Are mercenaries in Sahel a solution or the problem?

Wednesday February 16 2022
Foreign fighters

Foreign fighters in the Sahel, in a mission led by France. PHOTO | COURTESY


An “invisible scourge” is how a United Nations report of 2019 describes mercenary activities in Africa, on the eve of a UN Security Council (UNSC) debate.

Even after the debate at the highest global organ on security, there has been a proliferation in the number of foreign, private military and security companies (FPMSCs), as the UN calls them, in conflicts on the continent. In simple terms, these FPMSCs are mercenaries.

They were in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR), during the post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as Mozambique where they left after only two months of fighting off insurgents.

Last April, the A3 -- Kenya, Niger and Tunisia -- co-hosted a meeting specifically on the impact of the departure of foreign fighters from Libya and their presence in the Sahel region.

The issue was again at the top of the agenda at the February 1, US Africa Command (Africom) 2022 Chiefs of Defense Conference. The concerns of the Americans and their Western allies is the involvement of the private Russia-backed group, Wagner, in Mali and elsewhere on the continent.

While the West insists that the Russians have been hired by the transition government in Mali, Malian officials deny their presence in the country, but also defended Mali’s sovereign right to decide for itself who should operate there.


“They continue to deny this in public. But my information is pretty clear that they have brought in Wagner,” US Army Gen Stephen J. Townsend, the Commander of the US-Africa Command, told journalists last week during the Africa Regional Media Hub virtual press briefing

“We think they are on the ground in several hundreds and expanding to some unknown number,” he added.

According Gen Townsend, the Malians are paying Wagner $10 million a month.

“I think they will have to trade in kind with natural resources such as gold and other minerals, gemstones, those kinds of things,” he said.

According to the Africom chief, while violent extremism appears to be lessening in Libya and other parts of Africa, it is rising in East and western Africa, particularly in the Sahel, where poverty exacerbated by poor governance has fueled insecurity.

With both corporations and governments, the deployments of mercenaries have one common factor – they often happen in resource rich countries in conflict – raising questions about their true intentions. In Libya, CAR, Mozambique, DR Congo and now Mali.

A UNSC report revealed that the Wagner Group was protecting the main diamond mine in the CAR. The group has been associated with the Russia-based company Prigozhin, which was awarded diamond and gold mining licenses in the country.

Western governments base their opposition to the presence of Wagner Group in conflict zones because of its supposed negative impact on security. “They never leave the situation better than they found it. My experience is they will leave it much worse and they will also exploit the country at expense,” said Gen Townsend.