When South Africa’s defense force disbanded in 1994, tens of thousands of military personnel found themselves out of work. The state’s massive security infrastructure — independently built with advanced capabilities relative to the country’s size and geopolitical importance — employed the force to keep an inhumane system in place. Suddenly jobless and pension-less with the fall of the apartheid state, some of the elite officers turned to Eben Barlow, the special forces lieutenant colonel who resigned just years before to start his own private military company, Executive Outcomes.
He was hiring. And they had just the right skillset.
Back then, as today, no shortage of conflict areas and unstable governments on the African continent provided a ready market for Barlow’s services. Stacked with former special forces and intelligence officers, his private corps trained and equipped the Angolan and Sierra Leonean militaries — allegedly also fighting alongside them — to put down separatist movements and end those two long and scourging civil wars.
The now-notorious Wagner Group is believed to have been based directly on Executive Outcomes’ model following a meeting between Barlow and Russia’s General Staff in 2010. On the surface, the two companies might appear to be not so different. Since the recent march on Moscow by Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin — and the uncertainty of his location and relationships with the Russian elite — the big question now is how the group’s complex and extensive relationships and operations in Africa might be affected, and how those will in turn impact the Russian government and its war in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s business model in Africa — pulling in funding and resources from the Russian government while simultaneously setting up a broad network of subcontracting companies that operate in the same regions — has proved effective. But Wagner has plenty of profit-seeking rivals the world over providing similar military and security services that are less chaotic and more reliable by comparison, a dynamic that will factor into Wagner’s survivability on the continent. With business booming in Africa, entrepreneurs and former elite soldiers across the globe — many seemingly capable of effectively running a business — want a piece of the action. Not to mention the handsome payout.
Dozens of private military companies have come and gone in Africa over the past 20 years, often cycling through the same personnel, activities and intentions under different names. A fair number of those have provided only logistical and close protection to presidential or embassy staff. But many others have employed controversial tactics — including embedded incursions with militaries against government opponents — that are desired by leaders with fragile egos and feeble armies who can compensate mercenaries with sought-after natural resources resting in their largely ungoverned territories, including rare renewable energy metals. And then there are those companies that bestride the middle. Either way, the thrill and financial gain of operating in extreme environments tend to attract the narcissistic and risk-prone type. The ambiguous international legalese defining what a mercenary is and is not — combined with little to no oversight of their activities in unregulated spaces — makes Africa an all-too-attractive place to do business with flexible morals.
A household name in the private military business is former U.S. Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who, along with his company, Academi — the third rebranding of the original and infamous Blackwater in Iraq — is credited by his supporters with stamping out piracy in the Horn of Africa a decade ago. With the CIA’s blessing and Emirati money, he trained the Puntland maritime force, despite accusations of questionable human rights considerations. He went on to found the Hong Kong-based firm Frontier Services Group, which set up China’s largest training school for private military operators protecting Chinese company interests in Africa, from Guinea to Kenya to South Sudan. In recent years, U.N. investigators found that Prince led an effort with his business partner, Christiaan Durrant, himself a former Australian Royal Air Force fighter pilot, alongside a cadre of South Africans to assist Libya’s rogue Gen. Khalifa Haftar in a civil war against the U.N.-backed government.
Europeans have tried their hand in directing outcomes as well. U.N. investigators concluded that Turkey’s SADAT International Defense Consultancy, similarly primed with former military and intelligence personnel, trained Haftar’s rivals. The French-based security company staffed with former special forces, Secopex, built chops to handle rigorous environments when it trained Somali forces to stop the same rampant piracy that Prince tackled. But the Secopex name became known when one of its co-founders, the former French paratrooper, Pierre Marziali, was killed in Libya’s Benghazi in 2011. He was alleged by the country’s transitional government to have attempted to thwart the uprising against the late ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
Secopex’s other co-founder, David Hornus, went on to found CorpGuard, the outfit currently training soldiers in the Ivory Coast. The French-owned but Bulgaria-registered Agemira — also documented by the U.N. as working in the Democratic Republic of Congo — evades stricter rules at home by basing operations in one of the least transparent and regulated countries in the European Union. And then there is the cadre of Romanian former French Legionnaires run by Horatiu Potra — who, unlike most of his counterparts who seek anonymity, readily takes photographs that highlight his association with militaries throughout Francophone Africa. Although the Congolese government denies it, his company, Asociata RALF, appears to be training and possibly fighting alongside an army that U.N. investigators have determined is engaged in human rights atrocities in its battle against domestic and cross-border insurgents.
This sheer abundance of private military competitors with questionable concern for the sake of humanity — most of them paired with nation-state militaries — is problematic enough. But the bigger issue at hand is that these companies operate in conjunction with, or against, foreign governments also competing for the same things. All parties want influence over African governments and access to the continent’s vast, cheap land and the sought-after natural resources that oligarchs and developed countries need in order to maintain their economies and comfortable ways of life.
The East-West divide reinforced by the conflict in Ukraine has rendered the competition across Africa even more fierce. The French, for example, are in a battle with Russia to salvage counterterrorism operations and a post-colonial legacy across the Sahel and West African regions. Prigozhin has led a low-cost yet highly effective social media campaign of reputation-smearing over the French military’s failure to quell raging jihadist insurgencies, which ultimately led to its expulsion from Mali as Wagner stepped into its place. The U.S. Department of Defense, although still training and equipping partner force nations through official government channels, heavily outsources private military companies to complement its missions in the Sahel and West Africa. DynCorp (which was recently acquired by Amentum) and Triple Canopy, for example, have received hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to support American interests in Niger, including training and advising the government and security forces.
