The recent deaths of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and several of his top lieutenants in an airplane crash north of Moscow will likely have far-reaching implications for Africa, where the private military company has established a significant presence in recent years.
After all, if Russian president Vladimir Putin is responsible for Prigozhin’s death, as many suspect, African leaders who have tied their political fortunes to Wagner must wonder how credible Prigozhin’s promises to them now are.
The military ties between the Kremlin, Wagner, and African governments have always been shrouded in uncertainty.
But the death of Prigozhin and Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin, presumably orchestrated by Putin as punishment for Prigozhin’s short-lived June rebellion, has increased the risks facing those African leaders who have relied on Wagner’s mercenary army to strengthen their hold on power.
REALITIES AND RISKS
Sudanese warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, is a case in point.
Hemedti, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, spent years cultivating a relationship with Prigozhin.
But with Prigozhin dead and Wagner’s future uncertain, the supply of weapons to RSF will likely be disrupted, potentially shifting the balance of power between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.
This shift comes at a precarious time for Hemedti, whose bid to lead the country seems to be faltering.
Partnering with Wagner, always a risky proposition, is now fraught with even greater peril.
With coups erupting from Niger to Gabon, African governments or rebel groups considering an alliance with Wagner cannot count on business as usual.
Without Prigozhin’s access to Kremlin resources, Wagner is almost certain to become a mere shadow of its former self.
Prigozhin, who was reportedly in Africa days before his death, was the driving force behind Wagner’s African activities.
His unique character, rapport with African leaders, and control of commercial channels were crucial to his paramilitaries’ growing clout.
Finding a successor who can deliver the same results would be a daunting (perhaps impossible) challenge, potentially impeding Wagner’s operations across the continent.
To the extent that Wagner’s troops believe that Putin ordered their leader’s assassination, he would be unwise to expect their continued allegiance, particularly from Wagner units far from the Kremlin’s reach.
And if Wagner comes under the command of Russia’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), which appears to be Putin’s goal, its transformation from a private militia into a state actor would likely limit its operational flexibility and tactics.
Moreover, maintaining the discipline, merit-based hierarchy, and mission-driven reward system that Prigozhin instituted could prove challenging.
While Prigozhin was known to share the spoils of Wagner’s African ventures with his men, such largesse is not typically associated with Russia’s MoD.
Then there is the critical issue of operational autonomy.
Prigozhin trusted his commanders, delegating decision-making power to them for on-the-ground operations, a practice the Kremlin has traditionally frowned on. Already wary of Wagner’s independence, the MoD is unlikely to adopt Prigozhin’s decentralised model, which has been a key factor in the group’s ruthless effectiveness in Africa.
Many commanders have been with Prigozhin since Wagner’s inception.
For example, the group’s top commander in Mali, Ivan Maslov, operates almost like an independent CEO, exemplifying Wagner’s operational approach across the region.
It remains to be seen whether the MoD can secure the loyalty of these experienced officers, without whom Wagner is likely to lose its competitive edge.
DISTRUST AND DESTABILISATION
Given the deep distrust between Wagner and the Russian military establishment, many mercenaries might quit the group altogether.
Some may join other non-state militias, private military companies, or criminal organisations, while others may directly serve African leaders with whom they have built relationships, as some have already done in the Central African Republic.
Such shifts could further destabilise some of the world’s most fragile countries, heightening the risk of regional turmoil.
The imminent classification of Wagner as a terrorist group by the United States and the United Kingdom, together with Putin’s divide-and-rule strategy, could also cause the group to splinter.
The mercenary company Redut, headed by Prigozhin’s arch-nemesis, minister of defence Sergei Shoigu, will likely vie for control over some of Wagner’s operations on the continent.
But Redut lacks the necessary cultural understanding, established relationships, and on-the-ground experience.
So, even if Shoigu manages to take over some or all of Wagner’s African positions, Redut might struggle to hold on to them.
WEIGHING THE ODDS
African leaders who have relied on Wagner and similar mercenary groups (and those contemplating such partnerships) must use this moment to reassess their strategy.
Aligning with groups like Wagner, characterised by internal strife, egregious human rights records, and uncertain futures, is a perilous choice at best.
To counter private militias like Wagner, Western countries must do more to fill the security vacuum that such groups exploit.
But while military measures are necessary to combat the Islamist insurgencies ravaging the Sahel, lasting peace can be achieved only by promoting human development and strengthening community resilience.
Championing economic and social progress will be key to driving out Wagner and its ilk.
Prigozhin’s death provides Western countries with a unique opportunity to forge stronger security ties with African governments.
As Wagner’s influence wanes, Africa and the West must capitalise on this chance to build a future characterised by security and sustainable peace.
- Jaynisha Patel is a policy analyst at the Tony Blair Institute
– Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023