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Wagner, Africa and the push for military dominance

By RICHARD MUNANGA
This February marks exactly two years since the beginning of their Russian aggression against Ukraine. Since then, the conflict has spread across countries and its impact is clearly being felt in many places other than Eastern Europe, threatening the existence of democracy.
However, the ramifications of this aggression are not limited to Europe. Across the African continent, there is a growing concern as Russian interests, spearheaded by entities like the Wagner Group, expand their reach.
African countries are being drafted into this war via mercenary groups such as Wagner who have since spread their footprint on the African continent. In recent years, two young men – one from Zambia and another from Tanzania – lost their lives fighting in the Ukraine war on behalf of Russia after being recruited by Wagner in exchange for freedom from their jail terms.
Who is Wagner?
Wagner Group is a Russian private military company led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Its engagement in combat operations and the drive to spread on the African continent has unsettled many pro-democracy and human rights activists who believe it’s an attempt to undermine democracy and push forward authoritarianism.
In countries like Zambia, for instance, the mention of Wagner triggers memories of yesteryear when a young student, Lemekhani Nyirenda, lost his life at the battlefield. He was recruited by Wagner, from Prison, where he was serving a sentence from drug trafficking. The payment for his sacrifice was the promised freedom if he had survived the war.
However, like everyone fighting in a war, his survival was not guaranteed and he lost his life at a young age.
“He was promised freedom if he survived the war, but like many others, his life was cut short,” one of his close relatives was recently quoted as saying.
Lemekhani was imprisoned on contested charges of narcotic trafficking and later fell victim to false assurances and manipulation which were employed to conscript him into an illegal armed conflict on foreign soil.
His death brought up important questions about how Africans are used and recruited for wars in other countries. Nyirenda’s death injured his family, leaving them in a state of confusion and with a lot of unanswered questions.
To date, they do not have answers as to what really happened to the bright, young engineer in the making.
The sad story of Nyirenda and the widespread work of the Wagner Group in Africa are stark memories of how the war between Russia and Ukraine affects the safety and stability of Africa.
It urges more attention and action from around the world, stressing the need for a coordinated global reaction to deal with these widespread effects. After two years of this terrible war, the main story has reached beyond European lines and changed the lives of people and the paths of countries all over Africa.
Wagner’s African presence
Wagner has been doing more work in Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, among others.
“The Wagner Group has also meddled and destabilized countries in Africa, committing widespread human rights abuses and extorting natural resources from their people. Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” the US department of the treasury stated last year.
According to UN experts, civilians in countries where Wagner have a presence have suffered at the hands of this group.
“Civilians, including peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers and minorities in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been violently harassed and intimidated by so-called “Russian instructors” from the Wagner Group,” UN Experts say.
Their work is often linked to helping dictatorships and has been linked to claims of violating human rights. Martin Ziguele, a former prime minister from the Central African Republic, and Ida Sawyer, a human rights activist, have previously spoken out against Wagner’s work and what it means for freedom and human rights in these countries.
“In 2016, after elections, we all had the feeling that this time was the right time and that our country was now going to make great strides towards consolidating democracy and economic recovery, especially after the Brussels summit.
“Seven years on, we have a country colonised by Wagner group mercenaries, with a presidency for life, the fruit of a sham referendum, and as the World Bank has pointed out, poverty levels that now cover 70 per cent of the population,” Ziguele says.
Authorities may deny these claims, but Sawyer on the other hand strongly believes there is compelling evidence against the group.
“There is compelling evidence that Russian-identified forces supporting the Central African Republic’s government have committed grave abuses against civilians with complete impunity,” Sawyer says.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expresses deep concern of the Wagner Group’s actions, like the alleged involvement in the Moura massacre in Mali, which claimed hundreds of lives.
“These are extremely disturbing findings. Summary executions, rape and torture during armed conflict amount to war crimes and could, depending on the circumstances, amount to crimes against humanity,” Türk says.
‘Wagner getting support of some African leaders’
Brebnar Changala, a civil rights activist, is worried that Wagner is growing at an alarming rate and dreads the day the group will stretch to the Southern African region.
“They [Wagner] are not there for peace, they are there to loot with the full support of some African leaders who are selfish, the destruction of Africa is at play, and I don’t want to think of a day that Wagner finds itself in the SADC region,” he says.
“They are endangering lives and robbing the African continent of its resources. They perpetrate various inhumane illegalities with the support of some African leaders,” he says in an exclusive interview.
What Changala raises are serious concerns that justify recent investigative reports by Reuters, Makanday, and BBC News have shed new light on the extent of Wagner Group’s involvement in Africa.
The Reuters report exposes how Wagner operatives, under the leadership of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, have been actively engaged in combat operations across the continent and beyond.
Its engagement in Africa is seen by some analysts as part of a broader effort by Russia to project power globally and challenge Western dominance, it reported.
In addition, the BBC and Reuters recently highlighted the case of Tanzanian student, Nemes Tarimo, who was recruited by Wagner Group and subsequently died in Ukraine.
The article quotes a family member of the deceased, who said: “He was approached by people promising a better life and opportunities, but instead, he found himself in a war zone.”
These individual stories, along with reports from Tanzania revealing similar tales of exploitation, underscore the broader pattern of manipulation by foreign entities like Wagner, who prey on vulnerable individuals for their own gain.
As the spotlight shines on the activities of Wagner Group in Africa, it becomes increasingly imperative for African nations to assert our sovereignty and safeguard the rights of our citizens.
For human rights activist Zebbies Mumba, the growing foot print of private military groups on the continent should worry everyone.
“In Africa the biggest concern is related to human rights, in a situation where they [private military groups] take domicile on a particular country, human rights for children become a luxury as these will be recruited as child soldiers to wage battles with their government forces,” Mumba says.
Their operations also puts the economies of these countries at risk as no foreign investors are keen to take their investments in countries under the shadow of private military groups.
“The other unfortunate development will be that with our already fragile economies, where investment is concerned, and the countries where militia groups operate will not attract any investment because of the instability that exist in such countries.
“It is also important to note that countries where such groups are operating end up being plunged into high levels of poverty as the social economic lives of people and the industry is disrupted while the attention and resources of government are directed to addressing the civil strife,” Mumba says.
The need for accountability
The stories of young men like Nyirenda and Tarimo serve as stark reminders of the human cost of conflicts fuelled by foreign interests. For Komenan Aboya from Ivory Coast who was convicted for drug trafficking, his story is different. He survived the war and walked to freedom after fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war. Who was convicted drug dealer? Like Nyirenda and Tarimo, Aboya was recruited from jail in Mordovia, a Volga river region, known for its large prison population.
By acknowledging and addressing the presence of entities like the Wagner Group, Africa can assert its independence and pave the way for a future built on principles of democracy, justice, and human rights.

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