The Increasing Presence and Role of Private Security Firms in Africa: The Russian Company “Wagner” as a Model

Private military and security companies have come to play a pivotal role in materializing the agendas and goals of international powers in areas of influence to maximize their strategic interests. With the multiplicity of the roles played by those companies, they have been increasingly relied upon by some African rulers over the last decade. This has led to expanding their role in African countries and increasing their political, economic and military influence.

While the Russian strategy towards Africa rests on the security dimension in light of the security challenges experienced by most African countries, the role of Wagner Group in Africa is on the rise and has been developing noticeably. While this enhances the Russian role in the continent, it equally drives towards a new stage of the militarization of the African continent and intensified international competition and the impact thereof on Africa’s future in light of the predicted expansion of the activity of such companies moving forward.

The nature of the role and tasks

  • Resorting to private military companies over the last decade has become a main tool for the Russian policy to achieve geopolitical and geostrategic targets in some areas of Russian influence.[1] While the Russian private military company Wagner had not been the main tool for enhancing Russian interests abroad before 2013, this has changed with the developments that accompanied the Syrian crisis since its eruption in 2011, and on the Ukranian front since early 2014 which forced Moscow to be present forcefully in the two arenas. Wagner’s activity soon expanded to include Africa in the last few years within the framework of the attempts to enhance Russia’s influence in the region.
  • Wagner was established in 2013 by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence officer who had been awarded in 2016 the Medal for Courage by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is owned by the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin although he constantly denies it.[2]Wagner was apparently registered as a private profit-seeking commercial company in Argentina with offices in Petersburg (the headquarters) and Hong Kong, and a training camp in Moscow.[3] Wagner is considered a covert military arm of the Russian security forces. It is closer to private military armies than to military companies in the traditional western sense.
  • Most estimates vary about the numbers of Wagner forces. Some indicate that they range between 1000 and 5000 operatives,[4] while other sources estimate that they are around 7000-10000 operatives. Wagner’s yearly budget, including compensations for those killed in military operations, is estimated at nearly 100 million dollars.[5]
  • The most salient characteristic about Wagner’s operatives is their readiness to fight on the frontlines; they fight in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan and other countries on the continent.[6] However, Wagner operatives do not have much experience in dealing with the African geographical environment and primitive guerilla warfare that erupt in more than one country. This was manifested in the killing of more than 35 of its operatives in Libya and Mozambique. In addition, they face some challenges in some countries, particularly Mozambique, such as the trust crisis between them and African soldiers.[7]
  • Some private security companies in Africa, such as Black Hawk and OAM, could not compete with Wagner in some African countries, particularly Mozambique, due to Wagner’s low cost in comparison with those companies; while the monthly salary of the Wagner operative ranges between 1800 and 4700 dollars, an individual’s monthly salary in private African security companies ranges between 15 and 25 thousand dollars. In addition, Wagner maintains developed political relations with African leaders.[8] One of Wagner’s main competitors in Africa is US Frontier Services Group, owned by Eric Prince. It too is involved in Mozambique and South Sudan. It also protects Chinese mining operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[9]
  • The Wagner security group constitutes a political tool in the hands of the Russian government; it serves both the Russian ministries of foreign affairs and defence. It is mobilized in areas of strategic importance to Russian interests with the aim of enhancing Russia’s global status.[10]Wagner carries out multiple proxy operations on behalf of Moscow in Africa without the need for the involvement of regular Russian military forces and without the need for Moscow to justify its involvement.[11] This is in line with President Putin’s description of Wagner as a means of meeting national interests without direct participation by the Russian government.[12]
