Editor’s Note: Joyce M. Davis, outreach and opinion editor for PennLive and The Patriot-News, is the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It’s a safe bet that the drama still unfolding between Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladmir Putin will not end well. But however it ends, Africa looks likely to suffer.
Since it first emerged in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Wagner Group has operated in at least a half-dozen African countries, with a presence of some 5,000-strong across the continent, including fighting forces, former convicts and foreign nationals.
Much more than a mere contingent of mercenary troops, Wagner is a complicated network of businesses intertwined with fighting forces, with operations intricately linked with Russia’s military and intelligence community. But for the past several days, the whereabouts of the mercurial man who leads the vast operation have been unknown.
Prigozhin had been missing in action since shortly after launching a mutiny last month, in which thousands of his forces departed Ukraine on what appeared to be a march on Moscow. His troops turned around some 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from the Russian capital. What had become of him had become a matter of intense speculation.
The question remains however, what will now become of Wagner’s immense Africa operation that provided security services and paramilitary assistance and launched disinformation campaigns for troubled regimes in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali and Sudan?
Whatever Prigozhin’s eventual fate, there is no plausible scenario where African countries from Mali to Sudan will not face significant upheaval and outright bloodshed from Russia’s internecine quagmire. If Putin orders Prigozihin dispatched with — which some analysts predict could happen — that would leave a major fighting force of armed-to-the-teeth mercenaries in Africa and without a leader.
Putin wouldn’t be able to just absorb these fighters into the ranks of the Russian military. Wagner forces appear to despise the Russian military, as Prigozhin’s reckless march from Ukraine toward Moscow made abundantly clear. As we have seen since the start of the Ukraine conflict, upheaval in Russia has wrought global mayhem, not just in Africa, but in the rest of the world.
Warlords like Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, the CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and Burkina Faso’s interim leader Ibrahim Traore have ample reason to worry. They were reportedly terrified as they watched Prigozhin confront Moscow, threatening Putin’s generals, if not Putin himself. Prigozhin’s decision to stand down didn’t put any of the African leaders who depend on Wagner at ease, nor should it.
They have hitched their wagons to Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries, paying them millions in gold, diamonds and cold, hard cash to protect their hold on power. They also allied themselves with Russia, and the last thing they want to see is trouble at the top that could undermine their sweet security deals. That’s why when Wagner forces started withdrawing from Ukraine last month, many feared the same might happen in Africa. It hasn’t happened yet, but might still.
Haftar depends on about 2,000 Wagner fighters to maintain control of Eastern Libya. He needs to know those forces will stay on the job and under someone’s strong control. He doesn’t care about their brutality or human rights abuses against his opponents, as is well-documented by international human rights agencies. He needs to make sure they don’t turn on him. The same is true for Touadéra and Colonel Assimi Goita, Mali’s interim president.
Wagner forces have been loyal to Prigozhin, not necessarily to Putin. And they are definitely not loyal to generals in the Russian army. If Putin dispatches Prigozhin, who will control Wagner? And who can guarantee Wagner forces won’t turn on African leaders who decide to side with Putin?
The Guardian reported that four days after Wagner group mercenaries marched on Moscow, a Russian envoy flew into Benghazi to reassure Haftar that more than 2,000 Wagner fighters, technicians, political operatives in the country would be staying.
“There will be no problem here. There may be some changes at the top but the mechanism will stay the same: the people on the ground, the money men in Dubai, the contacts, and the resources committed to Libya,” said the Russian envoy, according to a former senior Libyan official, the Guardian reported. “Don’t worry, we aren’t going anywhere.”
It’s not as if Russia could repatriate and replace Wagner forces with verifiably loyal Russian troops — even if it wanted to. As Sergey Kostelyanyets of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies told Newsweek recently, “Russia’s Ministry of Defense and other Russian security agencies have neither capacity nor will to replace Wagner, which has come to possess extensive physical and logical infrastructure in Africa.”
“We may see rebranding of these assets or reestablishment of Wagner as a more independent entity, which however will continue to serve the interests of the global anti-Western — looking to change the status quo—movement,” Kostelyanyets said.
As if the question of who will control Wagner isn’t enough, there’s another issue that is very much on the minds of many African leaders. They are being put in an untenable position. They may have to choose between loyalty to Prigozhin and obeisance to Putin. But they need both men on their sides, united, and not at war.
Haftar, Goita, Touadéra, Traore — they all need Prigozhin to maintain a strong grip on Wagner’s fighters. They need Wagner to remain strong, well-funded, disciplined and in-place to protect their regimes.
They also need Putin to keep sending them arms as they abstain from joining international condemnation of his invasion of Ukraine. The last thing Wagner’s African patrons need is what has happened, a battle at the top between Russia’s president and the man who controls the mercenaries that keep them in power. That’s a no-win scenario for anyone caught in the middle.
It’s important to keep in mind that Wagner and Russia have supported whoever will pay the bills and give them access to Africa’s bounty. In Sudan, they’re not supporting the country’s leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. They’re supporting Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, who is vying for power. Sudan actually could become more stable if Wagner weren’t in the picture, even if it doesn’t become more democratic.
All of the possible outcomes of Russia’s chaos spell serious upheaval in much of Africa, since people could be forced to flee their destabilized countries if a power struggle emerges as Wagner and Moscow fight for supremacy.
Not surprisingly, the entire situation has Washington worried. At the beginning of the year, the US labeled the Wagner Group a transnational criminal organization and slapped sanctions on the organization. Wagner, Washington said at the time, has been committing “widespread human rights abuses” in Africa, and “extorting natural resources from their people.”
In the immediate aftermath of the failed mutiny, the US Treasury Department late last month imposed sanctions on four companies and one individual with ties to Prigozhin and the Wagner Group.
“The Wagner Group funds its brutal operations in part by exploiting natural resources in countries like the Central African Republic and Mali. The United States will continue to target the Wagner Group’s revenue streams to degrade its expansion and violence in Africa, Ukraine, and anywhere else,” a Treasury statement read, noting that Wagner “has committed widespread human rights abuses and has appropriated natural resources across multiple countries in Africa.”
Long-term, it may be in Africa’s best interest to weaken the grip of Wagner forces on the continent and watch despotic regimes fall, but that might be more easily said than done. And quite frankly, Africa will only emerge better-off if democratic governments emerge after Wagner forces are shown the door.
Short-term, the picture is much grimmer. Wagner’s departure could unleash a bloody fight for control of countries throughout Africa, with millions of innocent people caught in the mayhem. In the long run, there’s still another shoe to drop in this ongoing saga. And when it does, Africa will almost certainly feel its thud.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with report of video appearing to show Prigozhin in Belarus.