Johannesburg — The Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary group that has been operating for many years in African countries such as Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, and other mainly Francophone countries, has again been thrust into the limelight due to its involvement in the Ukraine war on behalf of Russia.
Wagner is believed to have a presence in 18 countries in Africa - and its influence goes far beyond security matters.
Julian Rademeyer of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime told DW.com, "Wagner itself has developed over time as an organization that's gone from being a purely private military contracting entity into a multiplicity of business alliances and relations and a network of companies. Some of them are front companies across the countries in which they operate on the African continent."
He sees the Wagner Group as primarily a Kremlin military tool to boost Russia's economic and military influence in Africa.
Rademeyer's colleague and lead author of a study titled Russia's military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa, Julia Stanyard, told IPS, "The Wagner Group is unique as an organization in the breadth, scale, and boldness of its activities. However, our study also shows that Wagner did not emerge in a vacuum: The group's activities and characteristics reflect broader trends in the evolution of Russia's oligarchs and organized crime groups, their respective relationships with the Russian state, and their activities in Africa."
"The group comprises a network of political influence operations and economic entities such as mining companies.
"It appears to target unstable governments embroiled in civil wars and forms alliances with the ruling elite and offers them military support and weapons."
This is exactly what happened in the CAR, where the government has been fighting multiple rebel forces since December 2020. A beleaguered President Faustin-Archange Touadéra reached out to Russia shortly after taking power in 2016.
"He received Russian military instructors and weapons, and Wagner mercenaries soon followed," says CIVICUS, a global alliance promoting civic action.
In return, Wagner receives economic and mining concessions. According to the New York Times, the group has been involved in mining operations in the CAR, where it has secured contracts to mine gold and diamonds.
Stanyard says: "The group comprises a network of political influence operations and economic entities such as mining companies."
While the governments and sections of their population have welcomed the group, Wagner's been accused of gross human rights abuses, with local communities reporting forced labour and sexual violence.
Human Rights Watch says it has collected compelling evidence that Russian fighters have committed grave abuses against civilians in the CAR with complete impunity since 2019. The HRW interviewed 40 people between February 2019 and November 2021 about abuses by men speaking Russian.
Stanyard's research substantiates the allegations of abuse: "Wagner Group has been accused of using whatever means necessary to achieve its aims, including criminal activity."
Russia officially does not recognize mercenaries, but Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch, has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Significantly, on Sunday, May 21, Putin reportedly congratulated the Wagner mercenary force for helping in what he called the "liberation" of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Reuters quoted Putin from a statement on the Kremlin's website, saying: "The Head of State congratulated Wagner's assault groups, as well as all members of the units of the Russian Armed Forces who provided them with the necessary support and cover on their flanks, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk (Bakhmut)."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, said Bakhmut had not been occupied by Moscow.
Wagner's activities go beyond promoting the military and economic interests of the Kremlin.
Stanyard says the group is also involved in promoting Russian propaganda and interests by "targeting the social media profiles of Kremlin critics -- spamming them with pro-Putin and pro-war comments."
Britain, in particular, has expressed concern that among the targets are "senior UK ministers' social media accounts, alongside other world leaders."
"The operation has suspected links to Prigozhin," she says, quoting a UK report exposing the misinformation campaign by Russia.
The Wagner Group's involvement in Africa has raised concerns about the role of private military contractors in the continent's conflicts. While some African governments have welcomed its presence, others are concerned about the lack of oversight and accountability.
In 2019, the African Union adopted the African Standby Force Concept of Operations, which seeks to strengthen the capacity of African states to respond to crises and reduce their reliance on external actors. However, the implementation has been slow, and there are concerns that the Wagner Group and other mercenary groups will continue to operate with impunity.
CIVICUS warns that Wagner's involvement is "contributing to the closing of civic space. In the CAR, with his position bolstered, Touadéra has further repressed dissenting voices. Humanitarian workers and independent journalists are among those subjected to violence and intimidation by Wagner forces."
Likewise, in Mali, French media outlets have been banned and "the junta banned the activities of civil society organizations that receive French support, at a stroke hindering civil society's ability to help people in humanitarian need due to the conflict and monitor human rights abuses."
The issue of private military contractors in Africa is not limited to the Wagner Group. Other companies, such as Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), a private firm hired by the U.S. that became synonymous with civilian killings in the Iraq war, have been involved in conflicts in the continent, often with little oversight or accountability.
Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) was also involved in Mozambique in areas where the country is trying to deal with the Islamist insurgency. DAG claimed to have worked closely with the government to keep the insurgency at bay before the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent deployments to Cabo Delgado province. Wagner was reportedly also involved in the conflict but left after experiencing a number of losses.
The use of private military contractors has raised questions about the role of states and the responsibility of corporations in conflicts, as well as the need for greater transparency and accountability.
IPS UN Bureau Report