Why Wagner remains Russia's strongest asset in Africa

7 min read
08 August, 2023
Analysis: Despite Yevgeny Prigozhin's failed mutiny against the Russian military leadership, the Wagner Group remains indispensable to Moscow's African strategy.

On 28 July, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the commander of Niger’s presidential guards, ousted democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum in a military coup.

Two days later, thousands of junta supporters marched through the streets of Niamey waving Russian flags and chanting the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, claimed that Russia was responsible for the coup.

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin celebrated Tchiani’s “anti-colonial” coup and offered his mercenaries to help him stabilise Niger.

The Niger coup, which left 1,500 French forces and 1,000 US troops scrambling to decide their next move, provided Russia with a much-needed opportunity to showcase its influence in Africa.

From 27-28 July, Putin presided over an underwhelming Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg. Just 17 African heads of state were in attendance compared to the 43 that were present for the inaugural October 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi.

"Despite the Wagner Group mutiny in late June, Russia's informal security presence in Africa endures and state fragility might give it opportunities for further expansion"

The summit resulted in few notable economic deals and Putin faced considerable pressure from African leaders to end the Ukraine War and restore the Black Sea grain deal.

The split-screen witnessed in the Niger junta’s prospective embrace of Russia and the Russia-Africa Summit’s failure encapsulates the current state of Moscow’s influence on the continent.

Despite the Wagner Group mutiny in late June, Russia’s informal security presence in Africa endures and state fragility might give it opportunities for further expansion.

However, Russia’s economic presence and soft power in Africa continue to struggle, even though the Kremlin has elevated the continent’s place in its vision for a multipolar world order.

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The endurance of Russia's security presence in Africa

After Prigozhin’s mutiny against Russia’s military leadership unravelled on 24 June, speculation swirled that Wagner Group PMCs would scale back their African operations.

Central African Republic (CAR) Defence Ministry officials claimed that 100 Wagner Group forces left Bouar near the CAR-Cameroon border and flight paths indicated a possible exodus of hundreds of PMCs from Bangui to Entebbe, Uganda.

In Wagner’s other theatres of operation, an atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed. Malian political analyst Bassirou Doumbia declared that “Wagner’s presence in Mali is sponsored by the Kremlin and if Wagner is at odds with the Kremlin, naturally Mali will suffer consequences on the security front”.

To assuage these concerns, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed on 26 June that Wagner Group instructors would continue their operations in CAR and Mali. Early indicators suggest that Lavrov’s statement reflects realities on the ground.

Russian and Malian flags are waved by protesters in Bamako, during a demonstration against French influence in the country on 27 May 2021. [Getty]

On 8 July, the CAR authorities confirmed that its troop withdrawals were a rotation, not a drawdown, and hundreds of Wagner Group PMCs streamed into CAR ahead of the 30 July referendum to extend President Fausatin-Archange Touadera’s term beyond 2025.

The US imposed sanctions on three senior Malian officials on 25 July for accepting Wagner mercenaries and trying to promote the Wagner Group in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

While Lavrov did not mention Wagner’s presence in Libya and Sudan, no significant changes are expected in the near term. Despite rumours of a 30 June strike on Wagner personnel in eastern Libya’s al-Kharruba base, which is located 150km southwest of Benghazi, Army Chief of Staff Mohamad al-Hadad denied responsibility and upheld the Tripoli government’s commitment to the October 2020 ceasefire agreement.

Sudan’s Minister of Natural Resources Mohamed Bashir Abdullah Mennawi recently confirmed that Russian gold mining companies, which rely on the Wagner Group for security, have not experienced a disruption in their operations.

In a tacit acknowledgement of Wagner’s staying power, Deputy Chairman of the ruling Transitional Sovereignty Council Malik Agar stated on 3 July that Sudan sought to expand Russia’s presence in its gold and rare earth mines.

"The Wagner Group is keen on expanding its security presence in Africa to new frontiers"

New frontiers for Wagner Group expansion?

The Wagner Group is also keen on expanding its security presence in Africa to new frontiers. Due to junta leader Ibrahim Traore’s expulsion of French forces, the Wagner Group viewed Burkina Faso as its most plausible expansion target.

