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Wagner Group’s expanding influence in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond

Ndassima mine

Amidst the intricate web of Russian political maneuvering and military operations, the future of the Wagner Group and its far-reaching network of shell companies and financial intermediaries remains uncertain. Notably, the shadowy figure of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a prominent character in this clandestine world, is no longer a part of the equation due to his passing. However, this development does not diminish the stakes and complexities surrounding Wagner’s activities, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, which serves as the epicenter of its operations.

The Wagner Group has played a pivotal role in Russia’s quest to broaden its influence across the African continent. Its resource exploitation activities have gained paramount importance, especially in the wake of Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Starting around 2017, Wagner, working in close coordination with various Russian state entities, including the Kremlin, Ministry of Defense, and intelligence services, has offered paramilitary services to African nations in exchange for significant Russian geopolitical gains and access to valuable natural resources such as gold, gemstones, minerals, oil, natural gas, timber, and other coveted commodities.

Since its arrival in the Central African Republic (CAR) in early 2018, Wagner has secured numerous mining concessions, predominantly for gold and diamonds. Additionally, the group has delved deeply into the timber industry, further cementing its presence in the region.

One of the most significant of Wagner’s gold mining operations unfolds at the Ndassima gold mine in CAR, located approximately 60 kilometers north of Bambari in the Ouaka prefecture. Midas Resources, a shell company affiliated with Prigozhin and Wagner, has spearheaded operations at Ndassima for approximately three to four years. Government documents obtained indicate that within the past year, Midas secured a new long-term permit to significantly expand its operations at Ndassima in compliance with CAR’s 2009 Mining Code. This code permits the government to issue industrial mining permits for 25 years, with the option for consecutive five-year renewals. While the exact production quantity is challenging to ascertain, some projections suggest that Wagner could amass up to one billion U.S. dollars in annual profits from its CAR operations alone.

A closer examination of the Ndassima gold mine reveals significant expansion over the past year. Satellite imagery analysis conducted by CSIS between February 2022 and February 2023 demonstrates considerable growth in both the headquarters and processing facilities at Ndassima. Moreover, a new open-pit mine has emerged slightly southeast of the primary facilities. Although an existing open-pit mine northeast of these locations near the miner’s village remained relatively unchanged during this period, the expansion of the main processing area strongly suggests increased production.

Midas further expanded infrastructure at Ndassima, including headquarters and support buildings, the installation of a new tank battery, and an extension of tailings storage ponds. These ponds serve as artificial holding areas for waste generated during ore extraction processes, indicating the group’s intent to escalate production. Such an expansion is of strategic importance to Russia, as it seeks to channel gold and other raw materials to loosely regulated markets to offset the impacts of Western sanctions.

In addition to the enhanced processing capabilities at Ndassima, Midas has also enlarged a new open-pit mine to the southwest of the existing one. This expansion provides further evidence of the company’s intentions to increase production and profits. While the new mine was in its early stages of development in 2022, by February 2023, it had significantly expanded. Conversely, the existing open-pit mine showed signs of overgrowth in the 2023 images, indicating its likely disuse as attention shifted to the new pit.

Ndassima represents a significant part of the broader mining concession secured by Wagner, covering over 700 square kilometers. While at least 12 other locations of mining activities were identified within the concession, they appeared primarily exploratory and relatively inactive, potentially with artisanal mining operations present. These sites were dispersed, relatively small, and predominantly shallow, flooded excavations.

With a long-term industrial mining permit secured, the entity that assumes control of Wagner will have the capacity to further develop and exploit promising locations in the coming years, including continuing exploratory activities at other sites. The ability to develop multiple sites within the Ndassima concession, not to mention other areas where Wagner holds mining rights in the country, underscores the magnitude of potential profits for the group over the next quarter-century, contingent on its ability to maintain control amidst ongoing political upheaval both in CAR and Russia. This holds significant implications for both Wagner or Russia’s financial gains and the economic repercussions for CAR, which is already one of the world’s poorest nations, due to large-scale resource exploitation.

The Future Landscape The burgeoning scale of operations at Ndassima and other resource-rich areas underscores the significance of Wagner’s sustained presence for Russia’s geopolitical agenda. It may pave the way for heightened competition between various stakeholders within Russia. Replacing Wagner is likely to be a formidable challenge, given the group’s entrenched relationships, whether personal or legal, including mining concessions. Despite Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assurances regarding Wagner’s continued operations in Africa, the identity of the future controller of the Wagner network remains uncertain, along with potential shifts in priorities.

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