The Wagner Group may have a new name for its operations in Africa, but it’s the same Russian mercenary outfit that has pillaged mineral wealth and left a trail of atrocities across the continent.
The future of the shadowy group was thrown into disarray after the August 2023 death of former leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin before Prigozhin led Wagner’s aborted revolt against the Russian military in June 2023.
Wagner’s rebranding with the name Africa Corps shows the group is in the midst of restructuring under Putin and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov.
“The Wagner Group has a history of brutality and war crimes,” researcher Fahad Mirza wrote in a November 2023 report for the Global Network on Extremism & Technology, an academic research initiative.
Mirza predicts the group will continue to splinter and inevitably become a terrorist organization, but he notes that its operations in Africa likely will continue to be self-sustaining regardless of its moniker.
“There is no singular entity known as the Wagner Group,” he wrote. “Rather, it is a sprawling network of shell companies and shadowy operatives whose services range from all-out warfare to troll factories.
“It has the capacity to self-finance, it has experience in manipulating narratives to appear sympathetic, and a membership composed of violent repeat criminal offenders who lack the means to return to their homes peacefully.”
Experts say Russia’s decision to rebrand Wagner with a name that harkens back to the Nazi regime’s Afrika Korps — created by Adolf Hitler to fight for and control territory in northern Africa during World War II — won’t change its toxic impact on the nations in which it operates.
Russian mercenaries are fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, where they extract gold, diamonds and other vital natural resources as payment for their services. They continue to murder, torture and steal from civilians who get in their way.
Witnesses reported a five-day massacre carried out by Russian mercenaries who seized a CAR gold mine in the town of Koki on October 22, 2023. The Daily Beast website called it “the first major atrocity committed by Russian paramilitaries under the new [Africa Corps] leadership.”
As Russia’s Ministry of Defence has taken control of the Wagner Group since Prigozhin’s death, Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, also has seen its role grow.
In late August and early September, Yevkurov and GRU Gen. Andrei Averyanov visited several African nations, including Burkina Faso, CAR, Libya and Mali, to assert Russia’s presence during the transition period.
Candace Rondeaux, who studies the Wagner Group and is senior director for the Future Frontlines program at New America, said Averyanov has been accused of leading a GRU unit responsible for assassinations in Europe and now is directly overseeing Russia’s operations in Africa.
“In some ways, he [Averyanov] is almost like the godfather of sabotage and shadow operations,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “Putin is trying to send a signal [to African government leaders]: ‘The adults are in the room now. These guys are in charge. Don’t worry.’”
But the track record of those in charge signals danger for civilians caught in the crosshairs of Africa Corps operations.
The Kremlin gave the order to secure several CAR gold mines by force and evict civilians, according to three CAR government and military officials who told The Daily Beast that they attended meetings with their president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and the Russian delegation in September.
“They stated clearly that Russia wanted to immediately begin mining operations in locations in the north and central regions,” one senior CAR government official told The Daily Beast. “Even when we expressed concern about the presence of armed rebels in these areas and how that could lead to a bloody conflict, they weren’t bothered.”
Rondeaux said Putin has made it clear that Russia’s priorities in Africa are extracting wealth first and spreading influence second.
The restructuring of the Wagner Group into the Russian government’s official military apparatus also means the end of Russia’s plausible deniability of the mercenaries’ actions.
“What this tells us is Putin is less interested in deception,” she said. “He knows that the cover has been blown off, basically.
“He is more invested in making sure that the deals that he does with client states in Africa or the Middle East, these mostly despotic regimes, continue to be stable.”