  • The rationale of Wagner’s African presence is its assistance in defeating terrorist organizations and insurgents and preventing the destabilization of countries of the continent.[13] This is the same rationale used by the new US Africa Command (AFRICOM).[14] Wagner’s tasks in Africa are multiple, including political, military, security and information tasks. In addition to participation in combat operations on the frontlines, the Russian company provides training on using arms, support for police and civil intelligence agencies, and personal protection of political figures. This comes within the framework of Russian endeavours through the deployment of the Wagner forces and its tendency to expand in building new security environments in African countries that would enable a larger number of Russian companies to carry out more investment projects in different fields. In addition, Wagner supports some African ruling regimes in election arrangements through social media and the press, as in Madagascar, in addition to the provision of political consultancies to African governments.[15]
  • Wagner is also active in the field of information and attempting to orient public opinion within African countries through the utilization of the impact of social media. Wagner has seven accounts on Instagram and 73 Facebook pages with more than 1.72 million follower accounts. Some of those pages target Libya while others target other countries such as the Central African Republic, Democratic Congo, Madagascar, Mozambique and the Sudan. In Libya, the activity of the Facebook pages started in December 2018. In Sudan, it started in mid-2018 and continued after the overthrow of al-Bashir. The content was supportive of the government and sometimes critical of the demonstrators. In Madagascar, activity started in February 2019 after the inauguration of the new president and in support of him and the government. In Mozambique, activity started in September 2019 as support was given to the incumbent president, and the political opposition was attacked.[16]
  • Wagner’s expansion in Africa is considered to be driven by a commercial rather than political logic, although the latter is also included. Financial gains drive Russia to assert a new Russian foreign policy in Africa. According to reports, Wagner now controls more rights and privileges in several areas such as mining and oil[17] in return for the services it offers to African countries, including the protection of the ruling regimes there.[18] This explains the presence of Wagner in African countries that are characterized by poor democratic rule and high corruption indicators so that it can obtain rights and privileges with the least regulation in those countries.
  • Therefore, the increasing activity of the Russian company in African countries has opened the door wide for a second generation of Russian private military companies as two new security service companies, namely Patriot and Sew, began their operations in Africa since 2018.[19]This means that Russia is enhancing its security and military presence with the aim of protecting and maximizing its influence in Africa. Some have considered that the rise of Wagner in Africa is one of the most successful Russian intelligence operations. British The Guardian newspaper has revealed that it got hold of documents indicating that Yevgeny Prigozhin is involved in a covert mission that aims at maximizing Russian influence in Africa and through which Moscow aims to convert Africa into a strategic centre to counter international powers, particularly the US and EU countries. This is achieved through the support of African governments in combating opposition movements and eliminating pro-western uprisings. This is referred to in some reports which indicate that Wagner was behind the election of the new president of Madagascar Rajoelina and offering support and advice to former Sudanese President al-Bashir on how to eliminate opposition protests in Khartoum.[20]
  • Nevertheless, some refer to Wagner’s limited capability to provide a degree of stability in African countries and its limited capabilities to enhance Russia’s influence on its own. Some attempts to provide political support and support electoral campaigns in some African countries were counterproductive as a result of the lack of knowledge of the nature of local conditions. For instance, Russia attempted to interfere in some electoral arrangements in some African countries in favour of some favourite candidates, but the results were less successful, as was the case in Madagascar where Russia supported more than one candidate, neither of whom won the elections.[21]

