In April, the Wagner Group, a Russian-based private military company (PMC), caught the attention of the world for its offensive against the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. This assault put the name of this group and its Kremlin-linked founder, Yevgeny Prigorzhin, on the lips of journalists and the news-conscious public around the world. However, to observers of the African continent, Wagner has been a source of concern for several years.
Wagner’s extensive deployments across the continent have made the company into Africa’s most prominent PMC, and allow it to act as an extension of Russian influence. However, Russia is not the only authoritarian giant casting an eye toward Africa. Chinese investment and trade with African countries have been among the defining features of the continent’s 21st century economic growth. Much as China has studiously watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chinese actors have begun to imitate certain aspects of the Wagner Group’s strategy.
With the decision to expand its economic outreach in Africa as part of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, China has been drastically expanding the size of its private security companies (PSCs) since the mid-2010s, based on the pre-existing model of Wagner and Western PMCs. Thus far, Chinese PSCs have pursued a reserved strategy. However, as Wagner begins to shift resources to the Ukraine conflict and China’s engagement with Africa continues to become more robust, it is likely that Chinese actors will gradually come to play a more significant role in the security sector – especially in African states on tense terms with the West.
Post-independence African countries have long proven to be an ideal environment for private military companies. Weak states lacking the revenue raising capacity to fund major standing field armies combined with the relative frequency of violent regime change and internal conflict made 20th century Africa a rich field for mercenaries. In the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, mercenaries, primarily of French or South African origin, were used extensively, first by Katanganese separatists and then by the Tshombe government in its campaign against the Simba Rebellion. In the decades that followed, mercenaries, mostly from Western Europe or White-dominated areas of Southern Africa, played crucial roles in conflicts and coups across the continent including in Angola, Comoros, and Nigeria.
However, it was in the 1990s that the role of the private military contractor in Africa truly transformed. The collapse of several impoverished but mineral rich states such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone combined with the availability of cheap, skilled manpower and weaponry from the recently collapsed Soviet bloc and White minority-governments created a market opening for a new and lucrative form of private military enterprise. While a trend toward electoral politics and away from military government in Africa would largely eliminate the use of PMCs in coups, their role in internal conflicts would only grow. A system, first pioneered in Sierra Leone, of providing regime security in exchange for stakes in the extraction of mineral resources, became a lucrative business opportunity for a number of PMCs.
Since its formation in 2014, the Wagner Group has slid into this environment. Over time, it gradually became the predominant PMC operating in African combat zones. Some of the group’s first overseas deployments seem to have been in support of the Bashir government in Sudan, and the group appears to have maintained a presence in that country through its post-2018 convulsions. Wagner has found a niche for defending embattled but mineral-rich regimes across the continent, including in Mali, the Central African Republic, and possibly Burkina Faso.
In particular, it has billed itself as an alternative to Western, especially French, security sector support as demonstrated by the establishment of security partnerships with Russia in Burkina Faso and Mali after the overthrow of the conventional pro-French establishment and the rise of anti-French leaders in both those countries in 2022.
Over the last several years, Wagner has effectively surpassed the continent’s traditional Western and South African PMC partners. In doing so, the group has provided not only lucrative financial opportunities for Wagner’s Kremlin-linked bosses but also anchors of Russian influence on the continent of Africa. Russia is a increasingly trying to compete with France in the region, and the absence of the U.S and other Western interests has already permitted both Russia and China to expand their influence. Amid that trend, the increased casualties of the Wagner Group in the Ukrainian War will permit the growth of Chinese PSCs in Africa in the long term.
Chinese PSCs have yet to develop equivalent capabilities to traditional players in the African region. However, China’s military has a long history of basing its primary tactics and military strategies off the West and Russia. Similarly, Chinese PSCs have been seeking training from existing groups overseas. The Chinese PSC Frontier Service Group, for example, used to have ties with Blackwater, the notorious U.S. private military contractor. Beijing has also sought to train its military using Western PMCs, and those trainees could also partake in Chinese PSCs in the long term. In other words, Chinese PSCs have been given a strong opportunity to learn the tools and tricks of the trade from their already established counterparts abroad.
Although the growth of Chinese PSCs is still limited by the restrictions that prohibit the possession of lethal weapons, given their nature as state-owned enterprises (SOEs) – and the possibility that continued increases in their size and operations will eventually lead to more combative interventions in the near future – such restrictions may be altered over time. As demonstrated with the Kremlin’s decision to utilize the Wagner Group as units for false flag and other black operations throughout the war in Ukraine, Chinese PSCs could function similarly in the case of the Taiwan Strait crisis, giving the Chinese government motivation to foster their growth. Therefore, the development and activities of the Chinese PSCs in gray zone warfare should be cautiously examined.
Unlike the Wagner Group, the major focus of the Chinese PSCs in African countries has been oriented toward providing security support to Chinese SOEs in the region, making use of local paramilitaries and militias. In other words, their primary goal is to strengthen the economic establishments in the region rather than conduct military operations like the Wagner Group. That said, the number of Chinese PSC troops has already surpassed that of PLA forces in Africa, which demonstrates their essential role in expanding Beijing’s sphere of influence. Relying on private companies for these goals will allow China to prevent potential diplomatic fallout from overseas deployment of PLA forces. These PSCs can function as military advisers while gathering intelligence in a throwback to the operations of the Chinese intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security, in Africa during the Cold War.
Ultimately, the gradual withdrawal of the Wagner Group from Africa due to the war in Ukraine and the growth of the Chinese PSCs will permit China to further expand its footprint on the African continent. Additionally, given Chinese PSCs’ close connection with Chinese resource extraction enterprises and China’s significant role in cobalt extraction, PSCs could be used to engineer some weaponization of resources, which may pose a significant strategic challenge to the United States and its allies in acquiring critical minerals in the event of a contingency.
As great power competition between the United States and China heats up, Beijing is likely to support aggressive utilization of PSCs and the evolution of PSCs to PMCs to advance its gray-zone warfare and influence operation capabilities. China has already shown some willingness to do so through the Ministry of Public Safety’s activities in Africa. Gradually, as opportunities open due to the retreat of Wagner forces, China is likely to utilize PSCs as a tool to expand its military and political influence in Africa as well as to secure for itself – and deny to its rivals – access to critical mineral resources.