UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said the UK will “look with seriousness” at requests for military training and support from African leaders after some countries on the continent turned to the Wagner paramilitary group to meet an “unfulfilled need”.
Mr Cleverly said British military professionalism and respect for international law is a “good thing” that the UK could export.
In an interview with the Financial Times on the eve of a trip to Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia, he said some “superficially attractive offers” had been made to African countries by Russia and China, but he believed the situation was now changing.
Mr Cleverly said some nations involved with the Russian paramilitary force Wagner have become “increasingly uncomfortable” with its influence.
“We need to be honest with ourselves that Wagner group would not be active in Africa if there wasn’t an unfulfilled need,” he told the newspaper.
“If countries are worried about their internal security, if they are worried about being able to defend themselves, then we should recognise that, and we should look to speak with them about what are genuinely sustainable security measures.”
He said he would “look with seriousness” at opportunities and requests from African leaders “to work on capacity building and training with the British armed forces”.
Mr Cleverly said that the number of countries represented by their heads of state at the Russia-Africa summit fell to 17 this week, from a height of 43 during the first gathering in 2019, which showed African leaders were “voting with their feet”.
“Regarding China, I talk to African leaders who are uncomfortable with their level of indebtedness, and are uncomfortable with China not engaging in the Paris Club [of mainly western creditor countries], for example, when it comes to how you deal with national indebtedness,” he said.
Weeks ago, Wagner mercenary fighters in Belarus were told to prepare for Africa and that they would take no further part in the war in Ukraine.
A video purportedly featuring the voice of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was reposted by his press service on Telegram.
In it, Mr Prigozhin tells his men to behave well towards the locals and orders them to train the Belarusian army and collect their strength for a “new journey to Africa”.
Its role there, especially in support of governments in Mali and Central African Republic, is a source of concern for western governments.
Wagner personnel have operated in five African states, and their presence was often accompanied by reports of human rights abuses such as torture and killings.
Mr Prigozhin claimed the group works in line with the laws of the countries where it operates.
He welcomed a military coup in the West African state of Niger and made what appeared to be a pitch for business there.
Mr Cleverly’s comments came after MPs warned in a report that the UK had “underplayed and underestimated” the Wagner group for a decade.
Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns said the UK government lacked “a coherent strategy” while “efforts to meaningfully tackle Wagner have been non-existent”.
“This has allowed the network to grow, spread its tentacles deep into Africa and exploit countries on their knees due to conflict or instability,” she said.
Mr Cleverly told the newspaper he did not fully agree with the characterisation and pointed out that Britain had imposed sanctions on the group and its officials.