Mercenaries are enjoying a resurgence in Africa, hired to fight in some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts. Perhaps the most famous is the Wagner Group, a nebulous network that combines military force with commercial and strategic interests, now at the forefront of Russia’s growing ambitions in Africa.
Wagner fighters have been active in the wars of Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya. They partner with embattled leaders and militia commanders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals such as gold, diamonds and uranium. Wagner troops have been regularly accused of torture, civilian murders and other abuses.
But Wagner is much more than a simple guns-for-gold scheme. Operating through an expansive web of shell companies, it has become synonymous with a broad spectrum of Kremlin-backed operations in more than a dozen African countries. Wagner meddles in politics, supports autocrats and orchestrates digital propaganda campaigns. It donates food to the poor and makes action films set in Africa. It even hosted a beauty pageant.
The Kremlin denies any link to Wagner. But US and European officials, as well as most pundits, say it’s an unofficial instrument of Russian power — a cheap and undeniable way for President Vladimir V. Putin to expand his reach, bolster his war chest against Western sanctions, and expand his influence in a continent where sympathy for Russia remains relatively high.
“It’s a power play by Russia,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director for Africa at the International Crisis Group. “Through Wagner, it wants to see how far it can spread its influence in Africa. I think the results surprised a lot of people.”
Here’s a look at how Wagner has spread across Africa and why his activities are becoming increasingly important to Mr Putin.
How Wagner got his name and went to Africa?
Wagner surfaced during Putin’s first attack on Ukraine in 2014, when his mercenaries fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas and Luhansk regions. The commander was Dmitry Utkin, a retired commander of the Russian Special Forces who was reportedly fascinated by the history and culture of the Nazis.
The name of the group, and the military callsign of Mr. Utkin, is taken from the composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite. Some of the group’s fighters share that ideology: Ancient Norse symbols favored by white extremists have been photographed on Wagner equipment in Africa and the Middle East.
Wagner expanded into Syria in 2015, charged with bolstering President Bashar al-Assad and seizing oil and gas fields, US officials said. In 2016, Mr Putin presented Mr Utkin with military awards at a banquet in the Kremlin. A year later, the United States imposed sanctions on Utkin for his activities with Wagner.
The group turned to Africa in 2017 under the ostensible leadership of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon known as “Putin’s chief”.
Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Prigozhin hails from St. Petersburg, where he once ran a hot dog stall before founding a catering company that prospered with lucrative contracts from the Kremlin. The United States indicted him in 2018 on charges that he financed a Russian troll factory accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
In Africa, Wagner began advising faltering dictators, conducting social media disinformation campaigns and deploying teams of fake election observers, according to Western officials, experts and United Nations researchers. Companies associated with Mr. Prigozhin operated gold and diamond mines.
mr. Prigozhin has denied any link to Wagner and has even questioned the group’s existence. “The Wagner legend is just a legend,” he said in a written response to questions.
He may be technically correct: Wagner is no longer a single company, but has become the brand name for an unofficial Russian network spanning the entire continent, experts say.
USA since 2016. has imposed at least seven series of sanctions on Mr Prigozhin, his companies and his associates, distinguishing his yacht and three private jets. Facebook and Twitter have DELETED hundreds of fake accounts managed by its employees. Russian investigative news sources have documented his close ties to Mr Putin and the Russian Defense Ministry.
That profile makes Mr Prigozhin very different from other Russian oligarchs who made their fortune through the privatizations of the Russian state in the 1990s, experts say.
“He’s not necessarily an independent businessman,” said Samuel Ramani of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based nonprofit, and the author of a forthcoming book on Russia in Africa. “His business interests are very closely tied to what Wagner does, and he gets a cut from being an intermediary in deals between African leaders and the Kremlin.”
Where Wagner works
One of Wagner’s first forays into the continent was a disaster.
