Conflicts: Russians in Africa - Wagner boss wants to expand influence

As head of the notorious Russian private army Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin not only has his hands full in the war in Ukraine.

Conflicts: Russians in Africa - Wagner boss wants to expand influence

As head of the notorious Russian private army Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin not only has his hands full in the war in Ukraine. In Africa, too, where Wagner has been involved in many conflicts and power struggles for years, he wants to further expand his influence. "Whether the military special operation (in Ukraine) is successful or unsuccessful - in any case, Russia must be present on the international stage, diplomatically and militarily," says the 61-year-old, referring to Africa. He is concerned with "liberating the African continent from Western occupiers".

The confidante of Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin now comments on the situation in Africa almost every day - especially with regard to the power struggle in Sudan. Prigozhin insists that he will not play any role in the conflict and will not supply weapons. Above all, however, he calls on the Russian leadership to get even more involved in the race with China and the West to hammer down pegs in Africa. He accuses Moscow's bureaucrats of complacency.

It is true that Putin has significantly intensified contacts with Africa. Since 2014, Moscow has concluded military agreements with more than 20 countries. Africa is an important market for Russian grain and fertilizer. But Moscow is a long way from having the influence it had in the days of the Soviet Union. "Russia plays an important role as an arms supplier, buyer and miner of valuable raw materials, and exporter of agricultural equipment. It also contributes to security through private companies like the Wagner Group," said Philani Mthembu, director of the Institute for Global Dialogue in South Africa .

Against monopolar world order

Unlike in the West, Russia is not isolated in Africa because of the war in Ukraine. Many states are well received that Putin is taking action against a monopolar world order with the United States at the helm. The Kremlin and Prigozhin, as Putin's man, want to exploit that for the rough. "The Americans, French and other players on the African continent are a hundred times more active than we are," says Prigozhin, who has become wealthy and influential with his corporate conglomerate Concord.

The entrepreneur controls his empire from St. Petersburg, which is active in the construction and real estate business and in gastronomy, but also in catering for school meals. Decades ago, Prigozhin served the current head of the Kremlin in his restaurant in Putin's hometown, when he was still a city politician. That's why he's nicknamed "Putin's cook."

To this day, Prigozhin has benefited from lucrative contracts from the Kremlin. He is considered to be untouchable, which is why he not only repeatedly criticized Moscow's military leadership in the Ukraine war with impunity, but also, with Putin's blessing, can freely control and rule in Africa. The continent has literally become a cash cow for Prigozhin. The portfolio includes Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Madagascar and Sudan.

Without scruples, without questions

Wagner has perfected its business model on the continent: the group offers unscrupulous staff and services without asking questions. In return, there are raw materials - often real gold. Moscow, by far the continent's largest supplier of arms, also sells the military equipment - around half of all registered arms sales to African countries now come from Russia.

"African governments like the Central African Republic or Mali want fighters who go to the front with their soldiers and bring ammunition and weapons with them. It's a service that allows Russia to get foreign exchange and raw materials like gold and diamonds in times of Western sanctions ", says Sahel expert Ulf Laessing from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. In addition to Wagner, many Russians are active there. The Alrosa group, for example, mines diamonds.

In Germany, Wagner is best known in Africa as a mercenary squad - for example in the Bundeswehr's state of operations in Mali, where it is estimated that up to 2,000 Russian fighters are deployed, even if the Malian military government only speaks of trainers. The mercenaries are accused of the most serious human rights violations there - but there was no turnaround in the fight against jihadists there.

Sudan as "Key to Africa"

Wagner's business model becomes even clearer a few thousand kilometers to the east - in Sudan, of all places, where war recently broke out. The bitterly poor country on the Horn of Africa is the third largest gold producer in Africa. The then long-term dictator Omar al-Bashir visited Kremlin chief Putin in Sochi in 2017 and promoted his country as "Russia's key to Africa". Plans for a naval base on the Red Sea, which is important for Moscow, were discussed.

Prigozhin received licenses for gold mines and in return is said to have supplied at least weapons for the Sudanese army and the paramilitaries in power of the RSF. In 2020, the USA imposed sanctions on the corporate network.

According to the US Treasury Department, Prigozhin's company M Invest and the subsidiary Meroe Gold, which is responsible for the gold mines, are a front for Wagner in Sudan, who have also drawn up plans for al-Bashir to suppress democracy activists: "Although his activities Spanning the globe, Prigozhin's role in Sudan underscores the interplay between Russia's paramilitary operations, support for the maintenance of authoritarian regimes and the exploitation of natural resources."

Billions of heavy smuggling

Research by CNN and investigative journalists found evidence that billions of dollars worth of gold were smuggled from Sudan to Russia through Wagner's channels for years - vital currency that will benefit Moscow's coffers in dealing with the costs of the aggressive war against Ukraine.

Wagner is said to have had good connections with the paramilitary leader Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, who is considered the most powerful man in the country, and whose RSF group is now fighting the Sudanese army after a break with de facto ruler Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. But Al-Burhan himself is said to have had good connections to Moscow.

Catrina Doxsee, an expert at the US think tank Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), remarked that Wagner had shown above all opportunism in all changes in Sudan. She observes that Wagner waits and then sides with the victors in the riots.

Prigozhin, however, dismisses allegations of an active role in Sudan as a "provocation" and emphasizes that no Wagner has been active in Sudan for more than two years. The training of the army in Sudan ended in 2019. In an open letter, however, he now recalls his medals, which were presented to him in Sudan in 2018 and 2020. In the current power struggle, he is now also offering to mediate: "I'm always ready to help Sudan."