Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, just left Mali where he filmed a video pledging to make “Africa even more free” before he presumably perished in a plane crash in his home country.
His apparent death – it has yet to be officially confirmed – has sparked concerns for some client governments in Africa who rely on his unique services.
Patronage of Prigozhin’s private military force has been on the rise in recent years since some African governments started turning towards Russia as an alternative international partner in their fight against rising insecurity from various armed groups.
President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central Africa Republic (CAR) was the first to turn to the feared militia in 2018, but the shifting sands of democratic governments that have seen a rise in military takeovers in the Sahel region opened the door widely for Wagner.
Across the Sahel and central Africa, armed groups have continued to expand rapidly, their rise coinciding with protests against former colonial power France, which still wields enormous influence across the region.
Prigozhin was the face of the group’s operations as he crisscrossed between Ukraine and Africa, pushing his stock-in-trade. His death, analysts say, will put a clog in the Wagner machine in Africa.
“Progozhin himself was this incredibly charismatic, larger-than-life figure who had the managerial and business abilities to somehow bring all of these disparate entities and people together,” said John Lechner, a security analyst and author of a forthcoming book on the Wagner Group.
Will expansion continue?
When Prigozhin staged an aborted mutiny in Russia in June, exactly two months before his death, clouds began to hover over the military-business empire Prigozhin built on the continent.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, at the time said the group’s operations would continue. But the fatal crash that claimed his life and his trusted lieutenant Dmitry Utkins has raised questions about what happens next.
“It does not very much change in places like Mali and CAR because there were already relationships and contracts. And the Russians said they would honour those contracts. The real question is what happens in the countries Wagner was trying to expand its presence, places like Burkina Faso and Niger. Will that expansion continue under the Russian government?” Cameron Hudson, a senior associate in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’s Africa programme, said.
The brief mutiny in Russia back in June was the climax of a growing schism between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defence over the handling of the war in Ukraine. But African governments had also been caught in a delicate balancing act between the shadowy mercenary group and the Russian government.
The Malian coup-makers continue to refer to the armed group as “Russian instructors”, though CAR authorities are more forthcoming.
“CAR authorities have always been uncomfortable,” Charles Bouessel, senior analyst on CAR for International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.
“They did not know who to praise for Wagner’s assistance. Sometimes, they are thanking the Russian authorities and sometimes, they are thanking Prigozhin. But what they want is that the Russian assistance continues, and they would be cautious in expressing their opinion [on Prigozhin’s death] intimately.”
‘Degree of deniability’
Officials have expressed that their commitment was to Russia and not to the mercenary group itself. Fidele Gouandjika, an adviser to CAR’s president, told the media that Prigozhin’s death would not change the relationship with Moscow.
Experts have said even though Prigozhin’s charm offensive will be notably absent, the Kremlin will ensure to maintain its influence on the continent.
“There are a lot of Russian institutions benefitting from Russia’s presence in Africa and they will want to see those relationships continue,” Lechner said.
However, the tussle between Wagner and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, might recalibrate the diplomatic relationship between African governments and Russia.
“I think they are going to have a rethink of their approach … Countries that were considering a relationship with Wagner are all going to think if they want the same kind of relationship with Moscow. Because with the Wagner Group, there was some degree of deniability,” said Hudson.
Niger is the latest country to eye Wagner. Since the presidential guard seized power, it has publicly fallen out with the West. The regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to invade the country in order to restore President Mohamed Bazoum, who was removed in a coup on July 26.
With Prigozhin’s death, Wagner’s appeal to new countries seeking Wagner’s military assistance might dwindle, but analysts have said the militia can still make inroads into new territories.
“I think we should not be surprised if Wagner still shows up in Niger, even after Prigozhin’s death,” Lechner told Al Jazeera. “We are still in a claustrophobic environment where African governments looking to partner with outside countries on security have relatively few choices.”
Since 2020, there have been nine coups in Africa, according to a count by SBM, a geopolitical advisory firm in Nigeria. In this period, five of the 15 ECOWAS member nations are now under military rule.
This spate of coups, experts said, is a recipe for mercenary groups as military governments are pushing to consolidate their grip on power amid pressure from the West, and the decline of democratic governments will continue to invite such private military interventions.
“Illegitimate governments in Africa need security assistance for their hold on power and regime. That is the point of all of these: it is not the supply of armed mercenaries, it is the demand of armed mercenaries,” Hudson said.