Russia’s boots on the ground in Africa
Mercenaries from Russia’s shadowy Wagner Group aren’t only fighting in Ukraine – they’re also on the ground in multiple African countries, including the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan. In countries experiencing insurgency, they’re playing an active combat role – and targeting civilians and committing numerous human rights violations. Wagner is operating as part of a systematic pro-Russia disinformation campaign designed to recruit international support and is extracting vital resources such as diamonds, gold and oil in payment, helping Vladimir Putin mitigate the impacts of sanctions. Instead of turning to foreign mercenaries, governments should commit to respect human rights, and civil society should work to expose violations.
It’s fighting in the thick of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Wagner Group – the shadowy St Petersburg-based private military company – has recently sustained heavy losses in the battle for control of the city of Bakhmut. But this is far from the only front it’s engaged on. Half a world away, Wagner forces have boots on the ground in multiple African countries. Their growing presence is having serious human rights, political and economic impacts.
Ground zero: the Central African Republic
Wagner forces have long been established in the Central African Republic (CAR), home to a civil war for over a decade. The government is fighting multiple rebel forces that united to dispute the December 2020 election. Much of the country, particularly the east, is under rebel control.
President Faustin-Archange Touadéra reached out to Russia shortly after taking power in 2016. He received Russian military instructors and weapons, and Wagner mercenaries soon followed. Everything about Wagner is shrouded in secrecy and Touadéra claims never to have signed a contract with the group, but somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 Wagner personnel are believed to be in the CAR.
These forces have helped keep Touadéra in power. In January 2021 rebel groups advanced on the capital, Bangui, with the aim of toppling him but have since been forced back.
This has come at a heavy cost. All sides have committed human rights abuses, but around 40 per cent of political violence documented by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project is attributed to Wagner. Civilians are paying the highest price: they’ve been targeted in over half of all acts of violence by Wagner forces, and the figure is even higher when Wagner forces have fought on their own instead of alongside CAR forces. The implication is that when Wagner forces are given free reign, more civilian deaths result.
Russia cares no more for democracy or human rights in African countries than it does at home.
Wagner forces are accused of targeting Muslims and ethnic Fulani civilians, purely on the basis of belonging to those groups. As well as extrajudicial killings it’s accused of sexual violence and looting. Its actions indicate the intentional and systematic use of violence to subdue the population.
The most notorious single incident came in two villages, Aïgbado and Yanga, in January 2022. Wagner forces reportedly fired indiscriminately at crowds, summarily executing people and burning down homes. At least 65 people were killed, among them children. The government however provided the mercenaries with cover, insisting no civilians had been killed. It offered one example of the widespread impunity the Wagner Group enjoys widespread impunity for its actions.
Alongside the deep human rights costs there’s a steep economic and political price to pay. The CAR’s conflict is partly one of religious and ethnic divides but it’s also about resources. The country has one of the world’s lowest per-capita incomes but it’s rich in diamonds and gold. No payments to Wagner appear on the state budget, but mercenaries don’t work for free.
Wagner and its associated network of shadowy companies are believed to have been offered a degree of control over gold and diamond-mining, along with logging. It’s no coincidence there’s been heavy fighting between Wagner forces and rebel groups for control of goldmines. Wagner’s CAR diamond operations almost certainly breach the Kimberley Process, an international agreement intended to stop the sale of conflict diamonds.
Vital resources are being sucked out of the country and ending up at the Kremlin. The group’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin – who, after years of denying he had any involvement, last September finally admitted to founding Wagner – is one of Vladmir Putin’s most-trusted confidantes. The mineral resources extracted from the CAR could be playing a vital role in enabling the Putin regime to weather sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
And then there’s the political influence. Touadéra doesn’t just surround himself with bodyguards supplied by Wagner; he also has an inner circle of Russian advisers and decision-makers. Prigozhin’s network is deeply integrated with Russian state institutions, including the defence ministry and its intelligence service. There’s nothing the Wagner Group will do in the CAR or other countries that doesn’t serve Putin’s foreign policy goals.
A pattern across Africa
Wagner’s footprint extends far beyond the CAR. Wagner and other Russian private military companies are thought to have some kind of presence in as many as 30 countries, 18 of them in Africa. And the pattern seen in the CAR is repeated time and again.
Wagner forces have long played a role in Libya’s ongoing conflict and are reported to be fighting with rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar. Their aim appears to be to claim a stake in the country’s lucrative oil sector – similar to how it was rewarded in Syria in 2021 for fighting on the side of the repressive government.
Wagner is also involved in Sudan, under military rule since 2021. There’s evidence Russia is giving the junta military and political support in return for billions of dollars’ worth of gold. Wagner reportedly guards goldmines. Its subsidiary, Meroe Gold, was recently sanctioned by the European Union over serious human rights abuses, including killings and torture – one of several such sanctions applied to Wagner and associated companies for violations not only in Sudan but also the CAR and Mali. Russia reportedly has an ambition to establish a naval base on the Red Sea and is cultivating support from senior Sudanese leaders.
There are rumours that Burkina Faso, home to a double coup in 2022, may soon turn to Wagner forces on the grounds of fighting insurgency, having ordered French forces to leave. There are also reports that Wagner may be working with rebel groups in Chad, whose current president remains closely allied with France.
But it’s in Mali where Wagner’s influence is most growing. Mali’s military government, in power since May 2021, insists any Wagner personnel present are merely military advisors – but reports from the ground make clear they’re involved in combat and are targeting civilians, including on ethnic grounds, with numerous reports of human rights abuses. In the most notorious case, over several days in March, Russian mercenaries and Malian forces rounded up and summarily executed around 300 people in the town of Moura. Once again, mining concessions have been granted in reward.
