Will Wagner Stay in Africa?
A mutiny in Russia could have consequences for the mercenary group’s activities abroad.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Results from Sierra Leone’s election, citizens riled by tax increases in Kenya, and Senegal’s green-energy deal.
How Will Wagner Group’s Revolt Impact Its Africa Contracts?
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russian mercenary group Wagner, has gone into exile in Belarus following an abandoned insurrection, via a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Over the weekend, Prigozhin announced a march on Moscow to seek out the heads of the Russian defense ministry and military. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the mutiny a “stab in the back” and “treason” before accepting Lukashenko’s deal.
The retreat by Wagner has led to speculation about what a Wagner-Kremlin decoupling could mean for the group’s operations in Africa, where it supports governments and fills a security vacuum in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and Sudan. Wagner has an estimated 5,000 soldiers stationed across Africa.
On Saturday, the Kremlin hinted at the dissolution of the group, but experts say the likelihood of this is relatively unknown because of Wagner’s autonomy and independent network of businesses in CAR, Mali, and Sudan. In an audio message posted on Telegram Monday, Prigozhin did not seem to be giving up or disbanding. At the same time, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with Russian television RT that there would be no changes in CAR or Mali, whose governments “have official contacts with our leadership.” He said Russian soldiers working in CAR as “instructors” would continue.
Putin is unlikely to want to forego the strong ties Russia has built up in Francophone Africa following a souring of relations with France.
Only two weeks ago, Mali’s junta asked the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, to leave “without delay.” The force has been in the country since 2013 but has struggled to contain armed violence, a failure that prompted Malian military leaders to seek out Wagner. More than 300 MINUSMA peacekeepers have died since 2013, making MINUSMA the U.N.’s second deadliest peacekeeping mission.
A decade-long presence of foreign troops in Mali has created bad blood between the local population and U.N. peacekeepers, whom Malians feel haven’t improved the situation. There are objections to former colonial power France’s political involvement. Mali had asked the U.N. Security Council to remove France as the so-called penholder on the mission, a position that put it in charge of debate about the mission’s future. “MINUSMA is a French fabrication,” the Malian civil society movement Yerewolo declared.
“MINUSMA seems to have become part of the problem by fueling community tensions, exacerbated by extremely serious allegations which are highly detrimental to peace, reconciliation, and national cohesion in Mali,” Mali’s Foreign Affairs Minister Abdoulaye Diop said.
MINUSMA’s mandate runs out on June 30; it had been in talks to extend, but the U.N. wasn’t prepared to offer the type of service Mali’s military leaders demanded. Malian soldiers have struggled to contain jihadist insurgencies or disarm resulting civilian self-defense groups. The Malian government had asked that MINUSMA “change its static posture, move out of the camps and engage in offensive actions and patrols” and protect Mali’s army bases “rather than limiting itself to its own force protection.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted in 2018 that “a peacekeeping operation is not an army, or a counter-terrorist force.”
It is now abundantly clear that Russia does not control Wagner; and regardless of what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia, the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers will likely result in an increased reliance on Wagner troops in Mali. Those troops will adopt the type of counteroffensive the Malian junta seeks. One survey of nearly 2,300 Malians conducted by German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung suggests more than 90 percent of those surveyed had confidence in Wagner to support Mali in the fight against Islamists.
The junta has been openly hostile toward MINUSMA following the release of a U.N. report last month that accused Malian troops and foreign military personnel believed to be from Wagner of carrying out atrocities including summary executions, rape, and torture in Moura, a town in southern-central Mali, in March 2022. The Malian army, which seized power in two coups in 2020 and 2021, maintains “only terrorist fighters” were killed in the Moura operation in a statement issued to various media outlets. Witnesses quoted in the report said that Malian armed forces and “armed white men” went house to house, rounded up men—including those who merely showed signs of fear—and shot them.
Wagner mercenaries across Africa are not exclusively Russian. Syrians and Libyans are among Wagner’s ranks in CAR, U.S. nonprofit the Sentry stated in a report published Tuesday. Military sources told the Sentry that Wagner troops were involved in mass atrocities including at gold and diamond mines that Wagner seized for itself. Sexual violence was potentially used by the federal army and Wagner “as a form of psychological warfare to terrify and subdue entire communities,” according to the report.
Some analysts predict that Prigozhin’s exile and an attempt to nationalize Wagner’s forces, if that were to occur, could result in a dangerous security vacuum across the Sahel region. Unlike those deployed in Ukraine, Wagner forces abroad are commercially motivated and were not drawn out of prisons. Fighters in Africa are paid by Prigozhin whose network of private companies trade in minerals in the CAR, and according to the U.S. Treasury, in gold exports in Sudan.
Prigozhin’s global mining empire reportedly generated $250 million between 2018 and 2021, the FT estimates; but his fighters depend on heavy military equipment supplied by Moscow. The aborted rebellion could also add to Wagner’s mystique—making the mercenaries more in demand abroad, given that they appeared to be marching on Moscow unchallenged before calling off their mutiny.
Residents in CAR and Mali reported no major troop movements or changes in security tactics immediately following Prigozhin’s insurrection. Wagner soldiers continued to fight insurgents alongside the countries’ federal armies.
The Week Ahead
Friday, June 30: Kenya, Mauritius, and Uganda release inflation data for June.
MINUSMA mandate set to expire.
