Wagner’s Empire in Africa Will Live On After Prigozhin

The day before his private plane crashed near Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin released a recruitment video for the Wagner Group.

(Bloomberg) — The day before his private plane crashed near Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin released a recruitment video for the Wagner Group. 

“The Wagner PMC makes Russia even greater on all continents and Africa more free,” he says, dressed in military fatigues, hoisting an assault rifle and standing in a barren landscape he suggests is on the continent. “Justice and happiness for the African people.”

Read more: What Happens to Prigozhin’s Wagner Group After Founder in Crash?

Prigozhin apparently spent his last days in Africa. His presumed death will reverberate across the continent where he built a business empire over the past five years, becoming an iconoclastic celebrity in places like Mali and the Central African Republic, whose presidents have lost an important ally. 

But, as in the aftermath of Prigozhin’s mutiny in June, the Kremlin will likely seek to maintain Wagner’s lucrative security, gold mining, oil services and customs contracts — and its relationships with African governments.

“The idea of a Wagner-like entity, which is to say a private military company that allowed Russia to have unofficial but very impactful results on the continent is too valuable to just have it go away,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program and a former CIA analyst.

Wagner allowed the Kremlin to rebuild some of the influence that it lost in Africa after the Cold War at little cost and with plausible deniability. It first entered Libya and CAR about five years ago and has since expanded to Sudan,  Mali and — briefly — Mozambique, committing alleged human rights abuses while waging brutal campaigns on behalf of domestic governments and strongmen.

“Now there’s a lot of noise around the death of one person,” Martin Ziguele, a former CAR prime minister, said by phone. “I find this vulgar compared to the number of Central Africans who have lost their lives in Wagner operations in my country, atrocities that have been documented in numerous reports.”

Nowhere is Wagner’s influence greater than in CAR, where 2,000 fighters have propped up the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra since 2018. It now not only owns the country’s biggest gold mine — capable of producing $290 million worth of ore annually — but leads the army in battle and has a stake in both the forestry and beer markets. 

Read more: Wagner’s Mutiny Creates New Questions About Its Business Empire

“I think his death changes nothing because we have an agreement with Russia and Russia is going to fix this by putting a new head in Wagner,” said Fidele Gouandjika, an adviser to Touadéra, who posted a picture of himself on Facebook wearing an “I am Wagner” T-shirt in “homage” to Prigozhin.

The main question is whether Prigozhin’s lieutenants, who have forged close relationships with the CAR government, will be replaced, according to two senior Western diplomats. 

Sahel Expansion

Wagner’s success in CAR was driven in part by growing frustration against ex-colonial power France’s continued influence. The group, and Prigozhin in particular, exploited that resentment and both came to be seen as emblems of anti-colonialism.

Wagner has taken advantage of military power grabs in West Africa’s Sahel region — where France led an unsuccessful fight against a decade-long jihadist insurgency — to grow its foothold. It’s sent 1,000 fighters to assist the junta in Mali, which has pushed out a French force and a UN peacekeeping mission.  

Read more: Russia’s Footprint Grows in Africa as France Leaves Burkina Faso

Continuity in Wagner’s operations would be “the best-case scenario for West African leaders who rely on Wagner to either stay in power, or combat jihadist insurgents, or both,” said Ornella Moderan, an independent Sahel researcher.

The mercenaries, operating alongside the Malian army, have taken over empty UN and French army bases, but civilian deaths have surged since they arrived. The UN has accused the group and the army of massacring more than 500 people in the central Malian village of Moura.

In recent months, Mali’s military government has begun forging closer ties with the Kremlin itself. Junta leader Col Assimi Goita was among just 17 African heads of state who attended the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg last month, where he heaped praise on President Vladimir Putin.

“Working directly with the state is always more solid than dealing with a private firm,” Salif Sidibe, a consultant who acted as a Russian arms procurement liaison for a previous government, said by phone from the capital, Bamako. “I don’t think Prigozhin’s death will change a lot. If anything, things will be easier going forward.”

A government spokesman didn’t respond to a call and a text message seeking comment.

Malian lawmakers recently passed a new mining code that could see the government acquire a 35% stake in industrial mining operations. Some miners fear this could be a point of entry for Wagner-linked entities. 

Gold and Oil 

Wagner is already involved in Sudan’s gold industry, where it’s been linked to a processing plant north of the capital, Khartoum, and plays a role in the smuggling economy involving both the army and paramilitary groups.

The US in May accused Wagner of delivering surface-to-air missiles to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, which since April have been waging a campaign to overthrow the military junta that seized power in 2021. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has supported the army.

Moscow may already be moving to consolidate control over Wagner’s operations in Libya, where the group has access to key oil facilities and an air base thanks to its support for Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army who unsuccessfully fought to seize control of the capital with Wagner help.

Earlier this week, Moscow sent military officials to meet Haftar, who they had kept at arms length, said Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a think-tank based in Tripoli.

“Wagner’s operations in Libya and Africa depend on a web of alliances more than just its senior internal leadership killed last night,” he said. “The Kremlin need only insert new points of contact within this mercenary network.”

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