Public support and disinformation
One of the major challenges for international, human rights-oriented civil society is the use of Russian mercenaries has some public support. In Mali, when Wagner forces arrived in 2022, some people greeted them by waving Russian flags and holding Putin photos aloft. Those showing support included some leaders of civil society movements.
Part of this reflects a willingness to embrace anything that looks like a solution to longstanding insecurity. Other forces have failed, including domestic forces and those from abroad, both French and United Nations troops. Any promise to end the violence will be appealing, and Wagner’s reputation for ruthlessness may even seem an asset.
Another driver behind support is opposition to France. The former colonial power in many central and west African countries, France was the first port of call for governments struggling to contain insurgency. In Mali its forces helped reclaimed territory from a jihadist insurgency that erupted in 2012. But despite the presence of 3,000 French forces, the insurgents never went away. Rebel forces regrouped and re-established themselves, not just in Mali but in surrounding countries.
France became increasingly resented. Protests against French troops have been seen not just in the CAR and Mali but also in countries including Burkina Faso and Niger. Against this backdrop, Russia is tapping into some old alignments. Even its aggression towards Ukraine is playing to its advantage: it makes it appear to be striking a blow against the west. This Cold War framing helps deny the reality that Russia is waging an imperial war, trying to subjugate a democratic sovereign state that once formed part of its empire.
But public discourse has also been skewed through a vast campaign of pro-Russian disinformation that has preceded Wagner’s involvement in several African countries. Wagner’s arrival in Mali was heralded by a concerted public influencing campaign that sought to discredit France and build support for Russia. A similar pro-Russia campaign is currently underway in Burkina Faso. Numerous African news sites are republishing content from Russian state-controlled media such as RT and Sputnik, while RT, banned in many European states for its pro-Putin propaganda, plans to set up an African hub.
Civic space impacts
It’s easy to understand what’s in the relationship for presidents and generals. Russia claims to respect the sovereignty of its African partners and refrain from interfering in domestic matters; what this means it that it cares no more for democracy or human rights in African countries than it does at home. In contrast, other international partners – France, other European states, Africa’s regional institutions and the United Nations – offer qualified support. They expect states to respect international human rights law and want military-controlled governments to progress towards democratic civilian rule.
In Mali, France criticised the junta’s sustained rule and evident reluctance to hand over power. The army keeps pushing back the transition timetable and in March postponed a constitutional referendum that was supposed to pave the way from elections. The military knows no pressure for democracy will come from Russia.
In the CAR, Touadéra has already made one attempt to change the constitution to run for a third term. Last year the constitutional court ruled against his move to create a constitutional reform commission. Touadéra may well press ahead regardless – because Russia has made clear it wants him to stay in power.
Burkina Faso, which has just expelled two French journalists, may now be going down the same road to consolidate military power and resist demands for democracy. In all these cases, a level of public support for Russia’s involvement could help undemocratic rulers retain some popularity and buffer against demands for transition.
Wagner’s involvement is contributing to the closing of civic space. In the CAR, with his position bolstered, Touadéra has further repressed dissenting voices. Humanitarian workers and independent journalists are among those subjected to violence and intimidation by Wagner forces.
In Mali, French media outlets have been banned. Journalist Malick Konaté has received numerous threats for his involvement in a French TV documentary on Wagner. Last November, the junta banned the activities of civil society organisations that receive French support, at a stroke hindering civil society’s ability to help people in humanitarian need due to the conflict and monitor human rights abuses.
One useful side effect of this, for corrupt leaders and Russian forces extracting resources, is that it weakens the potential for accountability. An enabled civil society is the best guard against corruption. Preventing it performing its accountability role enables opaque flows of resources to continue.
Meanwhile, conflict continues, in Ukraine and in the CAR, Mali and other countries where Wagner is present. As well as extracting resources, Russia and its Wagner proxies are obtaining valuable international support. In key votes on United Nations resolutions on Russia’s war on Ukraine, African states with a Wagner presence have consistently opted not to condemn Russian aggression.
In the latest such vote marking the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, 141 UN states backed a resolution demanding Russia’s immediate withdrawal – but shamefully, Mali lined up with autocratic states such as Eritrea, North Korea and Nicaragua as one of seven that voted against, while the CAR and Sudan were among those that abstained.
This enables Putin to claim condemnation is selective and partial, making it easier to continue the war.
But Russia’s involvement will do little to help resolve conflicts in African countries. There will be no solution without human rights being respected and perpetrators of human rights violations being held to account – which needs democracy and an enabled civil society.
There’s no long-term plan to end insecurity. Ultimately, Wagner forces will be present only as long as they can exploit mineral wealth, or as long as it suits Putin, or until losses in Ukraine mean they’re needed to plug gaps there. When they leave, internal capacities likely won’t have been developed. Meanwhile rights violations of the kind being committed by Wagner can act as recruiting agents for continuing insurgency. There’s even some evidence that Wagner’s determination to grab mineral wealth is helping unite rebel groups in a battle to control resources.
The world now knows about Prigozhin and Wagner, because the group’s intensive role in the Ukraine war has forced it out of the shadows. It’s no longer possible to deny its existence, nor the way in which it is enmeshed with and serves Putin’s objectives. Now the same scrutiny needs to focus on its role in African countries – and civil society needs to work to hold it to account and ultimately kick it out.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Democratic states should intensify sanctions against Wagner personnel.
Civil society, including in countries where Wagner is present, should demand that its forces be held to account for human rights violations.
African regional institutions and the United Nations should urge rapid transition to democratic civilian rule in countries under military control, including Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan.
Cover photo by Florent Vergnes/AFP via Getty Images