Katzenellenbogen: South Africa’s ominous silence over Wagner Group’s activities in Africa

South Africa’s foreign policy objectives in Africa revolve around stability, peace, and growth. However, an ominous silence from Pretoria and the African Union regarding the Wagner Group’s activities across the continent raises concerns. This mercenary organisation, described by the US Treasury as a transnational criminal organisation, has a presence in at least five African countries and has been accused of supporting warlordism and committing human rights abuses. While South Africa contributes to UN peacekeeping missions and regional efforts, the lack of action against the Wagner Group undermines its foreign policy goals. Furthermore, this silence could impact South Africa’s eligibility for trade concessions, potentially jeopardising its relationship with the United States. African leaders must recognise the risks posed by mercenaries and seek alternative solutions to ensure stability and security on the continent.

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What should SA, at the least, be saying about the Wagner Group?

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*

The goals of South African foreign policy in Africa are stability, peace and growth. If Africa does well, South Africa should do well.

South Africa contributes to United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan. It is also part of a Southern African Development Community’s mission in the Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique to counter an insurgency backed by Islamic State and Al-Shabaab.

Despite these commitments, there is a thundering silence from Pretoria and the African Union about the activities of the Wagner Group across the continent. When President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, does he raise the activities of the group, which have to be working against South Africa’s foreign policy objectives?

The group that attempted a mutiny in Russia last month has a presence in at least five African countries. It has been accused by rights organisations and governments of involvement in massacres and support for warlordism. Its business model is too often acting as Praetorian guards for leaders who lack much local support and then extracting rents from mineral and other concessions. It is a formidable force for instability, conflict and rights abuses.

Variously described as a mercenary organisation or a private military contractor, the US Treasury‚Äôs Office of Foreign Assets Control, a financial intelligence and enforcement agency, describes the Wagner group as a ‚Äėtransnational criminal organisation‚Äô.

Last week the US National Security Council Spokesperson, John Kirby, said the US was ‚Äėdeeply concerned‚Äô about the Wagner Group‚Äôs destabilising activities in Africa. The US has imposed sanctions on four companies in the United Arab Emirates, Central African Republic and Russia.¬†It has accused them of having connections to Wagner.

Read more: Wagner stays, UN peacekeepers have to go…

Gold mine concessions

Wagner has greatly stepped up its presence across the continent over the past five years. After kicking out the French, Burkina Faso and Mali have done deals with the Wagner Group. Investigations suggest that the group might be paid with gold mine concessions for their services.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner helped the government repel rebel attacks on Bangui, the capital. In return the group received logging rights and control of a gold mine. During an operation against rebels in the Central African Republic it is alleged that Wagner Group mercenaries killed 65 civilians after they shot indiscriminately into a crowd. In Mali, where they have been present since 2022, they engineered to have French forces ejected, and a UN report says they have been implicated in a massacre.

Wagner operators in Libya have been helping General Khalifa Haftar, who controls the eastern part of the country. And in Sudan, the group was employed by the ousted strongman Omar al-Bashir to suppress protests. The group is now working for Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, widely known as Hemeti, who is leading a rebellion against the regular Sudanese army. Hemeti once led a militia in the Darfur region that was accused of genocidal violence. Three years ago, Wagner helped Mozambique fight off Islamic state fighters in Cabo Delgado but withdrew after failing to end the insurgency.

Pretoria’s silence on the Wagner group could be one reason why Washington might not renew the tariff-free access South Africa has on a wide range of goods exported to the US under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA. Next week the US Congress is due to begin its look into the eligibility of South Africa and other countries for the trade concessions under the Act. One of the factors that is considered under the Act is the extent to which the country supports US national security interests.

Despite the failed mutiny and subsequent deal, the Wagner Group will still have a major presence in Africa. After all, they are still a major source of power projection for Russia, despite having their own interests. That makes it difficult for Putin to dismantle their activities across the continent.

Read more: Wagner group: The mercenary menace ravaging Africa’s nations; and why no one has been able to stop them

Defence help from the West

Many African leaders who are perhaps thinking of employing Wagner might argue that when states receive defence help from the West, few question this. And they might make the argument that the West supports its own mining companies. And that’s what Russia is doing. So what is the difference, they might ask.

One key difference is in the greater accountability from their own citizens and the world to which governments and companies in the West are subject. The other key difference is the extent to which Wagner is involved in illicit deals and resource trading.

Ghana is the only African country which has spoken out loudly about the threat from Russian mercenaries. It is alarmed by their presence so close to their northern border, and the risks of serious trouble. Other African leaders had best share this alarm. After all, Putin himself was given a shock late on a Friday night a few weeks ago.

The diplomat and political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, a senior official in the Florentine Republic in the late 15th and early 16th century, was disparaging of mercenaries and pointed out the risk of employing them. In ‚ÄėThe Prince‚Äô, his playbook for leaders, which is often incorrectly regarded as a manual for treachery, he views mercenaries as idle and only concerned about being paid, whether or not they were benefiting the state that used them. And if they worked for one state, they might also work for the state‚Äôs opponent. There is little to dispute this.

‚ÄėMercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy,‚Äô he wrote in ‚ÄėThe Prince‚Äô.

Read more: Lessons from Wagner rebellion: African states must rethink their dependence on mercenary security

Might turn on their clients

While Wagner has defended its clients, the attempted mutiny shows that it might well turn on its clients as well. And do we really know if Wagner recruits are really prepared to die in Africa or for that matter Ukraine any longer?

African leaders should have learnt this lesson first-hand many years ago, but if they lack internal support and are suspicious of their own armies and people, they might have no options other than Wagner.

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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission