Violence Against Civilians: The Wagner Group, Brutality and Exploitation of Africa

Violence Against Africa
Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic. Photo from Clément Di Roma via Voice of America.

By Akinyetun, Tope Shola

The incidence of violence in Africa has exponentially increased over the last decade. There has been an increase in violent extremist attacks, terrorism, insurgency, farmer-herder crises, identity conflicts, climate-induced violence, and banditry – inter alia – resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and the destruction of property. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) show that between 2010 and 2022, there were 169,454 events resulting in 417,690 fatalities (see figure 1). These events increased by 63.6% and 50.7%, respectively, in the last twelve months. The data further show that the most prevalent form of conflict in Africa is violence against civilians, which has increased sharply from 4,242 in 2017 to 7,718 in 2020 and 8,902 in 2022. A civilian is an unarmed person, who is neither a member of a militia group nor a state security force. Violence against civilians, otherwise one-sided violence, is defined as the ‘intentional use of armed force against civilians by a government or formally organized group that results in at least 25 deaths in a calendar year.’ Violence against civilians differs from armed conflict in that it directly targets defenseless civilians. This is a common phenomenon in a climate of volatility and conflict.

Figure 1: Incidence of Conflicts in Africa, 2010-2022

Cases of violence against civilians have been reported in several parts of the world by rebel groups and military operations, such as the Israel operations in Lebanon and Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2008, respectively, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations in Afghanistan. Other incidences have been recorded in Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, and several parts of Africa. Violence against civilians is a prominent occurrence in Africa, especially in Sudan, Chad, Mali, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Ethiopia. In most cases, such attacks are launched in civilian-populated areas.

Factors responsible for violence against civilians include inter-communal antagonism, arms proliferation, heavy-handedness of response by government security forces, weak organizational structure of militant groups, and the involvement of proxy actors in conflict situations. The use of proxies such as local militias and foreign private military companies is often favoured by states seeking to avoid the attendant human and financial costs of the direct involvement of their military in a conflict. This has recently become a strategy adopted by Russia in its war against Ukraine and in African states, particularly Libya, Sudan, the CAR, and Mali. Russia has changed the course of its offensive in Ukraine by drafting fighters of a private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group, in its onslaught. The group has been accused of violence against civilians in the Kyiv, Bucha, and Bakhmut regions of Ukraine through the planting of explosives, rape, murder, and infrastructure targeting. The group presently has approximately 50,000 mercenaries in Ukraine (many of whom are convicts conscripted from Russia’s penal system). The Wagner Group is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman and an ally of President Putin, and is believed to have been involved in Russia’s annex of Crimea in 2014. The Russian government has continued to deny the involvement of this group.

Wagner Group in Africa

The Wagner Group’s presence in Africa is representative of Russia’s quest to increase its influence in Africa through its renewed military collaboration resulting in the sales of weapons to the region. This warfare strategy also includes the supply of private security companies to train African countries in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism tactics as well as providing security for Russian expatriates in Africa through the Slavonic Corps and Moran Security Group PMCs.

The group’s presence in Libya can be traced back to 2019 when Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) with ties to Russia joined forces with the Wagner Group to attack the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Haftar’s rebellion was reportedly supported by approximately 1,000 Wagner fighters between 2019 and 2020. The group committed violence against civilians by placing booby traps and unmarked landmines in several locations in Libya’s suburbs. These mines have resulted in the death and injury of 130 and 196 civilians, respectively, between 2020 and 2022. Most of these casualties were deaths.

It is believed that the Wagner Group’s presence in Africa is resource-driven, especially considering the economic implications of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, which has made the former turn to resource-rich countries with diamonds and gold to support the ruble and pay its mercenaries. This is true in the case of Sudan and the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group either expelled miners or committed violence against them. In Sudan, the military government strengthened its ties with the Wagner Group after the October 25 coup and granted access to mining sites. Sudan is one of Africa’s largest gold producers. the Wagner Group, using its subsidiary Meroe Gold, secured gold mining licenses (without paying shares to Khartoum) from President Omar al-Bashir in 2018. The group is believed to have killed and displaced hundreds of miners and adopted a vicious means to expel them from mining locations and loot their resources.

Violence against Civilians in Africa

The Central African Republic is characterized by multidimensional poverty and recurring conflicts. This is amid the country’s abundant natural resources, including diamonds and gold. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra agreed with Russia in 2017 to train its military and mitigate conflict. Russia’s interest is represented by the Wagner Group, which set up a shell company, Diamville, to forcefully extort diamonds and gold from collectors and miners. There have been reports of mass killings by the Wagner Group in the Besson, Ouaka, Nana-Mambere, and Ouham-Pende communities in CAR. In addition, the group engages in arbitrary arrests, summary execution, looting, sexual violence, detention of minorities and journalists, torture and wanton violations of rights. Since its operation in Mali in 2021, the group has committed violence against civilians, which has resulted in multiple fatalities. In addition to the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the Mopti and Moura regions, civilians have also been targeted in Koulikoro, Segou, Mopti, and Tombouctou, resulting in over 500 fatalities.

Mozambique is another resource-rich country where the Wagner Group operates under the guise of combating insurgency. Russia’s entrance into the country came after a trip by President Filipe Nyusi to Russia in August 2019, when he signed agreements on security and mineral resources with President Putin. The business trip was followed by the arrival of Russian fighter planes and approximately 160 mercenaries. Other sources claimed that the Wagner Group arrived at Mozambique in September 2019 to combat the conflict in northern Cabo Delgado. It is believed that Mozambique’s abundant resources, such as diamonds, rubies, gold, and gas, have made it attractive to external forces, particularly Russia and the Wagner Group. This group has been accused of war crimes, resulting in the death of hundreds of civilians in the country.

Despite the daunting evidence of brutality, exploitation of resources, and human rights abuses in affected African countries, Kremlin and the Wagner Group have denied the accusations. The sanctions levied against the group by the European Union and its designation as a criminal organization by the United States are indications of the group’s association with violence against civilians.

About the Author

Akinyetun, Tope Shola is a political science lecturer at Lagos State University of Education, Nigeria. He is a member of various international organizations including IPSA, MPSA, IAPSS, African Studies Centre Leiden. Additionally, he reviews journals such as New Media Society, African Security Review, Politics, Groups and Identities, Third World Quarterly, Regional Studies etc. He is a regular contributor to The Renata and has been featured on other platforms such as The Conversation, Africa@LSE, Kujenga Amani, Conflict Trends and the Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy and Governance. He has published extensively in internationally recognized peer-reviewed journals. His recent work is “Demography and Insecurity: Youth bulge and the Lake Chad Basin Security Quandary” published in African Security Review (Routledge).

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