This text is a transcription of an interview conducted on 17 October 2023.
Beverly Ochieng – security and media expert, focusing on the insurgency in the Sahel and Russian influence in Africa, including activities by the Wagner Group. She lives in Nairobi and works with BBC Monitoring.
Agata Krygier: According to The Moscow Times, approximately 200 mercenaries from the Wagner Group appeared in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, in September 2017. Their presence aimed to quell the robberies by the terrorist group Ansar al-Sunna, which was targeting Cabo Delgado province. This province holds strategic importance for authorities due to its wealth in natural resources crucial for economic development and improving people’s lives. Why did President Filipe Nyusi turn to Russia for help, having local military groups such as Black Hawk PMC and OAM?
Beverly Ochieng: Nyusi sought Russia’s assistance because of historic relations with Mozambique and to expand defence partnerships. Mozambique wasn’t receiving adequate support form the West, despite the fact that Cabo Delgado is the site of western oil and gas exploration interests. This perceived lack of support from Portugal and other European powers potentially created an opportunity for Russia to expand its defense influence.
Local military groups have been unable to defeat the Islamic State in northern Mozambique and required additional training and support. This explanation doesn’t justify the deployment of Wagner Group, but rather aims to rationalize it.
The Wagner Group first entered Sudan after Putin’s meeting with then president Omar al-Bashir in 2017. Operating under the name Meroe Gold, the Wagner Group in Sudan is involved in gold mining. Wagner initiated the establishment of contacts with General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo and his paramilitary organisation RSF. The Russian-operated gold processing plant is under the protection of a number of RSF paramilitaries who work with Russian security personnel, members of the Wagner Group. There are suspicions that Russia has collaborated with the Sudanese military command, enabling billions of dollars of gold to escape Sudanese state surveillance. This cooperation has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of state revenue being taken out of this poverty-stricken country.
Is it true that, in exchange for the withdrawal of a huge amount of money, Russia has given massive political and military support to the Sudanese military leaders who are brutally suppressing the pro-democracy movement in that country?
Beverly Ochieng: Sudan’s military leaders have received support from Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and other influential powers. Presently, there remains uncertainty regarding the continued presence of the Wagner Group in Sudan. However, there have been assertions and reports suggesting their support for the RSF during the ongoing conflict with the army. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Prigozhin, while offering to mediate, asserted that operations ceased in Sudan in 2020. These claims might have been inaccurate, and the Wagner Group’s actual involvement could contradict such statements. Considering Sudan’s proximity to the Central African Republic (CAR) and Libya, the possibility of such support cannot be dismissed.
Wagner Group operatives are also active in Mali, serving as military instructors. Once again, they are implicated in committing war crimes against civilians while conducting operations against jihadists in the Moura region. Information gathered, verified, and confirmed by the UN mission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights revealed that a minimum of 500 individuals lost their lives in violation of established norms, principles of law, human rights, and international humanitarian law. These victims were allegedly “murdered by FAMA (Malian Armed Forces) and foreign military personnel” who had complete control over the area. Following the events, on March 27, 2022, the Malian army took control of the region, detaining around 3,000 individuals. Subsequently, on April 1, 2022, the junta labeled the Moura events as a successful anti-jihadist operation, claiming the neutralization of 203 “terrorists.” The crucial question remains: will the Wagner Group members be held accountable for their alleged crimes?
Beverly Ochieng: The answer here mirrors that in the CAR: initially, the Malian government denied collaborating with the Wagner Group and lauded the support from Russian mercenaries. Additionally, it accused the UN and other human rights agencies of engaging in a disinformation campaign by alleging atrocities committed by both the national army and Russian forces. However, under a new government—less influenced by Russia and capable of garnering support from the region and the international community—there might be empowerment to hold the alleged perpetrators of these atrocities, namely the mercenaries, accountable.
It’s uncertain how Russian cooperation with African countries will unfold after Prigozhin’s death. However, based on Deputy Minister Yevkurov’s visits, there might be an attempt to sustain relationships and protect Russian interests in these nations. Regarding the individuals operating in Africa, such as Vitaly Perfilev, their fate isn’t predetermined. It’s plausible that changes might occur, such as their potential recall to Russia. Whether the Ministry of Defense will assume control of interest groups in Africa remains unclear. The situation might evolve based on various factors, including political decisions, strategic interests, and the internal dynamics of Russian policy in Africa.
