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The Wagner Group, Blackwater, Wonger coup and the shadowy world of Guns-for-hire; By Osmund Agbo


When in 2014, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman got the blessing of his friend, President Vladimir Putin to form a network of military mercenaries to help Russia affect the annexation of Crimea, he was intentional about naming the private army and called it the Wagner Group. Wagner is the nom de guerre of the group leader, Dmitry Utkin, but most importantly is the name of Hitler’s favourite composer during the Third Reich.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner, prior to finding commercial success in music, was a little known composer who lived a troubled life, neck deep in debt and with a failed marriage caused by marital infidelity. In 1850, however, he wrote his infamous work titled “Das Judentum in der Musik” (Judaism in Music), in which he argued that Jews were incapable of true creativity and made a hit. In this treatise, Wagner opined that the Jewish artist can only “speak in imitation of others, make art in imitation of others, he cannot really speak, write, or create art on his own”. He instantly became the darling of an underground nationalist movement known to espouse antisemitic sentiments.

The relationship between Richard Wagner, the opera composer and Adolph Hitler, the world’s most brutal dictator, dated back to the time of formation of the Nazi Party but grew exponentially throughout the years of Hitler’s reign. No other musician is as closely linked with Nazism as Wagner and the year 1933, which was the year of Hitler’s accession to power coincided with the 50th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s death. The event was marked with pomp at the Bayreuth music festival under the theme ‘Wagner and the new Germany’. Sadly enough, the seminal work of this racist, who was adored by Hitler, inspired the group that Russia unleashed on the rest of the world.

The Wagner Group came to global prominence in 2014, at the time of Russian annexation of Crimea where it aided separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Since then, it has deployed forces to many conflict regions of the world including Syria, Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Mozambique, seizing oil and gas assets while protecting Russian interests and doing the bidding of authocrats. Today, they are back in Ukraine in support of the latest Russian invasion where they are allegedly tasked with assassinating Ukrainian leaders.

The group is not registered anywhere in the world as a legal entity, not even in Russia. Since the use of mercenaries is not permitted under Russian law, their murky existence allows the Kremlin to distance itself from atrocities committed by these dare-devil soldiers of fortune , giving them plausible deniability and creating distance between the Russian State and the group. But Russia is not the only country that hires soldiers of fortune to do their dirty jobs. They likely leant this trade from the West, came up with a home grown outfit, honed their skills and proceeded to give them more fangs.

On 7 March 2004, a Briton named Simon Mann and 69 other mercinaries mostly from South Africa were arrested in Zimbabwe when the Boeing 727 aircraft they were travelling on, got confiscated by that nation’s security forces for illegal arms trafficking and immigration violations. It was a brief stop over at Harare international airport where they had planned to load up weapons and equipment on their way to the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea. Their goal was to topple the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in what was later nicknamed “The Wonga Coup”.

The Wonga (British slang for money) coup, though organised by British financiers who were private citizens, was believed to have received the tacit support of some influential figures in the then British government. The goal was to install Severo Moto Nsa, an exiled Equatoguinean opposition politician in return for preferential oil rights being granted corporations with ties to the coup financiers. The botched coup received lots of international media attention and saw to the trial and subsequent conviction of Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in a South African court for his role in the whole saga. 

To get the job done, the plotters needed three things in place. A pliable ruler who would do their bidding when installed, a small disposable army and lastly, investors who could finance the operation and in return will be given access to the country’s oil wealth. But the coup failed because, for the most part, the plotters couldn’t just keep their mouth shut and at some point had it even discussed at Chatham House. It was believed that the Angolan President and few others tipped off the President of Equatorial Guinea.

The chief mastermind of the plot was Eli Calil, a Nigerian-born Lebanese millionaire who also held a British passport. He was the same man who some years prior was arrested in Paris, travelling with a Senegalese passport, regarding a deal that involved the French company, Elf Equitaine, now Total and in which he attempted to bribe the then Nigerian Head of State, General Sani Abacha in order to get some oil concessions. He was, however, later acquitted for insufficient evidence. Eli died on May 28, 2018 after falling down stairs.

Simon Mann, the man chosen to lead the group was a retired British army officer and a former partner in the defunct London-based private military firm called Executive Outcomes. He was later charged, tried and convicted in both Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea but eventually served three years of a four-year prison sentence in the former and less than two years of a 34 years and four months sentence in Equatorial Guinea.

How can anyone forget the United States of America when it comes to the use of private military contractors and the atrocities they commit. Erik Prince, the former head of the infamous private security contractor, Blackwater now known as Academi, whose employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 in 2007 later made his way to Libya, according to a New York Times report. 

Mr. Prince, a retired Navy SEAL was under a United Nations investigation as a gun-runner. He was later accused of violating a UN arms embargo on Libya by sending weapons and deploying a force of foreign mercenaries in support of a military campaign attempting to overthrow the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) at the time. The beneficiary of his effort was no other than Khalifa Hifter, the powerful militia commander believed to have been responsible for the instability in the North African nation. In fact, a Libya specialist and The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Senior Research Fellow Alison Pargeter regarded Haftar at the time as the “biggest single obstacle to peace in Libya.”

And so from Simon Mann’s Executive Outcomes to Erik Prince’s Blackwater, foreign governments are increasingly relying on shadowy private military groups led by conscienceless people to do their dirty job in order to escape accountability and evade justice.

The practice of using mercenaries has been there for centuries before now. There were mercinaries  in the 15, 16, 17th centuries deployed to protect kings and popes. Pope Louis XVI, for instance was protected by Swiss mercenaries when he was in Versailles and there was a revolution. But such loose practices have now been replaced by modern mercenaries which is a mixture of private contractors, security guards, soldiers of fortune, guns for hire, employees of private military and companies.

According to Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the United Nations Working Group, “There’s a trend or pattern around what happens when Wagner is involved in an armed conflict. The conflict is prolonged, involves heavy weaponry, civilians are impacted in substantial way, human rights violations and war crimes increase substantially and there’s no access to justice for victims.” You can substitute the Wagner Group with Blackwater, Executive Outcomes and a bunch of other private armies and the result will be the same. Regrettably, these dirty outfits with their hired guns have come to stay. 

•Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]

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