The death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia on Wednesday is but the latest twist in the recent history of the mercenary group, which made global headlines earlier this year during an armed rebellion in Russia.
Wagner, a Russian private military company, has been heavily involved in Ukraine since Russia’s 2014 invasion of the country. It has also engaged in conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, where it has been accused of perpetrating human rights violations in Mali and taking part in illicit gold dealings in Mali and the Central African Republic, among other countries. Earlier this year, the mercenary group was the driving force behind the brutal siege of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Following Prigozhin’s death, Wagner’s future remains uncertain. Russian president Vladimir Putin has ordered Wagner soldiers to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state, which observers say signals an attempt to bring the group under greater Kremlin control. However, even if the group is formally disbanded or incorporated into the Russian military, experts say its activities in Africa are likely to continue.
Nigerian journalist Philip Obaji Jr., an ICFJ Jim Hoge Reporting Fellow, has reported extensively on Wagner’s activity in Africa for the past two years. In a recent Crisis Reporting Forum webinar, Obaji Jr. shared insights from his reporting, suggested story angles for journalists to pursue, and discussed the risks involved with covering the mercenary group.
Here’s what he had to say:
The Wagner Group in Africa
The Wagner Group has been active in Africa since at least 2017. In Sudan, the Wagner Group became involved in 2018, at a time when President Omar al-Bashir was losing power. “Wagner therefore arrived to aid al-Bashir in regaining control while also exploiting Sudan's gold resources," Obaji Jr. said.
In April 2023, the group involved itself in Sudan once more, supplying arms to paramilitary forces fighting the government. “We are aware of the tight collaboration between the Wagner Group and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, [who is] vying for power in Sudan,” he explained.
Wagner’s influence is spreading, too. Obaji Jr. advised journalists to monitor the mercenaries’ expansion in Africa and investigate its global implications. “We don't know much about the group's growth, particularly in recent months. We are certain that the Wagner Group was active in Mozambique, Mali, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic,” he said.
Journalists can help identify where the group is operating, and to what extent it has moved into other countries. “We don't know how much of the Wagner Group is involved in Burkina Faso. We don't know if they attempted to meddle in the Niger Republic government, or [if so], how much. We don't know how many violations of human rights the Wagner Group perpetrated in West Africa,” said Obaji Jr.
“We know a lot about the Central African Republic; we know that Wagner Group has been there since 2018. We also know that a lot of mercenaries, a lot of fighters who are active in Ukraine, were pulled from the Central African Republic,” he added. “But we don’t know so much about the Wagner Group’s operations beyond the Central African Republic, and this should be investigated by journalists.”
Disinformation and safety
Journalists should be aware of ongoing pro-Wagner disinformation campaigns in many African countries, said Obaji Jr. “There are a lot of disinformation campaigns which [are] going on right now in Africa at a very huge scale, and expanding much faster than a lot of people can imagine. How much of that expansion, we don’t know. Who is involved, we don’t know.”
Reporters should prioritize their safety when investigating the Wagner Group, he further advised. Maintaining one’s digital security is paramount, as internet trolls may try to tarnish the names of journalists reporting on their activity.
“The most frequent attacks I have had related to Wagner Group have come from social media and a number of internet trolls. I see a lot of social media posts saying I’m an agent of the Western world who is being used to paint Russia and [Wagner founder] Yevgeny Prigozhin in a very bad way. These accounts are not just fake, but intentional,” he said.
Obaji Jr. shared how Wagner mercenaries had informed him that he was a target in the Central African Republic. If he was found there, he would be detained or killed, they told him.
“Right now, going to the Central [African] Republic is a huge risk because I'm being targeted there. I wouldn't travel into that country knowing I'm being watched by the Wagner Group,” he said.
Through initiatives like the Jim Hoge Reporting Fellowship, Obaji Jr. has met with organizations and researchers studying the Wagner Group.
“Collaboration is essential in journalism, particularly when researching a subject like this. You need people who are familiar with the origins of the Wagner Group, and people with background knowledge of how Russia operates in private companies,” he explained.
For Obaji Jr., reporting on the Wagner Group is important not just for analyzing the group's geopolitical impacts, but for how their activities affect people across Africa. “Why I have decided to uncover the Wagner Group is not for money making,” he said. “I have seen so many things spoken about this group and heard so many stories from the victims themselves. This keeps me pushing because I want to go to the depth of it.”