What does the Wagner Group’s mutiny mean for its African client governments?

The Wagner Group, the mercenary outfit whose recent mutinous misadventures in Russia are no longer news, is known to have a presence in at least 13 African countries, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), an international NGO based in Switzerland.

It should be noted that, in most of these countries, the group’s operations are somewhat benign, comprising marginal business interests, rather than military or political activities. Since Wagner employs a byzantine network of shell companies to obfuscate its operations, it is to be expected that its footprints should be present even in countries where it doesn’t exactly operate.

However, in three African countries – Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali – Wagner fighters have engaged in active armed conflict. And in the latter two, Wagner has so enmeshed itself in the domestic economy and politics that it is effectively the most visible and effective sign of Russia’s presence in each.

Military manoeuvres

In both countries, Wagner’s employees were seconded by Russia on the back of military-technical agreements between Russia and the host governments, according to Candace Rondeaux, of the New America Foundation. Their official roles are to provide security to senior government officials, as well as to train and support the countries’ armed forces in their fight against rebels.

To a large extent, this is not new. Foreign countries have played an active role in African conflicts for decades. In fact, Mali’s government – which is led by a military junta that came to power through a coup in 2020 – officially invited Russia to replace France, which had been present in the country as part of Operation Barkhane, a broad, decade-long counter-jihadist effort spanning the Sahel.

What sets Wagner apart is its strange modus operandi, which baffles even the most dedicated analysts. Though it is effectively an extension of the Russian government, it operates as a network of commercial companies, funding its activities – and surely making a neat profit – by extracting natural resources like gold and timber, which it smuggles onto the global market by leveraging local corruption.

In this way, Wagner isn’t much different from the rebel groups it’s ostensibly in these countries to fight. In fact, like them, its fighters have participated in the massacres of civilians and committed other war crimes. The only difference is that it is backed by the host governments, and employs technical professionals, like geologists and engineers, making it a much more efficient commercial player.

The Kremlin clearly chose to use Wagner in these countries precisely because of these qualities. Not only is it a low-cost means to provide official military assistance without actually sending in the Russian armed forces, but also serves as a plausible tool of investment. The effect is that Wagner does the work, and Russia claims the credit. And it has worked like a charm, at least in the CAR and Mali.


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Wagner’s failed mutiny, therefore, has raised important questions about its future in Africa. Will the Russian government be able to rein in the group without destroying the influence it has wielded in these two countries through it so far? And what would that mean for the host governments?

In the immediate future, not much is likely to change. As various outlets, like the Economist, have opined, not only is the group so decentralised that it can continue to operate without Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, its leader, but the Kremlin also can’t restructure, nationalise or withdraw Wagner without diluting its own plausible deniability and the host governments’ all-important claims of being in control of their own security.


Importantly, the governments of Mali and the CAR are also unlikely to call for the withdrawal of Wagner, even though they technically can. Not only would doing so be rather embarrassing for both, given the welcome they have given to Wagner, but it would also leave both regimes vulnerable to ongoing insurgencies.

Echoing this line of thinking, Sergei V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, went on to confirm, in an interview given to the Russian outlet RT shortly after the mutiny, that Wagner would maintain its presence in Mali and the CAR, and that the event would not “change the strategic relationship between Russia and its African partners.”

All this is to say that, although things may be awkward for some time, all the involved governments have so effectively worked themselves into a corner there is no easy way for any of them to make substantial changes to their present arrangements without losing face. Wagner’s immediate future in Africa, therefore, seems secure.

But the mutiny might prove to be a roadblock to its future expansion, which had all but seemed assured before.

So far, the only thread unifying Wagner’s activities in Africa has been its buzzard-like attraction to unstable countries led by weak governments and plagued by jihadist violence, and there are still a number of such countries, especially across the Sahel, the vast semi-arid transcontinental region south of the Sahara.

Additionally, Russia, the real hand behind Wagner, has been keen to cast itself as a true and equal partner to African countries, a narrative that, unsurprisingly, works best in the former French colonies in the region. Resentment against France is reaching a fever pitch following years of neo-colonial patronage and its failure to stem jihadist violence.

In fact, before its recent mutiny, Wagner was widely expected to make Burkino Faso its next African stop. The country’s population of internally-displaced persons has exploded in the last year due to a long-running jihadist insurgency. Two coups and a withdrawal of French forces in 2022 left it with an isolated government, exactly the kind that needs Wagner’s services.

Nevertheless, it isn’t obvious that these factors will avail Wagner much now. For, despite all the bluster, its most important role, by far, has been as a coup-prevention device. Its confirmed willingness to rise up against its own government will not be lost on its potential African clients.

What this will mean for the future of these countries, as well as for the insurgencies destabilising them, no one can really say.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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