Examining the future of the Wagner Group in Africa
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
U.S. military officials think they know what happened to the leader of a Russian mercenary group. General Pat Ryder is at the Pentagon where intelligence analysts have observed the plane crash that involved Yevgeny Prigozhin.
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PATRICK RYDER: Our initial assessment is that it's likely Prigozhin was killed.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Prigozhin left behind some unfinished business. Days before his death, he released a video that talked about recruiting strong men for operations in Africa. So what is his Wagner Group doing there?
FADEL: NPR's Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us from Lagos. Good morning, Emmanuel.
EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So how extensive is Wagner's presence in Africa right now?
AKINWOTU: Well, Wagner is currently significant in a handful of African countries, and they've become key there, providing support for some fragile states. But since the failed mutiny a few months ago, there have been various interviews, various clips of Prigozhin. Many of them are hard to verify, but they show us what Wagner was trying to project about Africa and this place, this continent being increasingly important to them going forward.
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YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).
AKINWOTU: This video was released by Telegram channels linked to Wagner in the last week. And in it, Prigozhin implied he was in Africa, that Wagner was making Russia great around the world and making Africa more free, in his words. But of course, that was before this incident this week.
FADEL: Yeah. So at this point, what is the likely future of Wagner in Africa, if we know at all, and the potential impact on countries where these private soldiers operate?
AKINWOTU: Well, it may have some impact. It's likely to, but it's not clear yet. What we know is that in the last few years, this group has become more powerful in the Central African Republic and Mali, and then to a lesser extent, maybe Libya and Sudan. You know, in the Central African Republic, they've helped secure the government there fighting rebel groups. And in exchange, they've taken control of key mineral resources. And rights groups have documented, you know, systematic rights abuses and killings by Wagner there. And a government official from CAR, recently, he lamented Prigozhin's death but said their partnership was primarily with Russia. So you can infer that Russia's going to determine if and how things change there.
FADEL: OK. So how important, then, is the presence of the Wagner Group in Africa to Russia?
AKINWOTU: Well, you see this particularly in the case of Mali, for example. You know, Mali kicked out French troops that had been there since 2013 to fight Islamist insurgency, But they were deeply unpopular, you know, accused of killings, too, at a wedding by the U.N., which France denied. But when France became isolated from the West, and it relied on Russia and, by extension, Wagner to fill that gap. So Wagner mercenaries help it to exploit the withdrawal of French troops. That has happened in Mali and Burkina Faso and now likely in Niger. And this, by definition, helps Russia expand - try to expand its influence in this part of Africa.
FADEL: So I guess what we're trying to understand fundamentally is how much the Wagner Group and Russia stumbles in the short term in Africa after Prigozhin's presumed death as the leader of that group. So how might that affect the stability in some of these countries you've mentioned?
AKINWOTU: Yes. You know, the security situations in Mali and the Central African Republic, they're very delicate. You know, in CAR, they've reportedly had some successes battling back rebel groups, at least far enough to keep the government in power, while in Mali, the insurgency there is still raging, still getting worse. And just a few weeks ago, we saw large protests against the military regime because there's such fatigue with what people - ordinary people have been suffering there. So we'll have to see how Wagner's operations change. But in these countries, there are several armed groups who are able to exploit any change in the security dynamic.
FADEL: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu, thank you so much.
AKINWOTU: Thank you.
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