While it might be too early to assess the effects the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and other leaders on the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa, some analysts say there will be short-term disruptions.
Given Prigozhin’s reach on the continent the past few years, it will take time to replace Wagner’s top man, said Steven Gruzd, head of the Africa Russia Project at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.
“There’s going to be a period of uncertainty; of people jockeying for position, of seeing who wants to take over,” Gruzd said. “There’s also the talk of Russia incorporating it into the army, taking it out of private hands.”
But the International Crisis Group’s Charles Bouessel told VOA the private mercenary group’s activities in Africa will be disrupted because of the relationships the Wagner boss and some of his associates, including Valery Chekalov and Dmitry Utkin, who all died with him in a plane crash — were able to cultivate the past few years.
“Prigozhin and Utkin especially had deep knowledge,” Bouessel said, “and they had all the connections with the African regimes where Wagner is working. It will take time for Russia to take it over and to rebuild relations with these countries.”
Wagner’s influence stretches across the continent, Gruzd said.
“The Wagner presence in Africa is large,” he said. “Reportedly over 5,000 soldiers [are] spread across the various countries, embedded in countries like Central African Republic and Mali, less so in Libya and Sudan. Even as late as last week, it looked like Niger and Burkina Faso, the countries that have undergone coups in West Africa across the Sahel, are targets for Wagner.”
The U.S. Treasury Department accused the Wagner Group of mass executions, rape and physical abuse in Mali and the Central African Republic, or CAR, and designated it a “criminal organization.”
In the CAR, in particular, it’s too early to assess the impact Prigozhin’s death will have, but it’s important to remember the role the group had under its leader, said Bouessel.
“The Central African Republic signed a deal with Russia in late 2017,” he said. “This deal included the arrival of Wagner and assistance of Wagner toward the president. Since then, Wagner was able to oust the former colonizer France out of the country and out of the decision-making part of the country. They also managed to secure [Faustin] Touadera’s power and make him re-elected. They managed to deter rebel groups from attacking the capital again. And they managed to weaken the armed groups.”
In the CAR, Bouessel said, the group controlled businesses in the mining of gold and diamonds. They are also present in the timber industry and beverage sector.
Dr. Edgar Githua, a lecturer at the United States International University in Nairobi and Strathmore University who specializes in international relations, peace and conflict, said that Prigozhin’s death will affect the group’s finances, and that its global influence might take a hit.
“Prigozhin is the one who had the financial streams of the Wagner Group,” Githua said. “He’s the one with the international connections. He’s the one who was getting all the international contracts.
“It was a one man show. Prigozhin had a lot of power and a lot of say within that group. With his demise, that group is going to find itself rudderless for some time,” he said.
Prigozhin died a couple of months after he staged an unsuccessful rebellion against top Russian military commanders. After that failed mutiny, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that operations in the CAR and Mali would not be affected.