Mercenary Shocks: What the War in Ukraine Will Eventually Mean for Africa
At some point the war in Ukraine will end, and when it does, the resulting influx of mercenaries will send shockwaves through Africa. As the current conflict grinds toward its grim one-year anniversary, experts disagree on what might happen next. But eventually one side will win, or the fighting will morph into a low-intensity conflict. At this point, thousands of former soldiers with combat experience will hit the open market. These soldiers will find limited job prospects in Ukraine or Russia, as both armies cut down on active-duty troops. The Wagner Group and other private military companies from South Africa, France, and the United Kingdom offer these former soldiers an option to support their families and escape their circumstances. The consequences of this will fall heavily on African countries, which have already begun to employ mercenaries at a rate not seen since the Cold War. If countries choose to recruit them, these new mercenaries will cause widespread instability, weakening governments and likely increasing the number and scale of insurgencies across the continent.
Africa, particularly the Sahel region, is acutely vulnerable to mercenary interventions because of a lack of trust in government alongside a number of local and regional insurgencies. The continent has a history of employing mercenaries. Such mercenaries often commit human rights violations and aim for monetary gain over durable peace and security. Mercenaries, particularly the Wagner Group, have recently intervened in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Libya, in each case escalating local conflicts and killing civilians. Africa’s stability is at stake, as a deluge of mercenaries from the war in Ukraine could send even more countries teetering over the edge into authoritarianism, civil war, and foreign resource theft.
Africa’s mercenary challenge requires innovative solutions. Countering disinformation is key in building civilian trust and local buy-in. Naming and shaming mercenary violence could be a useful tactic, particularly in combination with moves against disinformation. Sanctions are a valuable tool as well, yet they should be calibrated to the correct circumstances and set of actors. African and Western governments should act now to address the threat posed by mercenaries before it gets substantially worse.
The length and severity of the war in Ukraine will determine the volume of the mercenary influx in Africa. If the war in Ukraine continues for a significant period, particularly as both sides continue to sustain high casualty rates, the number of potential recruits for post-conflict mercenary could be diminished. The conflict’s attrition rate is astronomical, with approximately 280,000 military casualties and tens of thousands of civilian deaths. Despite Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s publicized recruitment of prisoners to fill the void, manpower constraints will limit future mercenary capabilities. If the conflict ends more quickly, regardless of the victor, former soldiers on both sides will be interested in mercenary work. Alternatively, if the war returns to pre-2022 levels of low intensity “frozen conflict,” new African deployments would also be on the horizon.
On the Ukrainian side, foreign troops ranging from European anarchists to the ultra-right Azov Regiment will be incentivized to continue military activities abroad. On the Russian side, former Wagner Group mercenaries and new recruits to the organization, including prisoners, will be interested in pursuing military work outside of the Russian and Ukrainian states. Many thousands of recently called-up conscripts may likewise be interested. On both sides, soldiers will be motivated by money or simply a skillset and a desire to fight. Russian veterans in particular can “rally around the flag” — supporting the Russian expansionist narrative through the grievance of defeat or the thirst for continued victories. Should Ukrainian or NATO-supported private military companies come into being, veterans will flock to these organizations for the same reasons. Private military companies fill a vocational gap and perhaps an ideological gap as well for veterans of the war in Ukraine.
Likely only a fraction of Ukrainian war veterans will choose to join private military companies or take on new contracts. However, the statistics on the Wagner Group suggest that the mercenary phenomenon has already begun to expand massively. Before the war began, the Wagner Group employed an estimated 5,000 mercenaries, yet today the U.K. and U.S. governments believe that the group employs approximately 50,000 mercenaries in Ukraine alone. Before the conflict began, Russia and Ukraine were believed to have 1.1 million active-duty troops combined. If only 20 percent of Wagner Group troops in Ukraine accept new contracts in Africa, the group would double in size relative to its pre-war strength. Likewise, if a tiny percentage of regular army or volunteer forces join the Wagner Group or other private military companies after the war, the impact on Africa will be dramatic.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, the Russian government will likely have an incentive to escalate its use of mercenaries in Africa in an effort to destabilize Western strategic relationships while building the Kremlin’s own. Private military companies hold the keys to unlocking military-to-military relationships without “boots on the ground.” The Wagner Group has demonstrated a suite of strategies in its African operations, including disinformation campaigns, resource extraction concessions, and the initiation of military-to-military training, weapons sales, and protection details. These strategies have successfully strong-armed French counterterror support out of Mali and the Central African Republic, while ensconcing the Wagner Group in both countries as a security guarantor. With a significant influx of Ukraine war veterans, the Wagner Group can expand its operations to more locations and at a greater scale.
