The founder of Wagner’s private mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured here with fighters), claims that Bakhmut is now in Moscow’s control. But his claims are disputed by Ukraine.
  • by Fawzia Moodley (johannesburg)
  • Interpress service

Wagner’s and other Russian private military companies are believed to have a presence in 18 countries in Africa – and its influence goes far beyond security issues.

Julian Rademeyer of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said, “Wagner itself has evolved over time as an organization that has gone from being a purely private military procurement entity to a multiplicity of business alliances and relationships and a network of companies. Some of them are front companies in the countries where they operate on the African continent.”

He sees the Wagner group as primarily a military tool of the Kremlin to increase Russia’s economic and military influence in Africa.

Rademeyer’s colleague and lead author of a study with the title Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal involvement in AfricaJulia Stanyard, told IPS, “The Wagner group is unique as an organization in the breadth, scope and boldness of its activities. But our study also shows that Wagner did not arise in a vacuum: The group’s activities and characteristics reflect broader trends in the development of Russia’s oligarchs and organized crime groups, their respective relations with the Russian state and their activities in Africa.”

“The group consists of a network of political influence activities and economic entities such as mining companies.

“It appears to target unstable governments embroiled in civil war and form alliances with the ruling elite, offering them military support and weapons.”

That’s exactly what happened in CAR, where the government has been battling multiple rebel forces since December 2020. A beleaguered President Faustin-Archange Touadéra reached out to Russia shortly after taking power in 2016.

“He got Russian military instructors and weapons, and Wagner mercenaries soon followed,” he says CIVICUSa global alliance that promotes civic action.

In return, Wagner receives financial and mining concessions. According to New York Timesthe group has been involved in mining in CAR, where it has secured contracts to mine gold and diamonds.

Stanyard says: “The group consists of a network of political influence operations and economic entities such as mining companies.”

While governments and sections of their population have welcomed the group, Wagner has been accused of gross human rights abuses, with local communities reporting forced labor and sexual violence.

That’s what Human Rights Watch says it has collected compelling evidence that Russian fighters have committed serious abuses against civilians in CAR with total impunity since 2019. HRW interviewed 40 people between February 2019 and November 2021 about abuses by Russian-speaking men.

Stanyard’s research corroborates the allegations of abuse: “Wagner Group has been accused of using any means necessary to achieve its goals, including criminal activity.”

Russia does not officially recognize mercenaries, but Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch, has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Significantly, on Sunday, May 21, Putin is said to have congratulated 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 ).

However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Bakhmut had not been occupied by Moscow.

Wagner’s activities go beyond promoting the Kremlin’s military and economic interests.

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 British ministers’ social media accounts, along with other world leaders.”

“The operation has suspicious links to Prigozhin,” she said, citing a British report exposing Russia’s disinformation campaign.

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 Contingency Force Concept of Operations, which aims to strengthen the ability of African states to respond to crises and reduce their dependence on external actors. However, implementation has been slow and there are fears that the Wagner Group and other mercenary groups will continue to operate with impunity.

CIVICUS warns that Wagner’s involvement “contributes to the closure of the civil space. In CAR, with his position strengthened, Touadéra has further repressed dissenting voices. Humanitarian workers and independent journalists are among those being targeted violence and threat of Wagner’s powers.”

Similarly, in Mali, French media have been banned and the “junta prohibited the activities of civil society organizations that receive French support, which in a way hinders the ability of civil society to help people in humanitarian need due to the conflict and to monitor human rights violations.”

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 company hired by the US that became synonymous with civilian killings in the Iraq War, have been involved in conflicts on the continent, often with little oversight or accountability.

The 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 contain the insurgency before the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent deployments to Cabo Delgado province. Wagner was also reportedly 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 corporate responsibilities in conflicts, as well as the need for greater transparency and accountability.

IPS UN agency report

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service