A PMC for all occasions: how the Wagner Group is expanding its presence in Africa

Since 2017, the Russian contractors have been deployed in Africa, to engage in conflict, provide military training, manipulate elections and exploit resources

Photo: DR

The Kremlin is strengthening its influence over African countries through the use of private military companies (PMCs). Western think tanks have published a plethora of reports about the most famous of them – the Wagner Group, which is providing military assistance to the governments of Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar and Mozambique.

This version was created in partnership with the translation agency KLS.

“After almost three decades of absence from Africa, Moscow has made significant investments in returning to the Soviet Union’s glory on the continent. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia's involvement in Syria served as examples of the revival of an old global superpower; [...] Moscow has turned to one of its former partners – African countries, which once enjoyed flourishing relationships with the Kremlin. Russia has aimed to rapidly rebuild relationships with them in recent years. A prominent actor such as the Wagner Group, a private military company which exists in legal ambiguity, has proven to be a useful tool for Russia’s ambitions in Africa. It has allowed the Kremlin to continue its military interventionism policy at a lower political and financial cost, as Moscow denies its existence”, – according to an article published by the British analytical organisation Global Risk Insights.

To carry out their assignments in foreign countries, Russian PMCs use fictitious companies that are registered outside the Russian Federation and are only used for one mission.

According to experts, Russia is striving to implement ‘the Syrian scenario’ in African countries. It is prepared to use these hired guns to help prop up regimes that are facing domestic threats and are constrained by arms embargoes or other measures designed to isolate them from the rest of the world. The Wagner Group already has a presence in some 15 African countries. Its top priorities are Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar and Mozambique, where the Russian PMC is pursuing its own objectives, in addition to the tasks assigned to it by the Kremlin. Last year, a new NGO called the ‘League for the Protection of the Interests of Veterans of Regional Wars and Military Conflicts’ was created, with the Wagner Group at its core.

Усеохватна ПВК: як «група Вагнера» розширює присутність в Африці

Private Military Companies not only participate directly in military action, but also accompany civilian vessels, conduct security audits for offshore oil and gas platforms, and engage in a wide range of operations, including sabotage missions, supply runs and aerial reconnaissance; they also provide security at infrastructure facilities for Russian oligarchs, most of whom own, on either a de facto or de jure basis, a PMC. The PMC Shchit (‘Shield’), for instance, belongs to the oligarch Gennady Timchenko and provides security for oil and gas infrastructure in Syria.

The rank-and-file hired guns are recruited using social networks. Recruiters seek out specialists with genuine military experience in trouble-spots around the world (Chechnya, Ukraine, Georgia, Syria).

Усеохватна ПВК: як «група Вагнера» розширює присутність в Африці
Russian soldiers in Syria
Photo: TASS

There are about 20 PMCs working in the Russian Federation’s interests in total, carrying out their activities in more than 15 countries in Africa, in the CIS and in various countries in the Middle East. The most prominent ones, besides Wagner, are: MAR, Moran Security Group (registered in Belize, with offices in the Russian Federation, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Germany), Patriot (Syria, Central African Republic), Shchit (‘Shield’), Aurora (present in Syria, but based in the Crimea), and E.N.O.T Corp. (Luhansk People’s Republic, Donetsk People’s Republic, Belarus, Serbia).

Libya: taking over military bases

As Mind reported, in the fall of 2019 hundreds of mercenaries from Wagner Group travelled from Syria to Libya to provide military support to General Khalifa Haftar, whose army was laying siege to Tripoli.

On 23 October 2020, the two sides of the armed conflict in Libya signed a UN-brokered truce in Geneva, in which they promised to have the foreign mercenaries leave the country within three months. On 5 March, however, the Turkish information agency Anadolu reported that mercenaries loyal to Khalifa Haftar were still there.

“Sources linked to the USA and the UN maintain that there are 2000 members of the Wagner Group present in Libya, hailing from Serbia, East Ukraine and, primarily, from Russia. It is believed that the Russian PMC also controls other military companies that are supplying mercenaries from Syria,” the article by Anadolu states..

The Wagner Group operatives in Libya are equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, including drones, self-propelled anti-aircraft missile and artillery platforms, MiG-29 fighter jets and Su-24 bombers. The Anadolu Agency claims that the mercenaries are stationed at air bases in the Libyan cities of Sirte and Al Jufra, to the east and south-east of Tripoli. They are thus, in effect, holding one strong naval position and two aerial ones on the “NATO’s southern flank” for the Russian military.

The Wagner Group’s presence in Libya and Sudan is being backed financially by the government of the UAE. According to media reports, agreements on the use of PMCs’ capabilities in Libya and Sudan were concluded between the Russian Federation and the UAE in 2017, with Ramzan Kadyrov brokering the deal.

Another area of the Wagner Group’s activity in Libya has been the recruitment and training of specialists from neighboring countries in the region, to take part in military action on the side of the Libyan National Army (LNA)..

The Central African Republic: mining gold and diamonds

Since 2018, Russia has been openly supporting the regime of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the Central African Republic. Touadéra only controls about a third of the territory of his country, which is extremely poor. The other regions are split between 14 rebel groups, including the predominantly Muslim coalition Séléka and the Christian alliance Anti-Balaka.

Given this woeful state of affairs, Faustin-Archange Touadéra was eager to sign an agreement that would put the Wagner Group’s presence in the CAR on a legal footing.

In 2018, the Russian mercenaries were given the official status of instructors for the government army and were given accommodation right in the centre of the country, adjacent to the presidential palace. One of their areas of activity is the provision of training for local security forces at the Berengo base.

Meanwhile, the company Lobaye Invest, which was registered by Russian citizens in the CAR, has been issued permits for the mining of gold, diamonds and other minerals in the regions of Pama and Yawa.

