Is Wagner Africa’s newest coloniser?

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In methods strongly reminiscent of the West’s first colonial era of the 17th and 18th centuries – inescapably linked to the era of genocidal slavery – Russia’s Wagner Group is blazing an increasingly murderous trail in Africa for loot, strategic resources and geopolitical influence, according to a new report.

Like the self-made “company men” of the British and Dutch East India Companies whose piratical and privateering ways colonised regions from The Cape to the Indies, Wagner deploys the full panoply of brutal military force, ruthless divide and rule tactics, and exploitative economic methods wherever it operates in Africa.

Now designated a Transnational Criminal Organisation (TCO) by the United States, Wagner is on the verge of considerably expanding its operations from its bridgeheads in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Sudan, to Cameroon, according to a just-released international study of the mercenary group.

The Russian “Grizzlies s of War” operations extend as far afield as Madagascar and Burkina Faso – and might also be preparing to fix their sights on Chad as well, according to at least one prominent South African analyst reacting to the report.

The Global Initiative on Transnational Organised Crime (Gitoc) report was released in February in South Africa and presents a damning picture of Russian economic and geopolitical ambitions and methods in Africa.

Wagner could not be reached for comment by defenceWeb on the report.

From the Gitoc report, Wagner’s modern-day colonisation by company is accompanied by frenzied wealth accumulation by well-positioned leaders creating further Russian oligarchs and similar mega-wealthy status for State actors/collaborators within targeted African States.

Although not generally perceived in Africa as a coloniser or colonial power, Russia has historically been a vast coloniser and ethnic Russifier from Eastern Europe to Central Asia to Siberia – with its latest renditions in Ukraine and now, increasingly, Africa, says the South African based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Wagner, according to the Gitoc report, has also developed a “convict company” organisational culture to support its colonial project on behalf of its sponsor, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The reek of Russia’s past and present Gulag and prison colony culture insulates and permeates Wagner operations and methodology as it does the Gitoc report – with Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin himself a former convict and reputed mass murderer of both Russian convicts and conscripts in the present Ukraine war.

What can be deduced from the Gitoc report on Wagner and Russia’s strategy?

According to Willem Els, Senior Training Coordinator of the ISS ENACT Programme, what Wagner has been doing is but the precursor to a much more sustained and intensive African colonisation drive.

“Employ thin-edge-of-the wedge tactics on politically unstable African States with huge mineral resources and almost-failed-State status for commercial and military infiltration and exploitation.

Simultaneously dismay, distract and destroy especially Western actors – themselves still mired in the legacy of their 19th Century Scramble for Africa phase from Liberia to Luanda and beyond – to reduce their geopolitical influence and reach.

Rinse and repeat in an ever-deepening sea of disinformation – move on to more sustained and systematic extractive exploitation of these States without benefiting local populations,” says Els.

That is also the picture emerging in sharp relief from the Gitoc report – titled The Grey Zone: Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa.

The Grey Zone is authored by Julia Stanyard, Thierry Vircoulon and Julian Rademeyer.

It comes only months after a similar watershed report by Gitoc last year on a Strategic Organised Crime Risk Assessment for South Africa on a series of high-risk focus areas from infrastructure predation to kidnapping.

A garish picture of brazen, bold and swashbuckling Wagner operations steeped in a culture of Human Rights abuses and a mesh of front companies operating under a mercenary and criminal umbrella emerges from the report.

Worse is yet to come, says the Gitoc report.

“The countries to watch now are Cameroon and possibly even Chad,” adds Els.

Els also sees clear parallels between Wagner and Russia’s African odyssey and both Western colonial eras in terms of sheer exploitative characteristics.

“Not only can we draw historical parallels with initial British and Dutch colonisation through commercial companies with armies, but also the later era of the “Scramble for Africa” era of individuals like Cecil John Rhodes,” says Els.

According to the Gitoc report, “the Wagner group is unique as an organisation in the breadth, scale and boldness of its activities”.

“However the study also shows that Wagner did not emerge in a vacuum: The Group’s activities and characteristics reflect broader trends in the evolution of Russia’s oligarchs and organised crime groups, their respective relationships with the Russian State and their activities in Africa,” the authors state.