Russia has been outsourcing activities in Africa to Wagner since 2014.On the security front, Wagner fighters have been deployed alongside the national armies of Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali.In terms of politics, the group has conducted disinformation and destabilisation campaigns.On the commercial front, it exploits mineral resources in several African states.
Analysts say the Kremlin has no interest in ending these activities.
One of Prigozhin’s last appearances on camera was footage broadcast Monday of him in camouflage fatigues and an assault rifle saying he was in Africa and working for Russia’s future.
It was his first filmed appearance since he led his brief revolt against the Kremlin in June.
Even before reports of his death, analysts were considering the possible implications of the mutiny.
A ‘delicate’ succession
With or without Wagner, “Russia wants to keep its business and security interests in Africa,” Rama Yade, Africa director of the US think tank Atlantic Council, told AFP. “It is a primary goal.”
The Kremlin has other channels of influence on the African continent, which lies at the centre of a bitter strategic battle between world powers.
These range from embassies to private investors and Russian-owned companies, from television channels to Orthodox churches.
These have helped propel Wagner’s successes in Africa, said Lou Osborn, a Wagner expert and co-author of a forthcoming book on the mercenary group.
“Wagner is the vehicle of Russian neocolonialism and there is no reason for it to stop,” said Joseph Bendounga, an opposition politician in the Central African Republic.
But wresting control of Prigozhin’s complex organisation will not be an easy task.
“The Kremlin has no intention of surrendering Prigozhin’s positions in Africa,” said Peter Rough, analyst at the Hudson Institute.
“But the transfer of those operations from Prigozhin to a successor will be a delicate matter.”
Difficult to replace
The Soufan Center, a think tank based in New York, has pointed out that “as Russian President Vladimir Putin himself admitted recently, not even the Kremlin truly understands the complex system Yevgeny Prigozhin operated”.
John Lechner, an independent researcher who is writing book on the mercenary army, made a similar point.
“Replacing Wagner personnel in Africa would require finding new personnel who have the networks and experience that keep operations going,” he said. “This is unlikely.”
In the Central African Republic, for example, Wagner has grown steadily in influence since its arrival in 2017, going so far as to organise a referendum in July on rewriting the country’s constitution.
“It may well be that some of the key figures representing (Wagner)… will remain in their posts, not least because they have the network and institutional knowledge that keeps operations in CAR going,” said Lechner.
But Prigozhin’s reported death leaves a key post vacant – and those shoes are not easy to fill, analysts said.
“There will surely be a lot of personalities who will try to express their willingness to take care of these difficult activities, provided they are appropriately financed,” said Russian investigative journalist Denis Korotkov.
“But they will surely be inferior to Prigozhin,” he added.
Wagner ‘the only option’
The stakes are high for some of Wagner’s partners.
Critics of the force’s presence in Africa, such as France and the United States, accuse it of functioning as a kind of life insurance for regimes such as the military rulers in Mali.
“Wagner is a product of the state’s lack of capacity and interest to project official military force in Africa,” said Lechner.
That issue still exists, and there are no other private armies who can assume that role, he added.
There is no alternative for African governments who do not want to work with the West, said Lechner. “Wagner is still the only option.”
But Fidele Gouandjika, special advisor to Central African President Faustin Archange Touadera, was unruffled by the recent dramatic developments.
“It will change nothing on the ground,” he said.
“We have a defence agreement with the Russian Federation and it’s in the framework of that agreement that the Russian Federation sub-contracted with the paramilitaries of Wagner.”
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