With the widely reported death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner group, and later enstranged ally of Russian President Vladmir Putin, there has been a groundswell of online interest about the group, particularly its activities in Africa. Online speculations have also been rife about which African countries are currently hosting the mercenary group and where the group would likely extend its tentacles to. Although the demise of the Wagner founder and leader has created uncertainty about the group’s future, there remains a need to address the myths and speculations, which have trailed the group. The Wagner group is a Russian private military company (PMC), led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman said to have a criminal record.
The Wagner group is a complex network of businesses and mercenary groups whose operations have been closely tied to the Russian military and intelligence community. It’s believed that they have around five thousand fighters spread throughout Africa. The group is made up of ex-Russian soldiers, ex convicts, and individuals from other countries.
The Wagner group functions as a proxy force for the Russian government, and has been instrumental in providing Moscow with a plausible degree of deniability for its military activity abroad. Analysts believe that by deploying the PMC, Russia can distance itself from direct involvement in foreign interventions, thus obscuring the true extent of its military engagements and downplaying the actual number of casualties incurred.
Starting from 2017, the Wagner group has been active in several African nations. It has frequently offered direct military assistance and security services to the groups they’re working with. Alongside this, they’ve also been involved in spreading propaganda.
The PMC has been reported to operate alongside Syrian government forces in the course of the civil war providing additional combat power and expertise. Their involvement has been particularly notable in battles against rebel groups and extremist organizations like ISIS.
In 2018, Wagner successfully captured the Conoco field, where Syria’s major gas facility is located. In 2020, Wagner began recruiting Syrians to join Wagner’s ranks and subsequently transported them to Libya.
Wagner Group in Africa
Around 2018, about one thousand Wagner soldiers went into the Central African Republic (CAR) to protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government. They were there to defend the government against rebel attacks on the capital, Bangui and protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government; about one thousand Wagner soldiers went into the Central African Republic around 2018.
As a result, companies connected to Wagner were given special rights to carrying on logging without restrictions and were given control of the valuable Ndassima gold mine.
Similarly, in 2019, Wagner Group troops were sent to Mozambique to assist in fighting against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the northern Cabo Delgado province. However, they couldn’t stop the insurgency and left the area after a few months.
In Sudan, Wagner is said to have been active in the country since 2017 amidst a power tussle.
While there have been various accounts of the group’s activities, it is said that in 2017, Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir made a series of agreements with the Russian government while visiting Moscow. These agreements included plans for Russia to establish a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Additionally, there were deals involving gold mining, with a Russian company called M Invest and the Sudanese Ministry of Minerals.
However, the U.S. Treasury Department claims that M Invest and its subsidiary group, Meroe Gold, are disguises for the activities of the Wagner Group in Sudan. This is significant because Sudan is a major gold producer in Africa. Then Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in 2020, stated that Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for their own benefit and spreading negative influence globally. As a response, both M Invest and Meroe have been specifically targeted with sanctions imposed by the U.S.
The CNN in its investigation stated that gold has been transported over land to the Central African Republic (CAR), a place where the Wagner Group is known to be operating and these exports have not been officially recorded in Sudan’s trade data.
In 2019, Wagner was linked to supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. Wagner forces were reported to have fought alongside the LNA during its attempt to capture the capital city, Tripoli, from the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). This intensified the conflict and added a new layer of complexity to the already complex Libyan civil war.
Human Rights Concerns
Wagner forces in Libya have faced allegations of human rights abuses, including unlawful killings and placing landmines near civilians. Their involvement reflects Russia’s support for General Haftar, deepening the geopolitical aspects of the conflict.
In late October 2019, Facebook stopped some accounts that were part of a Russian fake news effort connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin. This effort focused on eight African countries. Some of these Facebook accounts were linked to the Wagner Group. They were involved in an operation that supported possible future leaders in Libya. This operation had people from Egypt managing pages. The pages posted things that made people remember Muammar Gaddafi and also support his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.