Introduction

In the aftermath of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death on 23 August 2023, the Wagner Group, which had previously been instrumental in furthering Russian interests in Africa, was replaced by the newly established Africa Corps.

Operating directly under control of the Russian Ministry of Defence, the Africa Corps continues to provide the same range of military and political services to African states that the Wagner Group did.

However, its recent activities in Mali highlight the increased strategic importance that the Russian state has placed on Africa. Where Prigozhin used the Wagner Group as a vessel to personally enrich himself while spreading Russian influence, the Africa Corps has accelerated its focus on resource extraction as a means of circumventing Western sanctions.

Mali, with its political instability and abundant natural resources, has emerged as a focal point of Russia’s strategic manoeuvring to obtain resources vital to funding Russia’s war economy.

 

Russia’s Increasing Violent Activity in Mali

Although Russia’s involvement in Mali dates back to November 2021, when Wagner soldiers were first reported to be present in the country, Russian activity has intensified significantly in recent months, as highlighted in Fig. 1.

In the 8 months preceding Prighozin’s death, the Wagner Group was involved in 50 violent events. In contrast, the Africa Corps has been involved in 95 violent events as of March 2024, indicating a more aggressive approach towards achieving Russian interests.[i]

Fig 1. Russian activity before and after Yevgeny Prighozin’s death. Source: ACLED Data accessed 20 Mar 24.

Furthermore, unlike the Wagner Group which primarily operated near Mali’s southern border, the Africa Corps has extended its reach northward into areas previously held by separatist groups, as seen in Fig. 2.

Fig 2. Africa Corps activity in Mali. Source: ACLED Data accessed 20 Mar 24.

Following a three-month offensive, soldiers from the Africa Corps and Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) captured the rebel stronghold of Kidal. While the Wagner Group previously claimed that it only provided training to Malian soldiers,[ii] the capture of Kidal highlighted the Africa Corps’ expanding and more overt role in combat operations in Mali.

Figure 3 captures the moment when a flag bearing the Wagner insignia was raised at Fort de Kidal near the entrance to the city,[iii] while social media footage in Fig. 4 depicts the presence of Russian forces in the city.[iv]

Fig 3. SOCMED footage geolocated to Kidal, Mali. Source: Telegram / @orchestra_w. Posted 15 Nov 23.

 

Fig 4. SOCMED footage from Kidal. Source: X / @SimNasr. Posted 14 Nov

Although Russia has justified its operations against separatist forces in Mali as part of its security agreement with the Malian government, the Africa Corps has a clear ulterior motive for pushing into northern Mali: accessing the abundant gold ore reserves. As seen in Fig. 5, Kidal is near the heart of northern Mali’s gold deposits; a strategic fact not lost on the Africa Corps, which has moved to secure control of the artisanal gold mines in the region.

 

Fig 5. Gold deposits in Northern Mali (yellow).

 

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Seizing the Intahaka Gold Mine

On 9 February 2024, soldiers from the Africa Corps and FAMa captured the Intahaka gold mine. Unlike the mining industry in southern Mali, which is regulated by the Malian government and dominated by multinational corporations engaged in industrial scale mining, northern Mali is comprised of numerous small-scale illegal mines.

These artisanal mines often lack official oversight and have been utilised by armed groups in recent years to generate illicit revenue. The Intahaka gold mine, which is situated near the city of Gao, is the largest of the northern artisanal mines.

Although there is limited imagery from the capture of the Intahaka mine, a brief clip shared on social media provides glimpses of the operation, including the use of a Mi-8 helicopter as seen in Fig 6.

Additional analysis of a Russian-language TikTok account known for sharing footage of FAMa activity reveals the presence of the same helicopter accompanied by what appears to be well-equipped European soldiers.

Fig 6. SOCMED footage from capture of Intahaka mine and of Wagner troops in Mali. Sources: X / @CheickIbtidiani. Posted 10 Feb 24. Posted 27 Feb 24

 

Unlocking the Wealth of Northern Mali’s Gold Reserves

Prior to Prigozhin’s death, the Wagner Group received payments of approximately $10 million-per-month for its services.

With industrial gold production in southern Mali averaging around 60 tonnes annually, yielding exports valued at approximately $9 billion,[v] the funds provided to Wagner were largely sourced from government taxes on the foreign-run gold mines that dominate the south, such as the Loulo-Gounkoto complex.[vi]

Although three Russian linked mining companies were established in Mali in 2021 and 2022 with the intention of securing mining licences for the Wagner Group, they were reportedly unsuccessful.[vii] As such, the unregulated and underdeveloped gold mining industry in northern Mali presents Russian state-sponsored groups with an opportunity for generating significant mineral wealth, given that estimates suggest Mali’s northern artisanal sector could generate between 30 to 60 tonnes of gold per year.[viii]

Despite its recognition as one of the largest artisanal mines in northern Mali, estimating the potential gold yield from the Intahaka mine remains challenging due to the unregulated nature of artisanal mining and ongoing conflicts in the region.

