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A Profile of the Wagner group in Africa: From supporting military, authoritarian leaders to fighting militancy and mine licencing

  Jerry Franklin A

The Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC) with alleged ties to the Russian government, has increasingly made its presence felt in various countries across the African continent. The group has been operating in several African countries, offering direct military support and related security assistance. 

The footprint of the Wagner Group can be seen in countries including Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Zimbabwe, Angola, Madagascar, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

Wagner and its subsidiary firms hold certain privileges and rights in these countries that allow them to access and capitalise on natural resources in exchange for providing arms, technology, and military assistance. According to a study by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the sale of armaments and bilateral military cooperation agreements between Russia and several African countries paved the way to the deployment of the Wagner group in Africa. Moscow has been using the Wager group to advance its geopolitical objectives on the African continent. Moreover, Russia seeks to present itself as a reliable ally to African countries where the influence of the West is declining gradually.

The Wagner Footprint in Africa
The Wagner group’s presence in Africa can be profiled through individual countries.

Libya: The Khalifa Haftar connection
In Libya, the Wagner group was accused of supporting General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Wagner's combat activities in Libya began in 2018 to support the Libyan National Army's (LNA) attempt to conquer Tripoli and destabilise the GNA. It was estimated that 2,000 Wagner members were stationed in Libya between July and September 2019. 

The group was indicted with unlawful killings and the setting of landmines in residential areas. In 2020, a ceasefire ended the conflict between the warring factions. Since 2020, the focus of Wagner's operations has been on the oil infrastructure in eastern Cyrenaica bordering Egypt, and they have continued to provide Hifter troops with military training. Currently, the Wagner units are located in the eastern province, particularly at al-Khadim air base near al-Marj city, and in the central region's cities of Sirte and al-Jufrah. 

The Wagner Group tried to utilise Libya as a strategic base to conduct its operations in the Sahel area, notably in Chad and Niger. Russia intends to establish a base along the southern flank of NATO and Libya provides strategic options for naval and aviation bases and provide support for operations further into Africa. Russia seeks to make more investments and create new business prospects in Libya's energy industry. 

Sudan: From President Omar al Bashir to Gen Hamdan Dagalo
In Sudan, the Wagner group began its operation during the reign of former President Omar al-Bashir. During a visit to Moscow in 2017, Sudan's then-President Omar al-Bashir signed several agreements with the Russian government. These included a deal for Russia to establish a naval facility at Port Sudan on the Red Sea and gold extraction concession deals between Russian enterprise and the Sudanese Ministry of Minerals. 

In Sudan, Russia has prioritized establishing a naval base for strategic purposes. Additionally, Russia has established a network of gold mining and smuggling activities in Sudan through Wagner. The Wagner group established Meroe Gold, a Prigozhin-controlled firm, to oversee its operations in the country. 

The Wagner group was reported to have deployed 500 Wagner members in Sudan to train the Sudanese military forces and guard the country's gold mines. During the transitional period following the removal of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the group has allegedly provided military support to the Sudanese government. General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, often known as Hemedti, and his Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had been closely associated with Wagner in weapon smuggling through the Darfur region bordering Chad. There have been accusations of Wagner providing missiles and weapons to RSF in its current conflict with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). 

Mozambique: Combating Al Shabaab
Mozambique, a southeastern African country rich in natural resources, has been grappling with a resurgence of violence since 2017. 

Armed extremist groups, known locally as Al-Shabaab, launched numerous attacks in the Cabo Delgado province, causing significant humanitarian and security challenges. In 2019, Wagner deployed 160 Wagner members to help President Filipe Nyusi's government in its combat against Al-Shabaab but the group failed to contain the insurgency. The Wagner group withdrew its troops from the country in November 2019. 

According to the New York Times, the government maintains a small cyberwarfare group that the Wagner group has left behind. Mozambique possesses natural gas reserves that have attracted international investors. By establishing a foothold in Mozambique, Russia seeks to secure lucrative contracts in the energy sector. 

Central African Republic: From training Army to mine licensing
The Wagner Group started operations in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2018. The group has supported President Faustin-Archange Touadéra's government in its fight against armed rebel groups. The group trained the CAR army as well as local security services. In return, the Wagner Group received the licence to mine for diamonds and gold. As of February 2023, it is estimated that 1,890 military trainers are in DRC. 

The DW, a German news organization, reported the government in Bangui granted unrestricted logging rights across 1,87,000 hectares to the Wagner group, and it generated revenue importing timber. Additionally, the group guarded the CAR's gold and diamond mines and seized a significant amount of the income generated from these mines. Wagner's firms were provided access to the Ndassima gold mine under a contract. In the past five years, the Wagner Group has established ties with political leaders and a strong grip over the country’s economy. 

Russian military engagement in CAR has been seen as a way to increase its diplomatic influence in the Central African region. Recently, Russia and the Central African Republic (CAR) have been negotiating to establish a military base in the country. The CAR's Minister of Defence, Rameaux-Claude Bireau, stated that due to security issues that have plagued the nation, authorities are prepared to accommodate a Russian military base. 

Mali: From training local forces to access to mines
In December 2021, the Wagner group deployed its forces in Mali to train the local forces and to assist the interim leader Colonel Assimi Goita in the conflict against extremists in the Sahel region. The deployment was followed by the end of France's Operation Barkhane in Mali. The group deployed 1,000 Wagner members to provide training and security. It is believed that the group has access to the country's uranium, diamond, and gold mines. 

The group has been charged with committing war crimes in Mali and killing hundreds of innocent civilians in its continuous attacks. The objective of Russia in Mali is to secure economic and military ties. On 7 February 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, stated that large supplies of aviation equipment were provided to Mali which improved the capacity of local troops to combat extremists.

The Wagner Group’s clandestine operations in Africa have raised significant concerns in the international community. The motive of the Wagner group in Africa can be observed in two ways, first, its economic interests, seeking access to valuable resources and business opportunities and second, its geopolitical aspirations, as the Group seeks to expand Russia's influence in the region, challenging the presence of the West. The group’s role in providing military support to various governments and non-state actors has the potential to exacerbate existing conflicts and destabilize fragile regions. Moreover, their opaque nature and lack of accountability raise questions about the legality and ethical implications of their actions on the continent. 

About the author

Jerry Franklin is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai.

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