In December 2020, after six rebel groups in the CAR joined forces to create the Coalition of Patriots for Change and wrestled control of several cities from the government army, regular troops from Russia were dispatched to the African trouble-spot to give the ‘Wagnerites’ a helping hand.

The Russian Ministry of Defense made an official announcement to the effect that an additional contingent of 300 military training staff were sent to the CAR, with whose help the government army managed to alter the course of the civil war early in 2021 and launch a counter-offensive against the rebels.

The PMC Patriot is also operating in the region: it is providing security for the country’s political top brass. This structure was created as an alternative to the ‘Wagnerites’ after a row between Prigozhin and senior figures in the RF Ministry of Defense, prompted by the way in which the proceeds from Russia’s control of oilfields in Syria were distributed. Another reason why an alternative PMC was set up may have been the fact that the Wagner Group was becoming increasingly toxic, due to frequent stories about it in the media and the presence of people associated with it on the sanctions lists.

Усеохватна ПВК: як «група Вагнера» розширює присутність в Африці

Sudan: mining gold

The Wagner Group appeared in Sudan at the end of 2017, after Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir, the country’s head of state, asked Vladimir Putin for protection “from the aggressive actions of the USA” during a visit to Russia and promised that his country would become “the key to Africa” for the Kremlin.

The Russian president said at the time that Sudan was of interest to Russia due to opportunities for energy projects, geological exploration, and the extraction and trading of resources. Shortly afterwards, there were reports that two companies associated with the Wagner Group, Meroe Gold and M Invest, had begun geological exploration work in Sudan, in a bid to find gold deposits.

In 2018, the Russian mercenaries provided training for rapid-response units in the Darfur region and for soldiers in the Sudanese army. It was anticipated that the Wagner Group would help Omar al-Bashir to quell the increasingly angry street protests against him. However, in April 2019 al-Bashir's regime was overthrown, and Russia had to go to considerable lengths to help keep the generals who replaced him in power.

“Russia poured lots of resources into the parliamentary and presidential elections in Sudan, that took place in April 2020. Al Bashir mirrored the measures employed against opposition protesters in Russia. These tactics consisted of using disinformation and manipulated videos in order to portray any opposition movement as anti-Islamic, pro-Israeli or pro-LGBT. Given that the core of Sudan’s public opinion is mostly conservative and religious, Russia’s plan consists of manipulating it towards its desired candidate or candidates”, writes Pablo Arbunies, an expert on International Affairs from Spain’s University of Navarra.

The Wagner Group is also protecting the interests of the Russian gold-mining company Alliance for Mining Co. LTD (it is controlled by the Russian company BAT Gazprombank).

Madagascar: obtaining access to gold, nickel and uranium deposits

Madagascar went down the same path as Sudan. In 2017 and 2018, the then president of this island state, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, held high-level talks on several occasions with representatives of the Russian authorities, during which he asked for their backing in the election and promised to give Moscow access to deposits of gold, cobalt, nickel and uranium.

After that, the Wagner Group arrived in Madagascar together with the company Ferrum Mining. In October 2018, a warship called the Severomorsk weighed anchor in the country's capital, the port city of Maputo, and, according to  the US newspaper the New York Times, some conspicuous Russians emerged from it, carrying backpacks stuffed with cash and campaign swag decorated with the name of Madagascar’s president.

“It was one of Russia’s most overt attempts at election interference to date. Working from their headquarters in a resort hotel, the Russians published their own newspaper in the local language and hired students to write fawning articles about the president to help him win another term. Skirting electoral laws, they bought airtime on television stations and blanketed the country with billboards,” the New York Times reports.

Their efforts were in vain. Hery Rajaonarimampianina lost the presidential election in November 2018. Despite this failure, Russia and Madagascar signed an agreement on military cooperation in October 2019.

Mozambique: taking revenge on the local chapter of ISIS

Since 2017, the Christian country of Mozambique has been suffering as a result of an uprising by the religious sect Al Shabaab in the Muslim province of Cabo Delgado. In this region, which lags behind the rest of the country from an economic standpoint but is home to an abundance of ruby and natural gas deposits, the situation deteriorated drastically after the group behind the uprising swore allegiance to ISIS and its ranks started to be swelled by battle-hardened foreign fighters who dreamed of creating a Caliphate. Al Shabaab burned down Christian villages and carried out brutal public executions, actions that forced 500,000 people, or 25% of Cabo Delgado’s population, to flee their homes.

In 2019, having acknowledged that the country’s own troops were incapable of keeping the Jihadi uprising at bay, Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, appealed to several foreign PMCs for help. The Wagner Group was the first PMC with which the African country’s government signed a contract.

The Russian hired guns proved to be ineffectual, however, in conditions with which they were unfamiliar: torrential rain, the jungle, and an insurmountable language barrier that prevented them from coordinating their actions with Mozambique’s military. They fell prey to ambushes while driving from place to place.

200 to 300 of the Wagner Group’s employees arrived in northern Mozambique, a few weeks after President Filipe Nyusi met with Putin in Moscow to sign agreements to deepen bilateral cooperation in military and economic domains. The “private” military force faced a major setback in Cabo Delgado. Attacks by local Islamist insurgents pushed the Wagner Group into taking a “strategic retreat”, writes insidearabia.com.

The Russian contractors were replaced in Cabo Delgado by a different PMC: Dyck Advisory Group, from neighboring South Africa, which hunted down the insurgents from the air in military helicopters. As for the ‘Wagnerites’, media reports claim that they are still present in Mozambique’s port city of Mocimboa da Praia and in the provinces of Nacala and Namialo, where they are likely trying to think up a way of restoring their reputation after the fiasco with Al Shabaab.

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