Wednesday, July 5 to Thursday, July 6: Ministers from OPEC member nations including Angola, Algeria, Libya, and Nigeria attend the 8th OPEC International Seminar in Vienna.
Tuesday, July 4: Rwanda Liberation Day commemorates the day the Rwandan Patriotic Front secured the capital, Kigali, and ended the 1994 genocide.
Friday, July 7: The African Union hosts African Integration Day to celebrate the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
What We’re Watching
Sierra Leone elections. Incumbent President Julius Maada Bio has been declared the winner of Sierra Leone’s presidential election. Bio received 56 percent of the vote against his main challenger, former foreign minister Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress. Both competed in the last presidential election, in 2018, in which Kamara was runner-up. The global rising cost of living was the biggest election issue for Sierra Leoneans; inflation hit 43 percent in April, according to the latest official figures. Bio who will be sworn in for his second and final five-year term has pledged to improve the economy but blamed external factors including the war in Ukraine.
A new law stipulates women must make up 30 percent of Parliament, although analysis from Sierra Leone’s Institute for Governance Reform suggest the new government will fall short on this. Kamara, “categorically” rejected the results. The APC alleged overvoting and reported two of its supporters were shot dead by police in separate incidents, which the police denied.
Mali referendum. Malians approved reforms to the country’s constitution in a referendum that its military leaders say will pave the way to democratic elections next year. The reforms include creating a second chamber of parliament and a court of auditors to oversee government spending, limiting presidential terms to two, and ensuring Mali’s status as a secular state.
Many Malians believe these changes will improve political representation, but critics contend that the amendments will expand the role of the president and the military. Last June, Mali’s junta leader Col. Assimi Goita signed an electoral law to allow him and other transitional leaders to run in elections. Turnout rate for the referendum was at 39 percent of the country’s 8.4 million registered voters, with 97 percent of those who cast their ballots approving the new constitution, according to Mali’s electoral body.
Zambia debt relief. Zambia and its creditors, including China, have reached a deal to restructure $6.3 billion in loans—ending an impasse between Beijing and Western multilateral lenders. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt. The accord, announced at a Paris summit on global finance reform, may set a precedent for how China handles future debt treatments under the G-20’s Common Framework that brings Paris Club lenders and Beijing to the negotiating table. The International Monetary Fund will release another $188 million to Zambia, from a $1.3 billion bailout package approved last August.
“We had to carry the can so that we can reduce the pain for others,” Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, said a day before the announcement.
Kenya tax increase. Kenyan lawmakers voted for a series of taxes on Thursday that will dramatically impact households. The fuel tax was doubled, from 8 percent to 16 percent. Also introduced were a 1.5 percent housing tax, 2.5 percent medical insurance tax, and 3 percent tax on digital assets that will affect those dealing in cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens.
An additional increase in income tax goes after Kenya’s richest. Kenyans earning between 500,000 shillings and 800,000 shillings (approximately $3,500-$5,700) per month will now pay around 32.5 percent in taxes, while those who earn more than 800,000 shillings will be taxed at 35 percent. The changes will hopefully raise 2.57 trillion shillings ($18.3 billion) in revenue to fund an increase in next year’s state budget.
The changes have angered supporters of Kenyan President William Ruto, who was elected last year on a campaign of lowering the high cost of living among poorer Kenyans and helping “hustlers” such as himself succeed in business.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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This Week in Tech
Senegal announced at the Summit for a New Global Financial Pact in Paris that it had secured about $2.7 billion of funding backed by France, Germany, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada to make a transition to cleaner energy.
The deal makes Senegal the first country that doesn’t rely on coal for electricity to get funding under a Just Energy Transition Partnership. Senegal’s President Macky Sall said the money would help his country increase its electricity mix from renewables to 40 percent in seven years, up from the current 30 percent. Senegal has one of the highest electrification rates on the continent at 78.6 percent, but it relies on fossil fuel imports from abroad.
According to a joint statement from Senegal’s government and the wealthier nations, the funding will involve private investors and multilateral banks and use a mixture of grants, loans, investment guarantees, and export credits. The deal is closely modelled on an $8.5 billion deal offered to South Africa in 2021 to wean that country’s grid off coal-fired power. Observers have raised concerns that such deals are too complex and reliant on loans rather than grants, causing indebtedness.
What We’re Reading
Big brother in Zimbabwe. An investigation by Zimbabwean outlet the NewsHawks revealed how a body controlled by Zimbabwe’s intelligence service has allegedly tightened its grip on the upcoming election process to ensure victory for ruling party Zanu-PF and incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Private organization Forever Associates Zimbabwe Trust (FAZ) is handling logistics of the August election; however, NewsHawks suggests that FAZ members, working with agents from the country’s Central Intelligence Organization, are threatening or intimidating opposition supporters during electoral roll inspection. FAZ has denied the allegations and any links to Zimbabwe’s government.
How not to write on Africa. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, “How to Write About Africa,” published in 2005, remains Granta magazine’s most-shared article ever. “Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions,” Wainaina wrote in his withering critique of writing on Africa. “Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.”
A posthumous collection, How to Write About Africa: Collected Works, was published in the United States this month. In a review for the New York Times, Anderson Tepper interviewed writers from the continent on why Wainaina, who died in 2019 at age 48, became so influential. “He helped expose a side of African writers that many did not know existed: that we were intimately aware of the dehumanizing nature of portrayals about us … that we were not a literary void—we wrote back and we wrote hard,” Namibian author Rémy Ngamije said.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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