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The impact of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death on the Wagner Group’s African operations

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The recent tragic death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the infamous Wagner Group, has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of this private military company (PMC). As the world speculates about the circumstances surrounding Prigozhin’s demise, questions arise regarding the fate of the Wagner Group in the absence of its influential leader. This article delves into the operations of the Wagner Group in Africa, its role in challenging French dominance in the region, accusations of human rights violations, and the broader implications of PMCs in African conflicts.

The Wagner Group’s African ventures
The Wagner Group, often referred to as a private military company (PMC), maintains close ties with the Russian military and serves as a state-linked actor. It has been actively involved in African politics, furthering Kremlin interests while affording the Russian leadership plausible deniability. Comprising former Russian soldiers, convicts, and foreign nationals, the group provides a range of mercenary services.

The Wagner Group first gained notoriety in Crimea in 2014 and has since expanded its operations to various African countries. These African operations are reported to include Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Mozambique, and Madagascar, with more than 5,000 operatives across these regions. Notably, many of these countries share common traits, including insurgencies, civil wars, abundant natural resources, corrupt leadership, and unconstitutional governance.

Challenging French dominance
The Wagner Group’s involvement in Africa goes beyond mere military activities. Designated as a “transnational criminal organization” by the US government, the group offers a spectrum of services, including combat operations, training, regime security, advising government leadership, and resource management and extraction.

One of its strategic moves has been to challenge French dominance in West Africa, primarily through disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the now-defunct Internet Research Agency. These campaigns aimed to spread anti-colonial sentiments in the Sahel region, further discrediting France and positioning Russia as an alternative. This effort has contributed to fostering anti-French sentiment among francophone countries in West Africa.

Accusations of human rights violations
The Wagner Group has faced serious allegations of targeting civilians and committing severe human rights violations in Mali and CAR. These accusations have raised concerns about the group’s actions in conflict zones and their potential exacerbation of hostilities.

The circular business of conflict
In addition to its military engagements, the Wagner Group has reportedly accumulated over US$20 billion from diverse business dealings in conflict-affected regions. These activities range from gold mining in Sudan to diamond extraction in CAR, where they are heavily invested in forestry and timber businesses. This financial gain incentivizes PMCs like Wagner to prolong conflicts, as conflicts create environments in which they thrive.

For instance, in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, where Wagner Group forces were deployed, small raids escalated into a full-scale terrorist insurgency linked to the Islamic State’s Central African Province. Similarly, in Libya, Wagner Group’s operations have expanded since 2018, with increased Russian funding sustaining the ongoing conflict.

Sovereignty erosion and dependency
The involvement of Wagner Group and other PMCs in African countries often results in the erosion of national sovereignty as unstable governments become reliant on mercenaries for survival. This dependency can lead to local leaders favoring PMC interests, turning them into puppet leaders, exacerbating resource exploitation, environmental degradation, poverty, grievances, and intensified conflicts. This, in turn, fuels the demand for mercenary services.

The future of Wagner Group
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death has raised questions about the future leadership of the Wagner Group and whether it will become more directly state-controlled. However, it is unlikely that his death will significantly impact the group’s African operations. The crucial concern lies in the type of leadership that will emerge.

A call for sustainable peace
While PMCs like the Wagner Group may temporarily prop up unstable or illegitimate governments, they cannot bring sustainable peace to conflict-ridden regions. Genuine peace requires dialogue, transitional governments reflecting people’s desires, adherence to the rule of law, and the establishment of genuine democracy. African leaders must heed popular demands to halt misrule and the exploitation of African resources to ensure positive change for their people in an era marked by instability.

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