Cradling a rifle, wearing a army uniform and with a desert within the background, Yevgeny Prigozhin had a message for Africa.
His Wagner group of mercenaries was “making Russia even larger on each continent – and Africa much more free”. “Justice and happiness for the African nations,” he declared.
The video, regarded as recorded in Mali, was launched on Monday. Two days later, the Wagner chief was reported to have died in a aircraft crash in Russia.
What now for his purported mission in Africa?
Wagner has been energetic in a number of international locations on the continent – most notably the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. However for a lot of African governments, Prigozhin’s introduced demise is a reduction.
I’d argue that his operatives didn’t unfold freedom, and overseas mercenaries are a humiliation for a lot of states – Prigozhin was a reminder of a painful previous.
On the peak of the Chilly Battle, and particularly shortly after independence on the continent, mercenaries had been recurrently used to affect the civil wars and violence that adopted.
Col Callan in Angola; Bob Denard in Congo’s Katanga and later the Comoros; “Mad” Mike Hoare in Katanga and later the Seychelles; American Robert Mackenzie in Sierra Leone and British Simon Mann’s failed “organised regime change” mission in Equatorial Guinea in 2004: all these are uncomfortable historical past.
After I mentioned Prigozhin with Russian African analysts in Moscow in late 2019, they jogged my memory that for them, he was much less of the above, however extra akin to the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who was out to make a fortune, and that I shouldn’t be judgmental, given the UK’s historical past.
Prigozhin’s Wagner footprint in Africa was constructed on blood and treasure – contracts giving entry to invaluable assets had been made in fee for army assist.
I had witnessed comparable Personal Navy Corporations (PMCs) in motion some 20-plus years in the past: Sandline Worldwide in Sierra Leone and Govt Outcomes in Angola.
They offered safety and coaching in trade for fee in administration of mines, oil and different pure useful resource endowments.
Their success dramatically diversified, relying on the consumer and the contract.
There may be nothing distinctive about Wagner and its operational behaviour in Africa.
After I met with a few of its operatives in Moscow in 2019, they had been traumatised and searching for compensation for a mission in Mozambique that went badly incorrect.
This was the antithesis to the Prigozhin-funded film Granit that premiered on the pro-Kremlin NTV channel in December 2022. It depicted a gaggle of Russian hero “army instructors” invited to Mozambique to combat Islamic State-linked insurgents within the nation’s north.
Its operations in Libya, Sudan, Mali and CAR have produced blended outcomes.
Wagner’s biggest army success might be appearing as a Praetorian guard for the presidency and foiling a army coup in CAR’s capital, Bangui.
Its biggest failure: presumably in Mozambique. Wagner deployed there in September 2019 for counter-insurgency operations, however the killing of seven of its personnel and 20 Mozambican particular forces in October in a pleasant fireplace trade resulted of their withdrawal in early 2020.
Wagner’s investments in pretend information and trolling, encouraging deeper anti-Western sentiment in West Africa, have been extra profitable than its efforts to win elections in Madagascar, Mozambique or Zambia.
It’s at present most militarily energetic in Sudan and Mali.
Wagner has had a presence in Sudan since 2017, offering safety providers and overseeing gold mining concessions.
The US Treasury Division alleges that Wagner has additionally been supplying Sudan’s Fast Assist Forces with surface-to-air missiles not too long ago.
In September 2021, the Malian junta struck a safety settlement with Wagner for the deployment of 1,000 personnel at a month-to-month price of $10.8m (£8.6m).
The Wagner Group’s counter-terrorism efficiency has been underwhelming and there are allegations of great human rights abuses by them, particularly in central Mali.
Though the group’s deployment in Mali has provoked criticism from the area and the African Union (AU), Wagner nonetheless sought to increase its operations to Burkina Faso.
A proposal in late 2022 was rejected, however Russia continues to woo the junta, whose chief Captain Ibrahim Traore attended the second Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg in July this 12 months. Burkina Faso is one among six African international locations to obtain free grain from Moscow.
Quickly after the September 2022 coup in Burkina Faso that resulted in Capt Traore taking on the army authorities, Prigozhin described him as “a very brave son of the motherland”.
Push for African-led safety measures
The Wagner chief additionally hailed Niger’s army coup in July this 12 months as excellent news and supplied his fighters’ providers to deliver order.
However within the wake of his failed rebellion in Russia in June, Wagner’s grip on its African operations was below risk.
In line with President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin had returned to Russia from Africa on the day of his demise and had gone to fulfill Russian officers in Moscow. It appears he might have been attempting to protect his Wagner Africa portfolio from full Kremlin takeover.
Mr Putin described Prigozhin as a gifted particular person.
“[He] labored in our nation, but additionally overseas, in Africa. He labored with oil, fuel, with valuable metals,” the president stated.
Pan-African dismay about mercenaries started as quickly as they turned energetic within the decolonisation conflicts of the Sixties. In 1977, the African Conference on Mercenarism was signed in Libreville and took impact in April 1985.
In February 2022, the African Union’s commissioner for political affairs, peace and safety, Bankole Adeoye, known as for the “full exclusion of mercenaries from the African continent”.
These conventions could also be ineffective, however an rising variety of African governments don’t need a repeat of the usage of overseas mercenaries on African soil to pursue geopolitical rivalries of exterior powers that occurred through the Chilly Battle.
Mozambique found that the usage of personal army contractors was not so efficient and turned to Rwanda for help.
Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi concluded that an efficient, disciplined army was wanted to help his personal armed forces, and the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) has been profitable, considerably lowering the insurgency.
The worsening safety scenario throughout the Sahel additionally resulted in Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, together with West African allies, drawing up plans for the strengthening of a regional standby power – in impact, a regional counter-terrorism and anti-coup power.
The African-led and designed safety initiatives are an express rejection of mercenaries.
However for these army governments within the area, in Mali, Burkina Faso and now Niger, the Russian operatives could also be a horny various.
Wagner, if it survives, or different rising Russian mercenary teams, will more and more discover the market restricted to putschist regimes utilizing them because the safety associate of final resort.
The Kremlin, which won’t desert the likes of CAR and Mali, is more likely to attempt to take over operations, however its skill to noticeably tackle new shoppers, as Prigozhin had envisioned, will likely be troublesome.
That is the second for African leaders to really implement African options to African issues, by implementing its conventions and increase establishments and credible, accountable safety forces.
Alex Vines directs the Africa Programme on the Chatham Home suppose tank.