Despite Moscow’s best attempts at controlling the narrative, there exists a power vacuum in the region—and a need to rethink alliances.
June’s dramatic escalation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin brought into focus the challenges of relying too heavily on an unpredictable entity. Overnight, Wagner’s partner nations in Africa seemed to be at the mercy of an enigmatic power play within the Kremlin.
Wagner’s activities across Africa paint a disconcerting picture. Since 2017, the group has been expanding its African footprint. While the size of Wagner’s presence on the continent is fluid and murky, it is estimated that there are around 2,000 official “instructors” in the Central African Republic (CAR), up to 1,200 in Libya, and 1000 in Mali—though experts widely agree that those numbers are understated. In countries like the CAR, Sudan, Libya, and Mali, Wagner provides political support and security guarantees in exchange for lucrative mining concessions and a geopolitical buffer for Russia.
As African leaders wait to find out the new facts of their partnership with Russia post-coup attempt, Wagner influence and profit in Africa remains strategically invaluable to the Kremlin. Both Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Prigozhin have publicly assured African leaders that Russia is going to remain there. Yet despite Moscow’s best attempts at controlling the narrative, there exists a power vacuum in the region.
For countries contemplating inviting the Russian military, Wagner, or any similar paramilitary group into their territories, recent events should serve as a timely warning. The instability within Russia and the unclear future of Wagner expose the dangers of overreliance on an unpredictable and unaccountable partner. This presents a unique opportunity for African leaders to diversify their global partnerships—and for Western governments to step up.
Putin has made a critical decision regarding the future of Wagner, opting not to rebrand but to rather integrate it into the state infrastructure for greater control and predictability. However, Wagner has made clear it’s ambitions to remain active, leaving the Kremlin with a closer eye little choice but to keep a close eye on the group, perhaps affording it less autonomy while still allowing for a smooth continuation of operations in Africa. While as the same time, integrating Wagner into the state apparatus raises questions about military cohesion as well as implications of foreign military presence in Africa. The Malian government, for instance, has stated that it has no foreign military present on its soil.
Additionally, if the Russian military’s contracts don’t match Wagner’s favorable terms, there’s a risk of mercenaries joining other private companies, potentially leading to smaller competing groups jockeying for control in Africa without any effective oversight from Moscow. It also risks creating demand for other mercenary groups in the region, such as the United States’ Academi (formerly Blackwater), South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), or an expansion of semi-autonomous mercenary groups linked back to Beijing that are increasingly present as the Belt and Road Initiative extends its reach.
Yet rethinking partnerships with risky entities does not in itself plug the security vacuum in many of these countries. The alternatives can be limited, and where available, Western governments are offering neither an empowering nor a particularly responsive model that gets to the heart of the complex political and security challenges in the region. A critical missing component is a credible strategy to counter the violent extremist actors that are spearheading devastating movements against African societies and states.
If the Western ask is going to be that African states look beyond the allure of transient solutions and embrace partnerships that prioritize stability, economic growth, and the empowerment of their peoples, a bold and pragmatic alternative needs to be offered by a coalition of partners. This will necessarily include the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and even emerging geopolitical actors such as Japan and India. Such an offering will also need to consider that some governments, such as those in Mali, have portrayed themselves as a counter to colonial powers and require discreet diplomacy to work around.
As a multipolar world order emerges, African leaders have a fresh opportunity to diversify their partnerships. The days of security guarantors are over, and the exclusivity that Western leaders once expected when forging security alliances and conducting diplomacy may need retrofitting to best suit the growing interests of African nations. While African states such as Mali and the CAR remain apprehensive, other countries, like Burkina Faso and, to some extent, Sudan, remain open to reengagement with the West. Despite no recent known diplomatic visits or bilateral talks, a number of Western embassies remain open in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, pointing to the prospect of building mutually beneficial partnerships.
The foundation of a new partnership model must first be premised on mutual benefit and a policy of noninterference—and must be preceded by diplomatic engagement that fosters stronger relations and considers both the needs and aspirations of African nations. Bilateral dialogue and expanded diplomatic channels can help overcome the first challenge of presenting governments with an exit strategy from reliance on Russia or other private military entities.
Second, economic cooperation and investment ought to be promoted in key sectors of shared interest, with an emphasis on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, technology, and, most critically, human development. Offering attractive trade and investment incentives, providing technical expertise, and facilitating business partnerships can help establish sustained economic ties. Here, it’s crucial to leverage the West’s comparative advantages. These include offering a gateway to trade with lucrative markets in the U.S. and EU. Moreover, Western partners ought to consider how they might support African nations in developing manufacturing capabilities of natural resources by investing in processes such as beneficiation, allowing them to move up the value chain.
A third area is targeted capacity-building programs. The Wagner model offers political expertise on regime maintenance to leaders creeping away from democratic ideals—such as Khalifa Haftar in Libya and Col. Assimi Goïta in Mali—but the reality is that lasting stability is the outcome of able and responsive institutions. It is here that the West can offer capacity-building programs to help African countries independently address key challenges. This can include support for education, health care, institutional development, and sustainable development projects that align with the priorities of African nations.