Wagner Group leadership, including Prigozhin, benefit from African interventions through lucrative resource extraction contracts in host countries and political prestige within Russia. The Wagner Group exchanges its military support for mining and petroleum contracts, gaining resources in Syria, the Central African Republic, and Sudan. The group uses a variety of shell companies to facilitate these operations, including Meroe Gold and Lobaye Invest. Further, the group’s advances in Africa provide Prigozhin and his cohort with political leverage in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ever-changing inner circle, as these advances provide key military-to-military relations for the Russian state including weapons sales, key infrastructure access, and geopolitical advances against the West.
Why to Worry
Expanded mercenary deployments will aggravate the recent pattern of political instability in Africa. Leaders will become bolder in their internal security operations. Wagner Group interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic already led to French withdrawal. Now, Burkina Faso’s junta has called on French military forces to leave their counterterror mission, with some government leaders citing an interest in working with Russia instead. If more private military companies with more mercenaries move into African markets, more African countries will force out their Western security partners in favor of these mercenary groups. In addition, more coups could occur as democratically elected leaders are perceived to be failing against jihadist movements. Both outcomes will encourage instability across the continent, as junta leadership and mercenary operations provide band-aid solutions for deeper wounds.
African states have also turned to the Wagner Group and other mercenary organizations because these groups are willing to do their dirty work. States have hired the Wagner Group to kill enemies of the state and those who aid and abet them. In Mali and the Central Africa Republic, governments have encouraged attacks on civilians, many of them members of minority Muslim Fulani communities. Attacking civilians will only stoke the flames of separatist and religious-based extremism, discouraging trust in national governance and encouraging regional instability.
Finally, the Wagner Group and other private military companies will expand their parasitical relationships to new governments across Africa. These organizations will follow the Wagner Group model, ensconcing themselves in countries through long-term resource extraction projects. In the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group has turned an artisanal gold mine into an eight-zoned, heavily defended industrial extraction site. Center for Strategic and Internationals Studies expert Catrina Doxsee points out that the group is planning for the long term and nurturing the government’s dependence. These relationships will continue to drain African states of their natural resources, while aggrandizing the role of mercenary groups in national politics.
Who is Fighting: A Brief Mercenary History in Africa
The Wagner Group has redefined mercenary objectives in Africa, with the accompanying publicity to boot, yet the mercenary phenomenon is not new on the continent. After the Cold War, numerous mercenary groups sprung up, composed of ex-soldiers from South Africa, Mozambique, and elsewhere. Executive Outcomes, formed by South African officer Eben Barlow in 1989, rose to infamy as a racist yet brutally effective outfit, only dissolved in 1999. These mercenaries were paid on average $3,500 for soldiers and $4,000 for officers per month. Most were veterans of the post-colonial, apartheid, and Cold War conflicts in southern Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, just as today’s Wagner Group members are veterans of the wars in Syria and Ukraine.
Regardless of the country of origin, mercenary activity across Africa is on the rise. A recent study by the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security found that private military companies have increased their control and political influence in Africa. This rise may be linked to the growth of Islamist insurgencies in Africa, which have gathered steam through the establishment of Islamic State affiliates across the continent. It is no coincidence that Executive Outcomes was restarted in 2020. More recently, South Africa-based organizations have included Osprey Asset Management and Black Hawk, both of which are composed mainly of ex-apartheid soldiers in the 55–65 age range, veterans of the last conventional conflicts in Africa. In a losing bid to the Wagner Group for the Cabo Delgado contract in Mozambique, Osprey Asset Management reportedly asked for $15,000–$25,000 per person per month, while the Wagner Group reportedly paid a fraction of that: $1,800–$4,700 per person per month.