In December 2022, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged that the Wagner Group had entered Burkina Faso in exchange for mining concessions. These allegations were ultimately unfounded. Burkina Faso reportedly awarded a new exploration permit to Russian mining company Nordgold in Yimiougou in late 2022.

However, this was merely an extension of Nordgold’s decade-long presence in Burkina Faso. Russian instructors are reportedly training Burkinabe soldiers to use their newest military technology, but Wagner mercenaries have not yet followed suit. 

As its Burkina Faso forays have stagnated, Niger is the most probable new theatre for Wagner's involvement in Africa. While Tchiani is unlikely to expel US or French forces if they offer to pragmatically engage with his junta, Western efforts to isolate the junta could lead to Wagner’s entry.

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Tchiani appears to be preparing for this contingency, as he dispatched his ally General Salifou Modi to Mali on 2 August. While Modi did not have any confirmed meetings with Russian operatives, his praise of Niger’s “very good relations” with Mali on security issues fuelled speculation that Wagner was discussed.

Aside from Niger, the Wagner Group could try to enter coastal Africa and Central Africa. Prigozhin-aligned social media channels have produced cartoons showing the expulsion of France from Cote d’Ivoire, while the Neo-Nazi Rusich (DShRG) unit of the Wagner Group dispatched a delegation to Sierra Leone in November 2022.

Pro-Russian demonstrations during French President Emmanuel Macron’s March 2023 visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fuelled speculation about Wagner’s intentions. The risk of Western sanctions and uncertainties about Wagner’s ability to procure heavy weaponry from the Russian Defence Ministry could restrict its expansion potential.

After Prigozhin’s mutiny unravelled, speculation swirled that Wagner Group PMCs would scale back their African operations. [Getty]

The weakness of Russia's economic and soft power foundations in Africa

While the Wagner Group’s short-term future is secure, Russia’s economic presence in Africa continues to languish. Despite Putin’s boasts that Russia’s trade with Africa increased by 35% during the first half of 2023, its overall trade with Sub-Saharan Africa stood at just $6 billion in 2022 and investment on the continent was $400 million.

Just ten countries - Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, and Kenya - constitute over 80% of Russia’s trade with Africa.

Virtually none of the $12.5 billion in pledged deals in the Sochi Summit materialised and the $40 billion Russia-Africa trade target was not achieved. Aside from Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom’s El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt, few economic mega-projects have come to fruition.

At the St. Petersburg Summit, Russia focused on sanctions-proofing its economic ties to Africa and bolstering its investments in the long-term development of African economies. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Overchuk hailed the success of using national currencies in Eurasian Economic Union settlements and offered to use rubles in trade with Africa.

"While the Wagner Group's short-term future is secure, Russia's economic presence in Africa continues to languish"

Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov expounded on Overchuk’s points as he urged African banks to connect to the Financial Messaging System of the Bank of Russia and extolled free trade negotiations with Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. 

Educational diplomacy was another key component of Putin’s summit speech, as he pledged to increase the number of government-sponsored university spots for African students to 4,700 and create Russian schools in 28 African countries. Aside from pledging to triple the number of state-funded spots for Ethiopian students, the Kremlin offered few specifics on how it plans to achieve these lofty targets.

Russia also has a persistent soft power deficit in Africa, which has worsened since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In Sub-Saharan Africa, approval of Russia’s leadership declined from 45% to 35% from 2021 to 2022, as food insecurity concerns offset the at-times painstaking neutrality of some African leaders on Ukraine.

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At the St. Petersburg Summit, Russia claimed to hold “information security” talks with almost every African country in attendance. These talks were insufficient in selling its narrative that sanctions were undermining the Black Sea grain export deal and did not completely convince African leaders of the logistics of Russia’s plan for direct grain transfers.

Despite Prigozhin’s failed mutiny against the Russian military leadership, the Wagner Group remains indispensable to Russia’s African strategy. But regardless of Russia’s protestations of Western neo-colonial pressure and sanctions, trade remains the Achilles heel of its great power aspirations in Africa.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2