The region of West Africa has been a hotbed for chaos and political instability in the last few years. Coup d’états have become the order of the day with matters worsened by the presence of Islamic extremist groups in the region. Mali has suffered two coups in the last five years. Burkina Faso experienced one in January 2022. All of these events involve local parties from within the region but there is another player that is present in all these events. The Wagner Group is an organization of military-trained Russian mercenaries. Reportedly, this organization is present in Mali and Burkina Faso at the moment. It has also been reported that this group has carried out missions in the Central Republic of Africa, Libya, Mozambique, and Sudan.
The Central African Republic is reportedly a client of the Wagner Group. The group’s presence is seen as a necessity by the President of the country, Faustin-Archange Toudera, because of the presence of rebels who still control parts of the central African country. CAR has been facing instability since the government of former President Francois Bozize was ousted in 2013. The CAR government reportedly felt as though it needed military support to ward off the rebels. This led to the incumbent president visiting Russia in 2017. He made a request for military support, promising to reimburse the support provided with access to CAR’s mineral resources. There have been problems with the presence of the Wagner Group in CAR. Reportedly, some of the mercenaries have committed crimes such as rape, assault, and theft. It is also alleged that at times, these mercenaries can arrest a person outside the bounds of the law. The UN is concerned by this, labeling it dangerous as there seems to be no control over the members of the Wagner Group. In October 2021, CAR Justice Minister Arnaud Abazene admitted that some Russian mercenaries had committed abuses of power and been sent back home.
The Wagner Group has reportedly been operating in Mali as well. There are allegedly 1,000 operatives of the organization in the country. They are present to assist the government against the proliferation of jihadists operating in the area. This situation is almost similar to that of Mozambique, a country that had been infiltrated in its northern regions by Islamic State extremists. The group operated in Libya as well. A common trait in all these operations by the group is the abuses that were carried out by the operatives and the impunity that follows. The UN and French government have firmly indicated that they are against the presence of these mercenaries in these countries, more so the Western African ones. Recently it was reported that some of the operatives for the Wagner Group have been relocated from Africa to the Ukraine, where conflict is brewing.
The Wagner Group is reported to have ties to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin via a member of his circle, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Infamously known as ‘The Chef’, his nickname rose from the fact that Prigozhin used to be in the catering business. One of his biggest deals was to provide catering to the Russian armed forces. Prigozhin shares a close relationship with Putin, their relationship a result of Putin regularly dining at Prigozhin’s luxury St. Petersburg restaurant, New Island. Prigozhin denies all claims linking him to Wagner Group. He is a wealthy businessman with his hands on many ventures. He was also accused and indicted by a USA court for allegedly participating in election interference during the 2018 mid-term elections. Allegedly he was part of a group that used fake news and social media accounts, claims he denied.
The presence of the Wagner Group in these unstable political and military environments is worrying. A bigger concern is that this organization has access to valuable minerals that should be enriching the countries they are found in. This is an issue of the leadership in Africa, replacing colonial looters with new ones.