European, American, and Ukrainian veterans of the Ukraine war may also be interested in joining a variety of Western-based mercenary groups already operating in Africa. American-based CACI and Academi operate across the continent. German-based Asgaard operates in Egypt, Mauritania, Libya, and Sudan. French-based SECOPEX has operated in Somalia, the Central African Republic, and, formerly, in Libya alongside Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. British-based Aegis Defense Services has worked in 18 African countries, while provoking ire for employing Sierra Leonean former child soldiers alongside U.S. forces in Iraq. And then, of course, there are also smaller regional outfits, including the Dyck Advisory Group, based in Zimbabwe, the Paramount Group, based in South Africa, and Burnham Global, based in Dubai.
Losing Wars, Making Money
Recent history shows that these mercenary groups are far more effective at exacerbating conflicts than solving them. In the Central African Republic, a U.N. mission was unable to defeat Seleka insurgents and a variety of other groups outside the capital, Bangui. Wagner Group forces have failed as well, while also committing gross human rights violations against civilians and journalists. In the Sahel region, insurgencies are tied to religion and local grievances. Over the course of a decade, a pair of French counterterror programs, Operations Serval and Barkhane, were unable to dislodge Jamaa Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimin and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara from Mali and neighboring Sahel states. The Wagner Group has run into similar difficulties, as its own casualties and attacks on civilians mount. Meanwhile in Mozambique, Wagner Group forces failed spectacularly in the Cabo Delgado region. They failed to understand the local culture, were hampered by their relations with government forces, and proved unprepared for jungle warfare. Subsequent European mercenary operations were unable to dislodge the same Islamic State affiliates. Renewed or continuing conflict in Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya, and in many other hot zones may trigger mercenary operations. Yet, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique demonstrate that African insurgencies and civil conflict are difficult to resolve even with recent mercenary approaches.
Instead of resolving conflict or supporting legitimate government institutions, the Wagner Group and other private military companies tend to fill their own coffers while degrading the rule of law in countries where they interfere. Some experts argue that such organizations will prolong conflicts to continue profiting from lucrative contracts. At the same time, the Wagner Group threatens government legitimacy by targeting and killing civilians in Mali and the Central African Republic, particularly ethnic minorities. Thus, private military companies are often a poison pill for their employers, threatening the long-term stability of governments.
How to Respond
To make sure Africa doesn’t pay the price for peace in Ukraine, NATO countries should begin by developing a comprehensive response to the Wagner Group’s disinformation and state capture strategies. The first step is addressing misinformation with proof. France has already set the tone for such responses in Mali, using photographic evidence to rebut a Wagner Group disinformation operation that blamed a massacre of civilians on exiting French forces.
Second, Western states should lobby African regional and continental bodies, including the Economic Community of African States and the African Union, to halt mercenary operations. They can point to Mali, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic as clear examples of mercenary-driven instability and parasitical relationships. They should encourage these organizations to sanction states that use and are used by mercenary groups. While new U.S. sanctions against the Wagner Group are a useful first step, the group has a variety of ways to skirt these sanctions, including the use of shell companies. To prevent this, sanctions should be directed at governments working with mercenary groups.
Beyond this, NATO and other bodies should continue naming and shaming mercenary activities. The U.S. State Department has taken the lead, publicly distributing a cable on the Wagner Group’s expanded mining activities in the Central African Republic. Although news media and private sector investigations are essential, government buy-in plays a vital role in amplifying their work.
Finally, NATO members and African states should also be prepared to deploy sanctions and travel bans against Western-based mercenary groups that commit human rights violations as well. Regardless of their origin, mercenaries are not the answer to Africa’s problems, offering at best a short-term solution for instability while undermining effective governance. Instead, leaders should demonstrate a long-term commitment to rebuilding security sectors and promoting economic development.
Africa’s stability is at stake. The violence and jihadism seen in Mali and the Central African Republic may spread across the continent. Mercenary organizations flush with a wave of post-Ukraine war recruits will only exacerbate the problem.
Raphael Parens is an independent researcher living in Republic of the Congo. He studies African conflict, Russian military policy, and paramilitary groups. He has published papers on the Wagner Group, food insecurity in Africa, and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He has been cited in numerous other articles, studies, and U.S. congressional testimony. He has also appeared on France24 to discuss Russia’s latest moves in Africa.