China, on the other hand, is not at all interested in training officers, fighting alongside counterinsurgency forces, or working on behalf of anyone other than the Chinese. The aim of their private armed companies — some of them trained by Prince’s former company — is to secure Chinese mining infrastructure and the personnel who staff it. But the potential for overlap with other foreign companies and locals is inevitable. In one potentially delicate situation in the Central African Republic earlier this year, nine Chinese staff at a gold mining installation were killed and an armed group pointed the finger at Wagner.
Competition within and among Russia’s inner circles for private military service contracts is growing, too. Some 30 known private military companies are quietly operating on behalf of the government and private enterprises, including a recent setup by the state-owned oil giant Gazprom. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-loyal Chechen fighting in Ukraine with thousands of his own men, expressed interest in following in Prigozhin’s footsteps with his own version of Wagner before the June debacle. But the potentially explosive competition between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergy Shoigu — among the main drivers behind Wagner’s takeover of Rostov — bears potential to show up in Africa. Although far less known, Shoigu also has his own private army packed with elite operators serving at the discretion of the Russian state that — because of his position — is perhaps more willing and able to equip than his competitor. The Patriot company, Shoigu’s force, lost an opportunity to secure gold mines in the Central African Republic to his foe. Considering the current circumstances, Shoigu would no doubt want to find a way to edge Prigozhin’s near-monopoly on Russia’s private army services abroad. Patriot is now sanctioned by NATO nations along with Wagner and its subsidiaries, but the Russian elite across the board have proven adept at evading such obstacles.
The ongoing drama between Prigozhin and his opponents in Moscow and St. Petersburg could be problematic for Wagner’s future in Africa — and also possibly for Russia. Although some leaders have shown considerable loyalty to Russia, such as Faustine Toadera and his Wagner-backed army in the Central African Republic, it might not make a difference which insignia its trainers wear as long as they’re Russian. In other cases, Wagner and Russia in general have shown they are both dispensable and replaceable as partners. In 2019, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi welcomed Wagner — showing a clearly positive association with the Soviets’ support of his country’s independence from Portugal a half-century ago — after turning down Western private military companies hoping to win the contract to shut down the Islamic State affiliate in the Cabo Delgado province. When Wagner’s efforts crashed and burned out of a combination of hubris and ineptitude, the government invited the South African Dyck Advisory Group to try its hand. Appearances can matter. If the Wagner Group or other Russian competitors are perceived as incompetent or unreliable because of the chaos at home, there are plenty of other options out there. The choice of provider ultimately depends on the needs and limits of the client.
Some have rightly questioned how some of the “Western” model private military companies differ from the Wagner Group. Sometimes the distinctions are clear, other times far more ambiguous. Take the case in which Prigozhin and Prince appear to have overlapped in the same conflict on behalf of the same warlord in Libya. The Wagner Group not only trained Haftar’s men and fought alongside them but deployed units to fight independently of them, with results including the slaughter of an entire family in a small town outside the capital. Prince, although knowingly violating an arms embargo, never engaged his personnel to take up arms against civilians: breaking the law vs. breaking the law — one operating on behalf of his government vs. the other operating against it.
Other companies are hard to fit into that same box. Enterprises like CorpGuard and Triple Canopy and multiple similar companies at least attempt to operate strictly within domestic and international definitions as security service providers, veering far from direct combat with local armed groups or armies. Bancroft Global, for example, was hired by the African Union to assess the risk of leaving well-armed Somali forces trained and equipped by Prince to their own devices. Their owners appear to be concerned about image projection and staying within legal bounds and humanitarian norms. Conversely, training African militaries that carry out unthinkable horrors is only part of the big picture of intimidation and domination that the Wagner Group is best at.
And still, Prigozhin’s embeddedness within Russia’s elite and the dizzying, opaque network of subsidiary interests tucked away in shell companies and offshore banks — including the anti-West information operations that assist Russia’s tactical and geostrategic efforts in Africa — make Wagner a uniquely complex enterprise to dismantle, even for Vladimir Putin.
This opacity makes it nearly impossible to anticipate what will happen to Wagner’s architecture and how its operations in Africa will fit into that. The Russian government originally claimed its fighters would be granted amnesty if they integrated into the state military. Similarly, Prigozhin would be spared and disappear to Belarus so long as he fell in line, but that appears to have all been smoke-and-mirrors as he now moves freely around Russia. Prigozhin’s army is also now turning over conventional weapons from its battles in Ukraine to authorities in Moscow. But this could all just be part of the show to lend the appearance that Putin is still the man in control in Russia and operations in Ukraine. Wagner’s weapons stocks and broader operations in the Central African Republic, conversely — which include a local affiliate military company and new local beer factory that replaced the French one — appear to remain under Wagner’s management, unchanged. And Wagner’s apparent popularity among a growing number of Russians could also make it resistant to overhaul. It is possible that Prigozhin’s opponents at home will find a way to force him out, steal or strip the brand, and absorb his fighters into any number of Russia’s other private companies, if not the military itself. Putin appears to have placed the company’s legal basis in question while simultaneously naming a new head, Wagner commander Andrey Troshev, to replace him. None of it makes much sense. Africa is still Wagner’s home away from home. And Prigozhin still appears to be the boss. For now.
At issue with private military companies — whether Wagner, Western or otherwise — is the lack of public insight into which companies are operating, where they are deployed, the favor they curry, the relationships they have with one another or the governments on whose behalf they work. Often, only once human life is lost are their names and atrocious behaviors made known. And even still, African governments continue to hire them. To be sure, not all companies of this kind train the militaries of African governments or fight alongside them. Many provide legitimate and needed security for civilians and government officials. But considering the wide-ranging motivations, means and methods of so many private companies operating on the continent — and increasingly in the same spaces — it is critical for governments and leaders of the continent’s 54 countries to consider whether they want to play host to the potential for this combustible labyrinth setting up shop in their own backyards.
“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.