Wagner Forces In Africa Reduced: Who Has Feet On The Continent?

Hundreds of troops from the Wagner paramilitary group were seen on video leaving the Central African Republic, raising questions over the future of Russia’s paramilitary influence on the continent in the wake of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny and later death. The video corroborates reporting from Jeune Afrique and Reuters that 500-600 mercenaries, representing approximately 30% of the estimated Russian presence in the C.A.R., left the country’s capital for Moscow.

A spokesperson for Central African Republic president Faustin-Archange Touadéra (who has approved the presence of Wagner forces in the country) denied the reports of a sustained decrease in troop presence, saying that the exit “is not a definitive departure but a rotation.” Prior to the reporting, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby coyly said that there is “no indication that Wagner is decreasing its intent to exploit African countries.”

The Kremlin has used Wagner to expand its economic and diplomatic influence in Africa for most of the previous decade. Wagner has deployed to six African countries in the last eight years, gaining economic, military, and diplomatic influence every step of the way. In 2017, for example, Wagner deployed hundreds of men to Sudan in a failed attempt to defend the country’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir, from uprisings around the country. (In exchange for the troops, Sudan offered Russia access to a naval base on the Red Sea and exclusive rights to gold mining, although the transaction was dissolved when Bashir was ousted from office in 2019.) In early 2022, Wagner forces quickly replaced French troops when the latter was forced to end its years-long anti-Jihadist campaign in Mali, and were welcomed to the country by the ruling junta government. This access to Mali’s natural resources may pay dividends for Russia, making deploying mercenaries there a lucrative investment.

With Russia using its mercenary proxies as sticks, it is imperative that the West counter that harsh strategy with a more co-operative, “carrot”-based strategy. Since the turn of the century, the American government has successfully deployed aid and economic development programs across Africa. Chief among those efforts were the President’s Emergency Plan for A.I.D.S. Relief (P.E.P.F.A.R.), which has been credited for saving millions of lives since its inception, and the Millennial Challenge Corporation, which has provided more than $14 billion to the continent. Countering Russian (and Chinese) presence must include aggressive awareness campaigns about the success of these programs, convincing governments and citizens that Western presence is in their better interest.

As a projected population boom and successful economic development swell Africa’s importance in the coming years, the battle for influence and presence on the continent will only continue to rage. The presence of near-peer adversaries has the potential to destabilize Africa’s promising economic futures. In order to prevent these adversaries from turning the continent’s development into an excuse to spur conflict, a comprehensive Western strategy to counter conflict-prone influences with a mutually beneficial alternative is crucial.