Wagner Group in Africa: What's its future after the mutiny?
Russia's presence in Africa heavily depends on the Wagner Group, headed by Yevgeny Prighozin
The apprehension is palpable on the streets of Bamako, the capital of Mali. In August 2020, the military overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and the junta government has since pivoted towards Russia, away from former colonial power France and its Western partners.
Malians had enthusiastically welcomed the Wagner Group in the Sahel nation. Mali only recently rejected an extension of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country.
But after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin marched his fighters towards Moscow, thus clashing with his long-time ally President Vladimir Putin, disillusionment followed.
"Even the Russian government doesn't control them," a Bamako resident told DW about the Wagner group's attempted coup. "What are we supposed to do now? This shows that this army is not controllable, this is very dangerous for us."
Another woman in the Malian capital said the military regime had trusted Russia to come and save Mali from the jihadist insurgency. "If now our new partner Russia is in conflict with them [Wagner], it scares us a lot!" she said.
Russia's shifting stand on Wagner's presence in Africa
Meanwhile, Moscow is trying to explain the impact of the mutiny in Africa. Initially, the Kremlin praised Wagner's activities in Africa, saying the group was doing a good job in Mali and the Central African Republic and its operations would continue.
However, on Friday, Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov struck a distant tone stressing that the future of Wagner's contracts in Africa depends on the African nations that have sought the services of Wagner.
A closer look at the company's activities in Africa reveals the reason for such statements: Cooperation occurs where there are raw materials — and Wagner controls the business.
For Vladimir Putin's government, there is no question that it must continue, Jean-Pierre Mara, a former lawmaker in the Central African Republic, said. "It needs the Central African gold, the Malian gold, to finance the war, so nothing will change," Pierre Mara told DW. "But whether it will be the same actors is unclear."
Win-win relationship for Russia and Wagner in Africa
Russian historian Irina Filatova described Russia's relationship with the Wagner Group in Africa as a win-win situation, with Wagner benefiting from Russia's prestige and Russian weapons.
"The relationship is very much like the pattern of European trading companies in the 19th century," Filatova told DW, drawing parallels to colonial times — whether British, German or French. "They got a mandate from their respective state, acted independently, but the state benefited from their presence in Africa."
Mali's €100 million annual budget for Wagner
In late 2021, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, identified a new military base in Mali. Eyewitnesses confirmed the base was built for Wagner troops.
At the time, a figure was already circulating: $10 million (€9 million). That's the amount Mali's military government was reportedly paying the mercenaries each month. That amounted to more than €100 million annually.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), where a comprehensive peace agreement was only reached in February 2019 under President Faustin Archange Touadera after decades of civil war, the Wagner Group's influence extend even further.
Wagner's growing influence in Africa
According to various observers, the group has a stake in many lucrative areas of the state, such as the oil sector or — as in Mali — the gold mining sector. A Canadian and a South African company lost their licenses, while a Madagascan company — close to Russia — received a new concession.
But there is also influence at the personnel level. Since 2018, Wagner mercenaries have protected President Touadera. His advisors have long included a man with closer ties to Wagner chief Prigozhin.
Paul Crescent Beninga, a Central African Republic civil society representative, said he was concerned by Wagner's growing influence. "The Central African Republic is not profiting from these developments," Beninga told DW. "Rather, the winners are the Russians."
He said that the Wagner Group's interference in CAR's internal political affairs worries him. "We have reached a point where this undermines the ability of the Central African state to conduct its politics without pressure."
Did Wagner take President Touadera hostage?
Former minister Adrien Poussou, author of the book "Africa Doesn't Need Putin," is more blunt. "President Touadera is a hostage of Wagner, and he knows it," Poussou told DW. "So, despite the aborted rebellion of the Wagner group, the situation remains deadlocked until an even bigger power interferes in the dance."
However, the CAR government described the idea that it has lost control as "nonsense."
So where do the Wagner operations in Africa go from here? All indications are that the business is too lucrative and essential for Moscow to abandon it.
Historian Irina Filatova, who has researched Russia-Africa relations, pointed out that the Wagner enterprise includes a network of sub-companies. "They can be rebranded or remain under the same name as they are already a brand in Africa. They can act independently."
How each of these groups positions itself in the future depends entirely on the fate of Prigozhin: "That is totally unclear," Filatova said.
Bob Barry, Sandrine Blanchard, Jean-Michel Bos and Mahamadou Kane in Bamako contributed to this article
This article was adapted from German by Chrispin Mwakideu