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Wagner Group's future in Africa is uncertain after Moscow uprising

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mercenaries with the Wagner Group face a choice after the uprising in Russia over the weekend. They can fight with the Russian military or choose exile in Belarus with the group's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. So what does this mean for the group's network in other parts of the world - specifically Africa? Ambassador J. Peter Pham is the former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel region, and he joins us from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Good to have you here.

J PETER PHAM: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: We've heard a lot over the last year about the Wagner mercenary group's role on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine. What's their role in sub-Saharan Africa?

PHAM: Well, in recent years, the Wagner Group has taken on a role of using opportunities offered to make a break into Central and West Africa to provide security for embattled governments and in exchange getting access to gold and other resources, and also, if you will, tying down resources from Western countries, including the United States but also France and others, in trying to beat back their attempts to foment anti-democratic movements, anti-Western movements, as well as exploiting resources, and, in some cases as the UN recently documented in Mali, perpetrating also human rights abuses.

SHAPIRO: And so how closely are they tied to Russia's interests and agenda in their actions in the region?

PHAM: Well, on one hand, they certainly have advanced Russian access to resources and also to political leaders while at the same time giving Russia deniability because they're not directly tied to the Russian state. It is Wagner PMC as they branded themselves. But with this takeover of Wagner after the events of this past week, the question remains if Russia takes direct control of them, then you lose that plausible or implausible deniability that they've had and used advantageously to deny - when it was suitable or advantageous - to deny control of their activities.

SHAPIRO: And so how do you think this is going to go for the Wagner Group network in Africa? Are they going to become more closely tied to Russia explicitly or kind of spin off into a group that is allegedly disconnected from this organization that now is supposed to either join forces with the Russian military or head to Belarus?

PHAM: Well, I think it remains to be seen. Russia has not been very clear. There have been some conflicting statements, including from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, about what's going to be the fate of Wagner contractors outside of Russia. Those in Russia are expected to sign up, as you said, Ari, either with the Russian Ministry of Defense or join Prigozhin in his exile in Belarus. But those outside, they haven't been very clear about that yet. And that's the question of - what's going to happen to them if they sign up? Does the Russian state really want to be responsible for their actions?

Secondly, cut off from Prigozhin and the network that he built, one loses a bit of the profitability, if you will, of these mercenary operations 'cause it's not just fighting or providing security. It's also been exploiting resources and then trading them illicitly across borders. We're talking about everything from gold to alcohol, and that's been enabled by networks Prigozhin created. I'm not sure those are going to transfer over.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk more about the illicit activities - the human rights abuses that have been alleged. Just yesterday, the Biden administration announced sanctions against the group connected to its illicit gold dealings, and the State Department says that had nothing to do with the attempted uprising in Russia. Tell us more about that.

PHAM: Well, this is something that's been building up. There's been documentation - a number of human rights groups, as well as the U.S. government, have been investigating this for some time including back when I served in the administration. So the evidence is quite clear that not just Wagner-connected businesspeople, but also corrupt government officials are using their presence to, in some cases, push off artisanal workers, etc., and seize these resources for themselves. And that's what pays for these operations and makes them particularly profitable. And the question is going to be whether that exploitation - war resources will continue or whether these operations fold as a result of Prigozhin's actions this past weekend.

SHAPIRO: Can you characterize how African people and governments interact with Wagner, how they are viewed on the continent?

PHAM: Well, I think they were originally - may have been that many governments - the Central African Republic being the first one to turn to them for security but also Mali and a number of other states - viewed them as, they didn't ask questions. They provided military assistance with few or any strings attached. They were a thing of convenience. Now, however, with what has happened, they may not seem as certain or as convenient. And I think those in the West, the United States and its European allies, as well as Africans who view this as a threat - now it's an opportunity, perhaps, to turn the table not only on the mercenaries, but also to bring around the governments who brought them in to realize that perhaps this was not the best deal they ever struck.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador J. Peter Pham is former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel region, speaking with us from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He's now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much.

PHAM: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKEY BABY SONG, "THE PAIN (FEAT. KI2D)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.