These factors contribute to irregular production patterns, making accurate projections difficult. Nonetheless, gaining effective control over Intahaka’s gold production would significantly enhance the Africa Corps revenue streams, even when considering conservative profitability estimates.

Moreover, with further consolidation and industrialisation of artisanal gold mines across northern Mali, the Africa Corps stands to potentially generate hundreds of millions of dollars in monthly revenue.

To accommodate an increase in gold extraction, Russia has already begun to initiate efforts to bolster resource investment in the region, exemplified by new agreements with Mali for a gold refinery capable of processing 200 tonnes of gold per year.[ix]

While gold flows from Mali are already opaque – in 2019 the UAE reported that it received 81 tonnes of gold from Mali, despite Mali only declaring exports of 567 kgs of gold[x] – channelling gold through this refinery will reduce the Africa Corps’ reliance on third-country certified refineries, like those in the UAE.

 

The CAR Model

The Wagner Group already had a history of investing in resource extraction within African countries to finance its operations. A compelling example of this approach unfolded in the Central African Republic (CAR) where the former Wagner Group demonstrated its ability to leverage influence for access to gold reserves.

Following the departure of French troops in October 2017, the President of CAR struck a series of agreements with Russia, exchanging military support for access to mineral resources.

With access to the mining sites, Wagner transformed CAR’s artisanal mining operations into large-scale commercial ventures. One notable example is the Ndassima Mine in the Ouaka region, showcased in Fig. 6, where Wagner significantly increased production and tapped into the mine’s estimated $2.8 billion deposits. This success likely emboldened the Africa Corps to pursue a similar strategy in Mali.

Fig 7. Satellite footage of Ndassima gold mine, Central African Republic. ESRI Wayback Machine. Imagery from Esri, TomTom, Garmin, Foursquare, METI/NASA, USGS.

 

Strategic Motives

Gold may not be the only resource that the Africa Corps has its sights on in Mali. The military offensive into Kidal could also be linked to the possible presence of significant uranium reserves in the northeast near Aforas, which are assessed to be of higher quality compared to the reserves in western Mali that are currently mined by Western companies.[xi] This is illustrated in Fig. 7, where the green marking indicates the potential uranium reserves near the recently captured city of Kidal, depicted in red.

In October 2023, representatives from Rosatom, Russia’s leading nuclear company, met with Malian officials to discuss advancing nuclear infrastructure and energy in Mali, offering support for local research facilities and personnel training.[xii]

Whether aimed at bolstering Russia’s nuclear agenda or disrupting potential nuclear energy supplies to the West, the Africa Corps is playing a vital role in Russia’s strategic interests in Mali.

Fig. 8 Map of Mali with Kidal marked in red and likely uranium reserves marked in green.

 

Conclusion

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death has ended the current chapter in the evolution of the Wagner Group. The intelligence apparatus of the Russian Ministry of Defence, which has inherited the group, has clearly been faced with a strategic dilemma; repurpose Wagner for their own agenda without undermining the factors that made it so effective in the region.

Their solution has been to rebrand the organisation as the Africa Corps and continue the methodology of the Wagner Group, while also increasing ambitions, changing strategic objectives, and aligning chosen outcomes more closely with those of those of the Russian State.

The end product of these changes presents a serious challenge to both Western interests and healthy local governance in Africa. The move towards control of strategic resources, such as Uranium, amplified by increased resources from gold production, threatens to undermine the stability of several nations and escalate a regional proxy confrontation between Russia and the West.

This report and its underlying analysis are a product of the Intelligence and Insights team at Prevail Partners, who are experts in interrogating information to deliver granular detail and meaningful insight that give organisations a strategic advantage. To learn more about this capability follow the link below and make an enquiry.

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References

[i] ACLED Data accessed 20 March 2024
[ii] reuters.com
[iii] t.me/orchestra_w. 15 Nov 23.
[iv] x.com/SimNasr. Posted 14 Nov 23.
[v] adf-magazine.com
[vi] bloodgoldreport.com p. 3
[vii] bloodgoldreport.com p. 29
[viii] merip.org and france24.com
[ix] mining-technology.com
[x] UN Comtrade data reported in unodc.org
[xii] world-nuclear.org
[xii] rosatom.ru