Deployment map and concentration points in Africa

  • Wagner is active in a number of dispute areas in Africa, especially in light of the significant demand for security therein.[22] The company’s big rise in some African countries drove Russia towards the deployment of thousands of its operatives in more than 20 African countries.[23]
  • The extent of Wagner’s involvement in some African countries is distributed over five levels, the fifth, which is the highest, includes Sudan, Madagascar and the Central African Republic; followed by the fourth, including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Libya; the third, with South Sudan; the second, with Chad, Democratic Congo and Zambia; and the first, with the least involvement, in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Mali and Egypt.[24] The deployment map can be detailed as follows:
  1. The Central African Republic: the first African country to have received Wagner forces to counter extremist organizations in the country. The country is viewed by Russia as its gate to the continent as it is considered the linking ring between the Muslim Arab north and the Christian south. Wagner trains the presidential guards in addition to its responsibility for the personal security of the country’s president as well as the protection of the gold and diamond mines in return for a percentage of the profits therefrom.[25] Five Russian military personnel and 170 Russian civil trainers have been working in Bangui since 2018.[26] It is said that Wagner played a role in getting rid of politicians loyal to France in the Central African Republic, including some members of parliament and the foreign minister who was removed from office in December 2018.[27]
  2. Libya: in September 2019, Wagner deployed between 800 and 1200 of its fighters to tilt the balance of the conflict in favour of the Libyan National Army, enhance Russian influence in the region and ensure that Russia play a role in any future settlement.[28]
  3. Sudan: Wagner developed a programme for political and economic reform that aimed to retain al-Bashir in power. The programme included a plan to distort and demonize protesters against the Bashir regime. Despite the overthrow of al-Bashir, Wagner operatives continue to be present in Khartoum where they have been protecting gold, uranium and diamond mines since January 2018.[29]
  4. Mozambique: relies on Wagner forces in fighting the insurgency in the country. 200 Wagner operatives take part in the counter-terrorism operations in the energy-rich Cabo Deglado province in the north of the country. There are also 2700 operatives stationed on board Russian warships off the coasts of Mozambique.[30]
  5. Madagascar: Wagner interfered in the presidential elections to support a particular candidate with the aim of enhancing influence and obtaining mining rights and privileges.
  6. Zimbabwe: Wagner maintains a small office in Zimbabwe with 10 people that could be increased.[31] The opposition in Zimbabwe has accused Russia of interfering in the 2018 presidential elections after some Russian experts associated with Wagner took part in the election campaign.
  7. Uganda: Wagner maintains an office of nearly 10 operatives.
  8. Tanzania: the Russian army and Wagner forces have been training the Tanzanian army since late 2018.
  9. South Sudan: nearly 100 Wagner operatives are present in South Sudan to train government units.
  10. Somalia: Wagner opened an office in Mogadishu in April 2019 with nearly 20 operatives.
  11. Mali: in 2019, some Wagner operatives went to Mali to fight the insurgency and take part in the fight against al-Mourabitoun group that is loyal to the Islamic State (IS).
  12. Eswatini: Wagner operatives train Eswatini’s forces on new systems of infantry weapons provided by Moscow in February 2015.
  13. Democratic Congo: the country has nearly 1500 Russian military personnel and Wagner operatives.
  14. Comoros: in 2018, some Wagner operatives travelled to the Comoros via Belarus with the aim of testing whether it is possible to fuel the disagreement between Paris and the Comoros government.
  15. Chad: Wagner has an office in Chad with nearly 50 staff members.
  16. Burundi: Patriot company, which belongs to Wagner, takes part in building an air base in Burundi.
  17. Cameroon: in 2018, Wagner met with representatives of President Paul Biya and offered them its services to provide information for his electoral campaign, work on neutralizing protest movements on the street and provide him with information.[32] Wagner also provides training to intelligence services to help in the war against Boko Haram group.
  18. Botswana: nearly 20-30 operatives in addition to 100 Russian military personnel work in the country as trainers and advisers.
  19. Lesotho: Wagner has an office in the country.
  20. Equatorial Guinea: nearly 200 Wagner men are involved in protecting Russian military intelligence officials at the Pico Basile island spy base.[33]
  21. Zambia: Wagner takes part in social research in preparation for the upcoming elections in 2021.
  22. South Africa: through its political experts, Wagner planned to support the ruling party in the country during the 2019 elections.
  23. Congo-Brazzaville: has more than 1000 Wagner operatives.[34]