Beverly Ochieng After Prigozhin’s rebellion, Russia’s foreign minister swiftly assured Mali and the CAR that operations by ‘military instructors’ would continue, demonstrating these countries’ importance to the Kremlin’s African strategy. Following Prigozhin’s death, Russian delegations were sent to Mali, Burkina Faso, and the CAR to bolster ongoing military operations and potentially establish a new command structure for the mercenaries. This was done while providing assurance to the respective governments—considering the highly unstable situations each faces—of continued support.
In his opening speech at the G20 Summit, its host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, invited African Union President Azali Assoumani to take a seat at the G20 leaders’ table as a permanent member. Additionally, significant decisions were made regarding the railway connection with India, bypassing troubled territories. South Korea also declared its intention to transfer USD 2.3 billion to Ukraine. Could the decisions made at the G20 summit affect Russia’s future relations with African countries?
Beverly Ochieng: There’s nothing incongruent about India, as a member of the G20, inviting Africa to join the bloc. India is also a key stakeholder with Russia in BRICS. Unlike the West, which often appears to impose conditions on relations between African nations and Russia, Moscow utilizes alternative means to exert influence, particularly on its Western partners. One such method involves expanding BRICS to compete economically and politically with affluent blocs like the G20, leveraging its significant potential that has yet to be fully realized.
As is known, Russia holds a robust position in exporting products to Africa, particularly in grain and weapons. Russian grain constituted approximately 30% of Africa’s raw material imports in 2022. Around 80% of this grain from Russia was directed to North African countries, where revolutions were triggered by escalating food prices. What might the future hold in light of this grain crisis?
Beverly Ochieng: The war in Ukraine shed light on the dependency of various African countries on grain from both sides. The collapse of the Black Sea grain deal jeopardized food stocks, especially in regions such as Somalia, where a famine warning was issued; Burkina Faso, which has faced increased food insecurity due to insurgency; and Ethiopia, where the conflict in the north worsened the humanitarian crisis. Russia promptly offered grain to six African countries, primarily to allies but also to vulnerable nations. However, this gesture would have done little to offset the growing shortfall. While reactions to the collapsed grain deal were sparse, the Russia-Africa summit witnessed a smaller turnout this time due to tensions surrounding the war in Ukraine.
African countries, however, didn’t merely wait for Western nations to mediate. There were visits to both Kyiv and Moscow: first by the African Union shortly after the war broke out, and later when South Africa led mediation efforts between Putin and Zelensky. As of now, these efforts haven’t proven effective, but they did demonstrate the continent’s proactive stance—showing that it won’t sit back and wait, and it can take the initiative to resolve the stalemate between the warring sides.
Citing TASS television, Vladimir Putin convened a meeting at the Kremlin on September 28, at which Adrei Troshev (Wagner Group) and General Yevkurov (Deputy Minister of Defense) were present. Putin turned to Troshev: “At the last meeting, we talked that you will create volunteer units that will be able to perform various combat tasks, of course, primarily in the zone of a special military operation.” It follows that Troshev will replace Prigozhin (reminder: Troshev was one of the few Wagnerians who did not support Prigozhin’s rebellion. He has extensive combat experience, he fought in Afghanistan and Syria). Considering General Yevkurov’s visits to African countries after Prigozhin’s death, is this indicative of a continuation of military cooperation with these nations? Could Yevkurov’s presence signify the subordination of the newly established paramilitary units to the Ministry of National Defense?
Beverly Ochieng: His visits underscore the importance of these countries within Russia’s Africa strategy. As for the other inquiries: I can’t provide extensive commentary on Russia’s defense strategy or the ongoing war in Ukraine. During Prigozhin’s tenure, his intentions were to secure Ukraine for Russia and then potentially expand operations to Mali, and perhaps the broader Sahel region, while continuing to develop his business empire in the Central African Republic. It remains uncertain if these plans align with the current thinking or strategies of Russia.
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