According to the Financial Times, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the influential warlord behind the Wagner mercenary group, was last seen alive in a video from Mali promising “to make Russia even bigger on every continent and Africa even freer.” Just 48 hours later, he died in a mysterious plane crash northwest of Moscow.
This incident not only marked the end of a dominant figure in Russia’s mercenary operations, but also raised serious questions about the future of such operations, particularly in Africa.
Prigozhin’s control of the Wagner Group had already faltered after he challenged President Putin’s authority in June. His death has now reignited debate over whether Russia will be able to continue the mercenary operations in Africa and the Middle East that he had established.
Prigozhin’s Wagner Group in Africa in action
A long-time acquaintance of Prigozhin told the Financial Times: “Africa will go down the drain. No one will take it, because for that you need Zhenya.” Zhenya was Prigozhin’s nickname. “He was the only one crazy enough to do it.”
In less than five years, the Wagner Group has become a central tool in Russian power projection in Africa. According to the Financial Times, it has engaged in electoral rigging, disinformation campaigns and military activities while offering the Kremlin plausible deniability should things go wrong.
Wherever there was chaos to be stirred up or anti-Western sentiment to be exploited, Prigozhin and his group were often found working in various African countries on behalf of the Kremlin, they say.
Gold and diamonds in exchange for support
The Wagner group has supported military junta regimes, pro-Muscovite rulers and fragile governments from Libya to Mali to the Central African Republic. In exchange for their services, the group received valuable concessions to explore for mineral resources, particularly gold and diamonds, according to the Financial Times. In addition, Wagner-affiliated companies were rewarded with lucrative deals such as exporting timber and operating gold mines.
These business relationships have not only brought significant financial benefits to the Wagner Group, but also strengthened Russia’s geopolitical influence on the continent. Cameron Hudson, a former CIA official, stressed these countries’ dependence on Wagner in the British newspaper: “They are in bed with Russia now, whether it’s Putin or Prigozhin. You cannot switch.”
After Prigozhin’s death, the chains of command within Wagner could change. Enrica Picco, director for Central Africa at the Crisis Group, predicted new faces will emerge. The Financial Times reports that the next steps will largely depend on the Russian president. It remains to be seen how Putin will react and whether he will attempt to consolidate control over Wagner.