opportunity to neutralise the activities of the Wagner Group in the region
The death of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, should interest leaders in Africa where he has played a critical role in recent political upheavals. He was on the passenger list of a jet which crashed on Wednesday, killing all 10 people on board, according to Russian authorities. With Prigozhin believed to have pledged the support of Wagner fighters to the coupists in Niger Republic who continue to defy the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), his death is bound to change the dynamics of power in many of the former French colonies where military rulers are shifting allegiance from Paris to Moscow to consolidate power.
Being a military force built around one man, with amorphous relationship to the Russian state, there will be concerns in countries where Wagner currently operates about what happens next. Today, the Wagner mercenary group has thousands of fighters in Mali, Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and other countries within the continent where they have for years been spreading their tentacles with the active connivance of the Russian government. In CAR, for instance, Wagner influence is such that presidential bodyguards are drawn from its men. In return, companies associated with Wagner are involved in lucrative deals in minerals, timber, etc. In Sudan and Mali, Russian companies associated with Wagner are also said to be involved in gold mining.
Founded in May 2014, essentially to support Russian troops fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Wagner started making inroads into the continent when the Kremlin signed several deals that paved the way for their operations in CAR. In the process, a Russian national, Valery Zakharov, was also appointed security adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadera. Meanwhile, pressure of jihadist violence from the Sahel have also created widespread political instability across West Africa leading to the military overthrow of civilian governments in Guinea, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso and most recently, Niger. In addition, the progressive withdrawal of French troops as a stabilising force exposed their former colonies on the West African coast to the ambition of politicised soldiers. And as the French interest and influence diminished, there has been an increase in official Moscow interest in the region.
Essentially due to the activities of the Wagner Group, increasing Russian presence and interest signals a significant shift of Western sphere of influence from West Africa where France had been the major holding power. And this shift has come at enormous cost. In what looks like a subtle recolonisation of the affected territories, the Russian government through the Wagner Group pays itself through mining contracts and concessions with unlimited access to minerals deposits. It was therefore little wonder that some of the crowds that trooped out in Ouagadougou to welcome last October’s coup in Burkina Faso and that of Niamey last month carried Russian flags and placards denouncing France.
We maintain our stance that the critical danger posed by the infiltration of the Wagner Group in Africa is the threat it poses to fragile democracies on the continent. Their fighters are mostly in these countries at the invitation of military autocrats and anti-democratic forces. Now with the death of Prigozhin under circumstances that are yet unclear and given the penetration of the Wagner mercenaries in some African countries, it is difficult to predict what happens next.
However, we also believe that the demise of Prigozhin provides a window of opportunity for West Africa to take measures to begin neutralising the foothold of the Wagner Group in the region. It is also an opportunity for the West to address President Vladimir Putin’s use of surrogate forces to disrupt the balance of power in the continent.