Putin Private Army’s Next Targets In Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast

By Michael Rubin

The Wagner Group, the mercenary army run by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, is instrumental to Russia’s war on Ukraine. But Wagner has also been on the offensive across Africa.

After failing in Mozambique, the group has sunk roots into the Central Africa Republic and embraced juntas if not masterminded their coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. In each of these four cases, Wagner takes advantage of the implosion of French influence. While it seeks to loot each country’s rich natural resources, an activity in which France also participated in decades past, Wagner mercenaries are also willing to do what the French advisers will not. In Mali, for example, that includes targeting ethnic Fulanis and other gross human rights violations.

Increasingly, it appears that the Wagner Group has its sights on three other West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. Each has suffered past unrest. Whereas often United Nations peacekeeping missions cost billions of dollars, extend decades, and achieve only marginal results, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast are the three countries the U.N. points to as the exception that proves the rule.

The reason why Wagner now targets these three are varied. Incumbent president George Weah in Liberia and Julius Maada Bio in Sierra Leone both mismanage their respective countries. At the height of a food crisis, for example, Weah absconded on a six-week multimillion-dollar junket to Qatar, Monaco, and the United States. Such absences are dangerous: When Maada Bio was in the United Kingdom last August, anti-government protesters egged on and paid by Wagner instigated an insurrection meant to force his ouster.

Wagner’s activities in the region appear coordinated by Melee Kermue, a former U.S. convict whom Sergei Berdnikov, Russia’s ambassador in Ghana, appointed to be Russia’s honorary consul-general in Liberia. He reportedly allowed Wagner experts to come into the country under the guise of businessmen. While Liberia heads to the polls this autumn, Weah’s general incompetence suggests Wagner may be accelerating plans for a coup in order to prevent more competent leadership from solidifying the country’s economy and relations with the U.S.

Sierra Leone faces a similar conundrum as incompetent leadership leads to stagnation, corruption, and popular unease. As a result, the country’s post-war recovery is now at a tipping point. In other words, the country that popularized the concept of “blood diamonds” may soon be in for a Russia-inspired repeat.

While the Ivory Coast was long one of the most stable countries in West Africa and a regional economic powerhouse, it too is under threat. The Wagner Group has recruited in the country for its Ukraine fight. And Russian proxies in Mali and Burkina Faso covet the country’s natural resources.

What should most concern American policymakers, however, is the possibility that the Wagner Group is not working alone. Too often, U.S. analysts pigeonhole the Wagner Group problem and the China threat. But what if the contracts Wagner seeks from corrupt leaders are meant as proxies for Chinese interests? The U.S. reacts with panic when China seeks to upgrade ports and build possible navy bases on the Atlantic Ocean, but what if Wagner-tied businesses won those contracts and simply upgraded ports to Chinese specifications? If this is not yet a concern in Washington, it is only because diplomats are not escaping embassy compounds or capital cities because it is certainly a concern among those seeking a better future in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast.

At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, President Joe Biden said the U.S. would no longer ignore Africa. Two months later, however, he has put Africa on the backburner. Unfortunately, neither Moscow nor Beijing has.

Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

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