In 2019, it deployed about 160 fighters in the gas-rich, Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique. But within weeks, rebels with a local IS branch killed at least seven Wagner troops, US officials said. A few months later, the Russians withdrew.
Wagner appeared to be learning from those mistakes in the Central African Republic, where it arrived in 2018 to protect beleaguered President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. After training local security forces, it helped the military repel a major Islamic offensive in early 2021.
But those modest gains came at a high cost: United Nations investigators found that Wagner troops killed civilians, looted homes and shot worshipers in a mosque. Critics noted that the operation focused on regions where Mr Prigozhin’s companies mine diamonds.
In Libya, Wagner fighters supported a failed attack on the capital Tripoli in 2019 by Khalifa Hifter, a power-hungry commander. Thousands of Wagner fighters remain stationed at four bases in Libya, mostly near the country’s oil fields, Western officials and analysts say.
In Sudan, Wagner obtained concessions for gold mining and unsuccessfully tried to rescue the country’s autocratic leader, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was overthrown in April 2019.
Now Wagner’s main Sudanese partner is General Mohamed Hamdan, a powerful paramilitary commander who flew to Moscow on the eve of the war in Ukraine to meet with senior Russian officials.
Perhaps Wagner’s most controversial operation is in Mali, where Wagner troops arrived in December 2021 amid what the US State Department called “a barrage of targeted disinformation to cover up his arrival and activities”. The fighters quickly joined the fight against Islamic insurgents.
But by mid-April, according to researchers and United Nations reports, Wagner was involved in more than a dozen incidents that killed nearly 500 people.
More than mercenaries
In addition to providing rental weapons, Russia has tried to shape the politics of at least a dozen African countries through social media and political influence campaigns.
Last year, the US Treasury Department identified what it called “a front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa,” which it said had sponsored fake monitoring missions in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Mozambique.
In 2019, two Russians employed by Mr Prigozhin met a son of the former Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, only to be thrown in prison. A Prigozhin-affiliated company later made a film about the ordeal of the Russians, depicting their captors as violent sadists. The detainees were released in December 2020.
“Russians don’t abandon their own country!” Prigozhin’s company, Concord, said in a statement.
Since October 2019, Facebook has shut down more than 300 fake Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Mr. Prigozhin and which it said was targeting a dozen African countries.
Wagner also fights through popular culture. In the Central African Republic, Mr Prigozhin’s companies sponsored a beauty pageant, financed a radio station and last year released a film, Touriste, glorifying the actions of Wagner mercenaries in that country.
In December, another Prigozhin-financed film aired on Russian TV, this time about Wagner’s bloody misadventures in Mozambique. Wagner remains discreetly present in that country: After the fighters withdrew in 2020, they left behind a small cyber war cell employed by the Mozambican government, a Western security official in Africa said, citing European intelligence reports.
Mr Putin made clear his ambitions for Russia in Africa at a summit of African leaders in Sochi in 2019 when he described the continent as a place of “significant opportunity” for the Kremlin.
That expansion is part of Mr Putin’s broader desire to make Russia a great power again, analysts say, pitting him in part against China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other countries that have battled for a position in Africa as western influence wanes. †
Some African leaders are drawn to Moscow by arms: Russia has become Africa’s largest arms supplier. But Mr Putin also taps into deep historical and political currents.
Many African countries are reluctant to join Western condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine — some because of lingering Cold War sympathies, but many others out of frustration at what they see as Western contempt for Africa.
In West Africa, Russia is tapping into a growing wave of anti-French sentiment in countries like Mali, where the arrival of Wagner agents this year led to the departure of French soldiers and diplomats. A military coup in Burkina Faso was welcomed by protesters waving Russian flags. And in Cameroon, officials signed a defense deal with Russia in April that some saw as a possible precursor to a Wagner deployment.
A second Russia-Africa summit is planned for November. This time, the proposed site is Mr Putin’s home city, St. Petersburg – which is also Mr Prigozhin’s base of operations.
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.