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Can Russia-Wagner Tension Impact Africa?

FILE - Protesters holds a banner reading "Thank you Wagner," the Russian paramilitary group, during a demonstration organized by the pan-Africanist platform Yerewolo to celebrate France's announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on February 19, 2022.

WASHINGTON — The appearance of strained relations between Russian-backed paramilitary Wagner Group and the Kremlin has heightened concerns over the future of the mercenary group's activities in Africa.

Last weekend, an attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin, once a close ally to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to attack Moscow prompted an emergency televised address to Russians with Putin calling the move "treason."

Prigozhin, who now is exiled in neighboring Belarus in a Minsk-brokered deal, had fallen out with Russia’s state military - even calling for the sacking of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Wagner is conducting "security operations" in some African states - including Mali and the Central African Republic - following the withdrawal of French troops in August last year after their nine-year deployment.

Kabir Adamu, an Abuja-based security risk management and intelligence analyst, told VOA that despite these states having legitimate security vacuums left by the French departure, Wagner's engagement holds no positive outcome for Africa.

Adamu says such military contractors have traditionally lacked "loyalty."

"In most cases, these military contractors are driven by financial and other pecuniary motivations and benefits, and so the tendency for them to shift their allegiances are extremely high, depending on who is able to pay them the highest," he said.

The analyst went on to say "There are two instances in recent times where this has come to light – the development by Wagner in Moscow – what appears to be an attempt by Wagner to orchestrate a coup, even though that’s not very clear, and in Sudan, where one of the military arms reneged against the state, and the consequences is what we are living with at this moment."

Adamu said it's imperative for African states to note that there are risks to engaging a private military group that has the capability "within your territorial borders that can turn against you."

On Monday, Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov told state-run RT that Wagner, which the Kremlin had denied its existence up until its invasion of Ukraine, will continue to operate in Mali and the Central African Republic, despite its leader’s attempt to attack Moscow.

"Despite events that have taken place, the center (the Wagner Group) continues to work in normal mode in accordance to the law of the Russian Federation," based in Russia's second-largest city, Saint Petersburg, the Russian Foreign minister said.

Naureen Fink, executive director at the New York-based Soufan Center, told VOA that the simmering tensions between Moscow and Wagner "leaves states that relied on Wagner with an uncertain partnership."

"African states should indeed be wary of their relationship with Wagner. Wagner has benefitted from the support – direct and indirect – from the Kremlin, which has also benefitted from leveraging Wagner's perceived successes in Africa for diplomatic influence," she said.

Fink also added that "Wagner is more than just a security force; it’s extensive business interests and activities across Africa have allowed it to set up an opaque and complex network of business interests that often help cannibalize the resources of already fragile states."

"Governments sought partnerships with the "no questions asked" and "no strings attached" services of Wagner, reportedly involved in many human rights violations," she said.

"As a reward, Wagner has gained access and contracts across the continent; there needs to be closer attention on who gets control of these resources, and if or how they lead to greater influence and access for the Kremlin directly."

The United States on Tuesday sanctioned companies in Central Africa Republic, United Arab Emirates and Russia accused of illicit gold dealings to fund the mercenary force. The U.S. said the action was unrelated to Wagner's actions on Saturday.