Wagner Group May Have Lost ‘Mythical Appeal’ in Africa

The presumed death of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, could have profound consequences for African client states and warlords who, in the span of a few years, helped turn a mercenary enterprise into one of Russia’s most powerful and recognizable assets on the continent.

In countries such as the Central African Republic and Mali, Wagner operatives have provided security to autocratic leaders seeking to stay in power, as well as soldiers to help underequipped national armies fight rebels and extremist groups. In others, including Libya and Sudan, they have supplied warlords with weapons and training to mount challenges to fragile governments.

In return, Wagner’s African clients supplied it with cash, along with gold and diamond mining concessions. And Wagner’s thousands of mercenaries and dozens of shell companies were also involved in other industries, including timber, beer and vodka, logistics and entertainment.

The future of this business empire now appears uncertain, with its most recognizable figure believed to be dead.

“He was a talented person, a talented businessman. He worked not only here in our country, and got results, but also abroad, in particular in Africa,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Thursday about Mr. Prigozhin. “There he was engaged with oil, gas, precious metals and stones. Just yesterday, as far as I understand, he returned from Africa and met here with a few officials.”

A top adviser to the president of the Central African Republic confirmed that Mr. Prigozhin had visited the country days before the plane he was believed to be traveling on crashed in Russia.

“He came here to galvanize his troops and then went elsewhere in Africa,” said Fidèle Gouandjika, the adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who in recent years has welcomed Wagner mercenaries to fight rebel groups in exchange for mining concessions.

The last known images of Mr. Prigozhin, in a video he released earlier this week, appear to have been shot somewhere in Africa. Many analysts suggested it was in Mali, where around 1,500 Wagner mercenaries have been deployed.

In a sign of the aura the group has cultivated on the continent, Russian flags have appeared at protests in some West and Central African cities in recent years, along with the logo of the Wagner group and posters of Mr. Prigozhin. Its prominence has grown even as its mercenaries have been accused of widespread human rights abuses including executions, rape and torture.

Since Mr. Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny two months ago against the Russian military leadership, the Kremlin has tried to assure African clients that it was in control. But analysts suggested that the absence of Mr. Prigozhin could throw the group’s future into jeopardy.

“He has this star personality, this mythic appeal in many parts of Africa, which makes it seem like it’s going to be difficult for Russia to replace him,” said Cameron Hudson, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “He had developed his separate entity very different from Putin and Russia’s Ministry of Defense.”

Mr. Gouandjika, the Central African presidential adviser, called Mr. Prigozhin a national hero who had saved the country. He posed wearing a Wagner T-shirt this week in a tribute to the group’s leader and said in a telephone interview on Friday that he was grieving — but the partnership with Russia would continue.

“There will be another Prigozhin,” he said. “We’re awaiting the next one.”

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