Wagner’s lucrative African operations thrown into post-Prigozhin limbo

Founder’s mysterious demise casts fresh doubt over Russia’s ability to maintain mercenary deployments on the continent

The last time Yevgeny Prigozhin was pictured alive was a video published last Monday from what was rumoured to be Mali, in which the camouflage-clad warlord pledged to make “Russia even greater on every continent and Africa even freer”, while brandishing an assault rifle.

Forty-eight hours later, Prigozhin’s private plane crashed in mysterious circumstances in a field northwest of Moscow, killing him and everyone on board.

Prigozhin’s grip on Wagner has been questioned ever since he challenged Vladimir Putin’s authority with his mutiny against the Russian army in June. Now his grisly end has cast fresh doubt over Russia’s ability to maintain the mercenary deployments it runs in Africa and the Middle East through the network he built, according to people familiar with its operations.

“Africa’s all going to go to shit,” said a long-time Prigozhin acquaintance briefed on and referring to Wagner’s operations there. “They wouldn’t let him do any operations any more, and nobody’s going to take them over, because you need Zhenya for that,” he added, using Prigozhin’s nickname. “He was the only one crazy enough to make it work.”


Wagner: ‘The option of last resort’

Wagner became, in little more than five years, a crucial plank in Russian power projection in Africa. The group launched election interference schemes, misinformation campaigns and military activities, while offering plausible deniability for the Kremlin when anything went awry.

Wherever there was chaos to sow or anti-western sentiment to exploit, Prigozhin and his band of retired soldiers and ex-convicts were often found doing the Kremlin’s bidding in countries across the continent.

The once-shadowy Wagner propped up military juntas, pro-Moscow strongmen and fragile governments from Libya to Mali and the Central African Republic, in exchange for mineral exploration concessions and a monthly fee.

As the governments backed by Wagner had often severed most of their ties with western and sometimes African allies, there was nowhere else for them to turn.

“Wagner was the option of last resort for these countries,” says Cameron Hudson, a former CIA official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank. “They’re in bed with Russia now, whether it’s Putin or Prigozhin. They can’t switch.”

The mutiny in June threw all this into doubt, although Prigozhin appeared to have been forgiven and reintegrated into Russia’s security establishment, not least thanks to his strong ties to African leaders.

He met African officials on the sidelines of a recent St Petersburg summit and heaped praise on those behind last month’s coup in Niger. Russian officials assured Wagner’s clients that the services they received would continue uninterrupted.

Yet Prigozhin’s status as Russia’s semi-official emissary to the continent where rivals were eyeing the spoils had already been badly weakened, say people familiar with the matter.

After the mutiny, the Wagner boss agreed a deal with Putin under which he and his fighters would relocate to Belarus before an eventual switch to Africa. This gave the warlord confidence that he had “more or less sorted things out with Putin”, said the long-time acquaintance.

As most of Wagner’s fighting force in Ukraine had either joined the defence ministry or gone home, the person said, Prigozhin was left with only a small contingent he planned to base in the Central African Republic.

“They let him take as many people as he wanted to Africa. About 1,000 did, and 500 have already redeployed,” said the long-time acquaintance. “So they were starting over, and if [Prigozhin] survived, he would have come up with some way eventually to get in front of Putin again and say, ‘Look what I did in Africa’.”

Changes in the chain of command

CAR represents Wagner’s most mature operation in Africa. The group has been responsible for safeguarding president Faustin-Archange Touadéra, training the military and joining in combat missions against rebel groups plaguing the country.

Wagner-linked companies have in return been granted gold and diamond mines and timber exportation rights. At the Ndassima mine, the Wagner-linked Midas Resources, which was sanctioned by the US in June, has a significant gold mining operation that could fetch up to $1 billion in annual profits at full production capacity, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable. Wagner entities also make beer and vodka.

But future deployments to Africa are likely to be less lucrative, according to the long-time Prigozhin acquaintance. “We’re talking about tens of millions a year maximum,” the person said of the expected profits.

Enrica Picco, director of central Africa at the Crisis Group think-tank, said that with Prigozhin gone, new faces would likely emerge. “We will see changes in the chain of command among the main officers and the most visible faces of Wagner operations in the continent,” she predicted.

“This will take time and will be part of a larger takeover from Russia’s ministry of defence and the affiliated private military company from the operation led by Wagner. The Kremlin may also move on to the businesses and ownership of companies related to Prigozhin in CAR.”

What happens next depends to a large extent on the Russian president. Moscow suggested following the Wagner mutiny that it would begin to disband the group, but the Kremlin never provided a public plan of action on how those operations would evolve.

“The next move is for Putin,” said Hudson at the CSIS. “What does Putin do to take control and consolidate control over Wagner?”

Yevgeny’s premature death won’t affect Russia’s position in Africa

—  Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian nationalist tycoon

Some sort of plan could be coming into view. Prigozhin’s trip to Africa this week may have been prompted by a desire to forestall the GRU, the foreign intelligence service of the Russian military, from taking control of his operations, according to people familiar with the matter.

A high-powered delegation from the Russian army including deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov travelled to Libya in recent days to meet Khalifa Haftar, the pro-Kremlin leader of the Libyan National Army who controls the east of the country.

Wagner mercenaries have been fighting alongside Haftar’s troops since his failed bid to seize the capital in 2019. The Wagner fighters remain in the north African country, where they provide training on weapons systems to Haftar’s men.

Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian nationalist tycoon who lavished praise on Prigozhin before the mutiny, told the Financial Times that “anyone representing Russia would enjoy an unchanged situation and the full trust of African leaders” due to widespread anti-western resentment.

“The main thing is for them to be Russian, because Russia is trusted infinitely more than the western colonisers. So Yevgeny’s premature death won’t affect Russia’s position in Africa.”

Heritier Doneng, a pro-Russian propagandist who leads the pan-African Republican Front movement, called Prigozhin a “friend of the African people in their fight against terrorism and vampirism”.

Fidèle Gouandjika, a senior adviser to Touadéra, said of Prigozhin’s death: “It’s sad news, he saved democracy so the country’s in mourning. But for us it changes absolutely nothing. We’ll continue to have Wagners on the ground thanks to our agreement with the Kremlin.”

‘Intimidating message for African leaders’

Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the African countries it operates in, involving rape and the massacres of civilians. A UN report this month accused Malian troops and Wagner mercenaries of killing up to 500 people and other human rights abuses in the town of Moura.

A one-time senior CAR politician said Touadéra had considered reducing Wagner’s influence in his country, before rejecting the idea upon realising how dependent he was on Prigozhin’s associates. For example, Valery Zakharov, a Wagner employee and former agent with Russia’s Federal Security Service, served as Touadéra’s national security adviser as recently as last year.

Putin has more on his plate than Africa. So it either goes to the army or it goes to shit. My guess is the latter

A UN official involved with the peacekeeping force in Mali expected Wagner’s operations to continue largely unchanged, in part because the international body could not provide the kind of services Mali wanted, which included raids on jihadis that were incompatible with the UN mandate. “It’s like they were asking us to violate their sovereignty,” the official said.

Yet even if the Russian army did take over Wagner’s operations, it was unlikely to be able to fully replicate its operations under Prigozhin, said one person close to Russia’s defence ministry. “Putin has more on his plate than Africa,” the person said. “So it either goes to the army or it goes to shit. My guess is the latter.”

Picco at Crisis Group said another lesson from the Wagner boss’s untimely demise could play out in the minds of those who chose to hire the services of his mercenaries.

“African leaders will be careful not to upset the Kremlin,” she said. “Prigozhin’s death could be a very intimidating message for African leaders.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023