The United States is rightly concerned at the growing role in Africa of Russia’s Wagner Group, which operates as an auxiliary of President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. Where African governments have asked Wagner for security assistance, the group deploys military, economic and political interventions that deepen violence, corruption and authoritarian governance. Wagner’s role disrupts Africans’ efforts to move their countries from violent conflict to stability. Yet many Western responses are ineffective, even playing into Kremlin messaging to Africa and the Global South. An effective alternative requires that we listen to Africans’ voices and respond based on our shared values.
The Sahel’s ‘Wagner Problem’
The Wagner Group expanded its role in Africa’s Sahel by seizing on the region’s years-long slide into chaos: widened extremist and ethnic insurgencies, seven military coups, populations uprooted and unsuccessful international security interventions. These conditions have let Wagner offer weapons, mercenaries and other support to a half-dozen authoritarian (mostly military-led) governments that face isolation, including sanctions, from African and international communities.
Past interventions by private military companies such as South Africa’s Executive Outcomes or the U.S. firm Blackwater also have complicated efforts to stabilize countries in conflict. But Wagner, run by cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeks a broader intervention in the conflicts, governance and economies of its client states. Wagner brings not simply private soldiers, but political operatives, mining and business specialists and even social media producers — all to build influence and profits for itself and the Kremlin. Its effect in Africa is to strengthen rule by force rather than by democracy and law; to promote corruption over transparency; to drain, rather than bolster, local business and government revenues; and to parasitically keep authoritarian regimes dependent on Wagner’s presence.
Anecdotal evidence and data on violence show that Wagner’s brutal efficiency can help militarily secure client regimes — but in ways that will only intensify the longer-term corrosion of states, alienation of populations, extremist responses and spread of insecurity.
The Central African Republic (CAR) is the biggest example. Wagner sent “military instructors” in 2017 who morphed into security guards for President Faustin-Archange Touadera and then into a combat force that is now “one of the dominant agents of political violence in CAR,” according to the violence monitoring group ACLED. The state granted concessions to Wagner-linked shell companies to extract diamonds, gold from the country’s main mine and high-value timber from Congo Basin forests, according to investigations by journalists and anticorruption groups. In Bangui, entrepreneurs recently lamented to USIP that Wagner is taking over sectors of the economy — reports cite cocoa, coffee, sugar, alcohol and transport — crowding out local businesses and diverting income from Central Africans to Russia.
In Sudan, Wagner partnered first with dictator Omar Al-Bashir and then with the generals who ousted him, providing advisors and riot control gear against a grassroots democracy movement. Sudanese authorities gave a Wagner-linked shell company rights to refine gold-bearing ore and export the gold, untaxed by the government, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the New York Times and other news organizations. In Mali, France responded to military coups by drawing down its troops backing the state against insurgents. Wagner sent fighters to support the ruling military, and a U.N. human rights experts’ group says Wagner’s fighters are implicated in “persistent and alarming accounts of horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape and sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, touring the Sahel in February, vowed to expand Russian assistance “against terrorism” to more countries. “This concerns Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad and the Sahel region generally and even the coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea,” he said. In Chad, U.S. officials leaked what they said is U.S. intelligence that Wagner has planned attacks to kill President Mahamat Idriss Déby and his top aides in a bid to win acquiescence to a Wagner deployment from their successors. In Burkina Faso, where French troops ended their support mission against insurgents following two coups d’état last year, the interim prime minister and legislative speaker visited Moscow to seek “logistical … and other different support” against terrorism.
To Africans, Offer an Option, Not Judgment
U.S. and international condemnations of Wagner as an evil enterprise are understandable, notably amid its central role in Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine. This moral condemnation resonates among European allies that also suffered invasion or oppression from Moscow.
But in Africa, Western condemnation of immoral Russian violence and corruption are tone-deaf — tainted with hypocrisy by the West’s history in the continent. Africans still struggle to recover from centuries of violence and corruption inflicted not by Russia, but by Western colonial powers and their African proxies. They also feel that Western powers often have not leapt with the singular urgency to rescue Africans — for example in the long wars of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo — as they now justly support Ukrainians.
For many Africans, Wagner is a choice not of preference but of desperation following years of failed international efforts to help end violent crises. “When your house is burning you don’t judge the quality of the water you spray to stop the flames,” one Sahel official noted ruefully in a recent conversation with USIP.
Africans’ pain over Western assaults on their sovereignty make them adamant about protecting it now. Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop rejects U.S. and French criticism of Mali’s invitation to Wagner, saying “we are open to all partners” who “respect Mali’s sovereignty.” Senegal’s President Macky Sall underscores that Africa “does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War” between the West and Russia.
U.S. messaging that overlooks the inevitable opposition of worldviews between a Europe of former imperial powers and an Africa of former imperial colonies only hobbles the West’s ability to ally with the Global South in strengthening international law and institutions that are now under assault from authoritarian-ruled states large and small. Building that fairer, more effective system requires the partnership with Africa promised by the U.S. government. Such partnership relies on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s critical recognition that “too often African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress rather than the authors of their own,” that “they have been told to pick a side in great-power contests that feel far removed from daily struggles of their people,” and that “the United States will not dictate Africa’s choices.”
Build Off-Ramps from Dependence on Wagner
Wagner and Vladimir Putin will hope that, by deepening the Sahel’s chaos, they can persuade the United States and other democracies to abandon the region. An effective response by democracies, Western and African, will require offering Wagner’s clients our own broader, more realistic and respectful relationships with them than in prior international efforts to counter insurgency and extremism. In the United States, a sober, bipartisan assessment found past U.S. policies too short-term and too narrowly focused on building Sahel states’ military skills rather than improved governance and economies. That reevaluation produced the 2019 Global Fragility Act — and weaning African states from dependence on Wagner will mean applying the principles of that reform within the equal partnership promised by U.S. leaders. Western and African democracies must join in four vital steps:
- Intensify diplomacy and dialogue with Sahel states, including Wagner’s clients, even while opposing and sanctioning the corruption and human rights abuses that Wagner advances.
- Work not just with governments, but with whole societies, including in Wagner client states. Support and seek guidance from opposition, civic, religious and communal groups, women and youth leaders — and critically, the business sectors — on specific steps in each country to better meet populations’ needs through democratically elected governments. This whole-of-nation engagement must model the inclusion that democracies advocate for improved governance — and for transitions back to democracy by states under military rule.
- Demonstrate to Sahel nations the opportunities to build their economies through the rule of law that invites domestic and foreign investment. For the United States, this means streamlining and speeding up the work of policy tools such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the International Development Finance Corporation. A basic step must surely be to staff more U.S. embassies in Africa with commercial attachés.
- Work with neighboring countries in the Sahel, with the African Union and the regional commissions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to build security responses that are designed or led not by the United States or France (as in the past), but from within Africa, with the United States and other Western democracies as enablers. African-led approaches can build on ECOWAS interventions in Liberia (in the 1990s) or in Gambia (in 2016-17) to replace foreign military-led models.
This transition to African-led and U.S.-enabled solutions will require sustained engagement and the real partnership promised by the U.S. government. Such equal African-Western partnerships offer the only path to reversing the ills of governance and unmet African needs (rooted heavily in the damage from past Western-African relationships) that have opened the door to Wagner’s brutality and exploitation.