While China and the West compete for establishing economic ties with a developing sub-Saharan Africa, a neglected third party is slowly amassing a more dangerous regional presence in the likes of Russia. Specifically, it’s not the Kremlin per se that’s gaining influence but Russia’s largest private military company, the Wagner Group, that’s quickly emerged not only as a formidable force within the African continent, but as a source of wealth and power for an increasingly hostile Russian government. Founded in 2014 by Russian businessman Yevgeny Priogozhin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Wagner; writes William Rampe for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “is a complex network of businesses and mercenary groups whose operations have been closely tied to the Russian military,” a network that includes upwards of 5,000 soldiers stationed in Africa: “a combination of former Russian soldiers, convicts, and foreign nationals.”
Such a presence in the African continent has, in turn, proven incredibly strategic for both Wagner and the Kremlin alike. Thomas Graham with the CFR explains, “The Wagner Group got involved in Africa for its own reasons (such as) private money making. But more recently, the Kremlin has found this a useful adjunct for what it’s trying to do diplomatically.” This is perhaps best evidenced by Wagner’s presence in the Central African Republic. Since 2018, Wagner has assisted the autocratic regime of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra by staging combat operations with thousands of troops against CAR rebels, providing a personal security service for Touadéra, and training soldiers of CAR’s army. In return, Wagner has been granted complete access to many of CAR’s resource deposits such as gold and logging, including a 25-year mining concession over the Ndassima Mining Complex, a key gold mine in CAR that’s owned under the Prigozhin-linked front company Midas Resources. Such sweeping access to the developing country’s rich supply of valuable resources enables Wagner to not only finance its operations and profit heavily, but for the Russian military to do the same. In an interview with CBS, an anonymous resident of CAR under the pseudonym Usman explains, “Like the war in Ukraine… How else do you explain that Russia is under sanctions, but their economy remains unaffected. It’s like witchcraft!”
The Central African Republic is far from being the only African country where Wagner plunders and profits. After a 2020 coup saw Colonel Assimi Goita rise to power in Mali, thousands of Wagner troops and multiple Russian jets are currently operating out of the African country in exchange for cash and mining concessions. Weeks after Burkina Faso ousted French peacekeeping troops this April, apparent talks with Wagner have resulted in the country requesting the transference of $30 million of its gold supply for “public necessity.” And perhaps most recently, Wagner is currently accused of offering weapons to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of the rebelling Rapid Support Forces in the Sudanese Civil War who’s been accused of human rights violations in the past. In total, Wagner is currently active in eight African countries according to the CFR, with the other four being Cameroon, Algeria, Libya, and Eritrea. As Russia desperately attempts to further fund its invasion of Ukraine, however, there’s no question that that number may grow.
As multiple African countries reckon with the private military group, a clear tradeoff has recurrently been demonstrated of African leaders defending their power and regime at the expense of their countries’ resource deposits and economic wellbeing. Consequently, many of the countries that Wagner has been successful in luring hold autocratic regimes where the leader must often defend their power against popular sovereignty. This includes the Central African Republic, which ranks 4th last of all countries in the Democracy Index ahead of Afghanistan, Myanmar, and North Korea. Of the 167 countries on the Index, Mali ranks 119th and Burkina Faso ranks 127th. If anything, Wagner’s rising tide in the African continent may prove the power of democratic, accountable governance in not only promoting national growth but in staving off selfish and bloody attempts at securing supreme power. As the War in Ukraine grinds on, however, it waits to be seen if Wagner and its allies will fall on the losing side of history.