Implications for the Russian role in Africa

  • The dispatch of Wagner forces to Africa comes within a systematic Russian campaign that aims at gaining influence and maximizing economic interests in the continent as was manifested in the Sochi Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019, easing the impact of US and western sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of annexing Crimea,[35] in addition to enhancing its relations with the ruling regimes in Africa, interfering in African politics and inciting against western countries such as France, and securing natural resources through the response to the political and economic interests of African ruling leaders and elites through Wagner activities.[36]
  •  Through the deployment of Wagner offices all over Africa, Moscow also aims to win over a new series of African elites, influence agents and reliable partners that are loyal to Russia within the framework of a Russian policy that aims at reviving the so-called Russian world that is based on promoting Russian power and culture globally, starting from Africa, to restore the international status of the Russian Federation.[37]
  • While Russia does not have a military base on the African continent, Moscow uses Wagner to get widely involved in many armed struggles in Africa instead of deploying Russian army troops and to ensure non-accountability at home and abroad in light of Moscow’s continued denial of any relationship with Wagner. Besides, Wagner operatives are not considered military personnel, but rather staff in a private security company.[38]
  •  While Russia is considered Africa’s biggest arms supplier, it has signed military cooperation agreements with more than 21 African countries, in addition to some military deals and training partnerships with 50 percent of African countries. Those partnerships with Africa facilitate the involvement and movement of Russian private military and security companies, particularly Wagner, in Africa.[39]

African and international positions

African position: there is an acceptance by some African leaders of this type of support provided by Wagner to establish their authority and suppress any insurgency or opposition movements as was the case during the rule of al-Bashir regime.[40]Furthermore, some governments use it to counter terrorist organizations in light of the poor capabilities of African military armies. Due to its political influence and cheap prices compared to its African counterparts, Wagner is given precedence by some African countries such as Mozambique.[41]

United States of America: Washington ranks Wagner second after terrorist organizations as a threat to its interests in the African continent.[42] The US had imposed sanctions on Wagner in 2017 because it took part in the fighting in eastern Ukraine on the side of separatists backed by Moscow.[43]

France: France warns against the increasing Russian military presence in African countries as it contributes to fuelling tensions and conflicts, as in the case of the Central African Republic. In January 2019, Paris accused Wagner of promoting an anti-French rhetoric in the Central African Republic and the Sahel-Sahara region.[44]

The impact of Wagner’s presence on the security and stability of African countries

  • Increase in the number of private military and security companies in Africa, which leads to a conflict of interests between those international and African companies and could lead to the eruption of private wars in some African countries.[45]
  • Likelihood of involvement in military coups. Those companies might get involved in military coups against African ruling regimes. In 2004, the arrest was made in Zimbabwe of Simon Mann, a former officer in the British special forces and the founder Sandline International, a private military and security company, on a charge of attempting to overthrow President Obiang.[46]
  • Rise of African disputes and conflicts in light of the involvement of Wagner’s forces in some ongoing conflicts. This could lead to the intervention of some internal and external parties, leading to the aggravation of those conflicts which would reflect negatively on the security and stability of African countries.
  • Lack of trust between the ruling authority and the military establishment as a result of reliance by some African rulers on those companies for personal security and securing official parades and fighting terrorism and insurgents which would lead to the outbreak of differences that might generate internal troubles and perhaps military coups.
  • Destruction of the democratic models in Africa where those companies, particularly Wagner, interfere in some African elections to support rulers favoured by Moscow and influence the African public opinion trends towards what would meet Russian interests regardless of the interests of African peoples. This could lead to the continuity of some despotic rulers and the violation of recognized democratic rules such as constitutional provisions.
  • Intensification of international competition. The activity of Russian private military and security companies in Africa could lead to exporting the concern of international powers about the rising Russian influence in the continent. This could lead to counter moves to face the Russian role in African countries and the likely clash between major powers in order to enhance their influence and protect their interests.

Future of Wagner’s influence in Africa

  • Wagner has increasing chances of expansion on a large scale in Africa as long as Russia’s strategic drive continues towards the continent to enhance Russian influence and undermine the roles of the other major powers, particularly Washington and Paris. This would render Africa an ongoing arena for international rivalry.
  • African leaders are expected to employ Wagner on a large scale in the future which would enhance the chances of strengthening its relations and association with the new ruling elites in African countries, thus maximizing its political influence which would naturally reflect on the future Russian role in Africa.
  • There is an increasing likelihood of militarizing the African continent as a result of the increasing reliance by some African governments on private military and security companies. This could take the continent into a new stage of shadow wars that depend on special forces, mercenaries and proxies.
  • Wagner’s increasing activity in Africa allows for increasing its economic influence by obtaining more rights and privileges in multiple fields, especially mining, in resource-rich African countries.
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