In this article, we will explore the 2023 Russia-Africa summit and its possible consequences for Wagner operations on the African continent. The PMC has made local African elites dependent on its services, which might explains why it is so difficult for Putin to replace local Wagner leaders with commanders that are more loyal to the Kremlin. Despite some semblance of peace, Putin might still try to go through with his plan if Wagner’s interests differ too much from the Kremlin.
A disappointing summit because of Russia’s empty promises
Four years after Sochi, Saint Petersburg held another Russia-Africa summit, which started on the 27th July. Despite a big promotional campaign and diplomatic efforts led by the Kremlin, this summit was a huge disappointment: Only 17 African heads of state attended, far less than the 43 who attended the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019. Three main reasons explain this failure. First of all, many African leaders were disappointed after the vast majority of promises Putin made during the 2019 summit were unkept. Secondly, the war of aggression Russia is waging against Ukraine has isolated Putin and many African states now refuse to associate with him. Lastly, many Africans are fed up with Russia’s actions which have led to the destruction of African food supplies and the undermining of African democracies. Therefore, many African leaders made the choice to boycott this year’s edition of the summit, distancing themselves from Russia by not attending or sending a smaller delegation of lower-level politicians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with other participants of this year’s Russia-Africa summit
Russia’s strategy – industrial colonization to conquer Africa
It’s been a while since Russia has its eyes on the African continent, trying to secure its interest at the expense of African societies and civilians. The Kremlin has developed an elaborate narrative in order to oust traditional western partners from Africa:
1. Russia is a friend of Africa, and has always been. Contrarily to traditional ex-colonial powers, who still see Africa as a colony, Russia offers fair deals in which everyone is winning.
2. Russia invites African states to participate in a multipolar world.
3. Like African societies, Russia defends traditional values and moral standards.
Now, Russia wants to expand their existing presence in Africa and they hoped that the Russia-Africa summit would lead to the signing of new agreements, especially in the industrial sector. It is therefore no coincidence that many Russian industrial giants were involved in this summit. Rosatom, Lukoil, Rostec, Rosneft, Alrosa, Rosoboronexport and Russian Helicopters are the ones financing it and directly looking to establish a foothold in Africa, or expand their existing business. But they were far from the only ones who took an interest in the African market, as more than 1600 representatives of Russian companies or institutions participated in the summit.
Wagner’s polished public image to reassure its African partners
This summit raises one main question: What will be Wagner’s place in Russian-African cooperation? When looking at recent speeches made by Wagner officials, it becomes quite obvious that Wagner wants to maintain its lucrative activities in Africa. Even though the recent turmoil has deeply impacted the PMC, recent developments seem to indicate that Wagner will indeed stay there.
Dimitri Sytyi, Alexandr Ivanov and Evgeny Prigozhin himself have made several official comments on Telegram and on several news media reassuring their African partners that Wagner is maintaining its operations. Even though Prigozhin admitted he had to sell parts of his African assets in order to pay some of his debts, he asserted that Wagner will not abandon its activities on the African continent. Prigozhin even showed up in Saint Petersburg during the summit, meeting with government officials and media representatives, despite his attempted coup against Putin. Wagner’s official narrative has not really changed, even though what was implicit before now needs to be said loud and clear: Wagner’s activities will never go against those of the Russian Federation.
Prigozhin’s unexpected presence in Saint Petersburg during the Russia-Africa summit surprised many observers after his failed coup and was interpreted as a sign of weakness from Putin.
Furthermore, governments of African countries in which Wagner is currently operating have become dependent on their help, which also makes it difficult for Putin to replace the PMC and its leaders. According to several reports, African leaders such as Faustin-Archange Touadéra were vehemently opposed to any change in leadership within the local Wagner branch and pressured Putin to abandon his plans (at least temporarily).
Wagner’s operations go far beyond the military aspect
Wagner’s influence goes far beyond the security aspect, which also might explain Russia’s reluctance to completely separate itself from the PMC. The Russian diplomatic network directly coordinates itself with Wagner. Indeed, the network of the “Russian house”, a cultural center that can be found in Bangui is a perfect example illustrating how this works. A few weeks ago, Dimitri Sytiy showcased humanitarian actions taken by the “Russian House”, and which supposedly have no links with Wagner. However, evidence showed that some the humanitarian aid was directly handed out by Wagner mercenaries… Wagner is supposedly the handling “operational” aspect of Russian diplomacy, managing operations in the field of humanitarian aid, cyber influence or even culture. In the meantime, Moscow is handling the higher levels of diplomacy, bi- and multilateral political meetings or international events such as the Russia-Africa summits.
A Twitter post we made after Dmitry Siytyi’s appearance on Telegram, where he talked about a humanitarian operation led by Wagner.
Along with Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the African states in which Wagner’s presence is the strongest. Besides a massive military presence, Wagner has also developed its economic activities, often at the expense of the local population, but also competitors. Wagner is said to control the exploitation and export of many valuable resources such as gold, diamonds, but also wood, coffee and sugar. While these are resources which are extracted and exported to Russia (and other countries), Wagner is also directly commercializing alcohol products for CAR’s local population.
Wagner owns two major alcohol brands through its subsidiary “First Industrial Company” to commercialize alcohol in CAR: the beer brand “Africa ti l’Or”, and the vodka brand “Wa Na Wa”. Africa ti L’Or is a new player in the beer market historically dominated by its competitor Castel. In order to oust competitors, Wagner doesn’t use the softest methods: arson attack against Castel’s brewery, disinformation campaigns against consumers, aggressive and misleading marketing. Regarding its vodka brand, Wagner claims that their product can cure diseases and help against tiredness. Furthermore, the vodka is imported from Cameroon and its quality is disastrous. The cheap liquid can be bought in plastic bags on Bangui’s streets for very little, which has increased the number of alcohol addictions among Bangui’s residents. In order to increase the popularity of their new beer brand, Wagner has given out free samples of their beer, targeting young people, which also caused increased alcoholism among them.
The consequences of an arson attack on French Castel group’s MOCAF brewery in Bangui on the night between the 5th and 6th of March.
A never-ending power struggle?
Prigozhin’s presence at the Africa-Russia summit indicates that Putin still needs Wagner presence in Africa to secure his interests. It looks like the Wagner boss is closely monitored by the Kremlin, who might try to exercise indirect control over Wagner to at least monitor and supervise its activities. This might be an acceptable solution for both. However, it is not certain that Putin has completely given up on his wish to remove Prigozhin from his position after his betrayal. Parts of Wagner activities could fall under direct or indirect Russian institutional control, which would allow the Kremlin to supervise the PMC. Whatever happens, Wagner will likely continue to operate on the African continent, maintaining their predatory practices under the guise of “economic partnership”, and “military cooperation”.