October 28, 2021 2:46 pm
When Russian fighters full of tattoos arrived in Alindao, in the south of the Central African Republic, the rebels fled and the population was finally able to celebrate. “They were white. They were huge, ”says Fatima, 32. “The Russians looked weird, and tattoos were everywhere: snakes, skulls, human heads … But they were there to help us.”
Soon, however, stories of looting and torture, killings and rape committed by the alleged saviors came from nearby villages. One day in September this year, Fatima’s brother was forcibly taken from his home. Then it was her turn: they took her to a military base where, she says, three of them raped her until she lost consciousness. “They were scary. We were all terrified, ”says Fatima. “We thought they had come to restore peace. Now I wish they had never arrived ”.
The mercenaries who attacked Alindao work for a network of Kremlin-linked companies, the Wagner Group, which helped Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra repel the rebel advance and save his government. This was stated by diplomatic sources, internal to the security services, humanitarian organizations and the Central African opposition. The United States claims that Yevgeny Prigožin, known as the “chef” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is funding Wagner, an accusation he denies. According to some sources, the group has three thousand fighters in the African country. Russia only admits it sent 1,100 unarmed military trainers, under an agreement between Moscow and Bangui signed in 2018.
Thanks to this deployment of forces, Russia has found a foothold in the region, taking advantage of the widespread resentment towards France, the former colonial power. He would like to do the same in other African countries, such as Mali, which is just as restless. At the same time, however, Moscow has attracted allegations of human rights violations in the United Nations Security Council. In any case, the lack of official ties between the Russian government and the Wagner group allows the Kremlin to deny the evidence.
With its long history of instability, coups and armed rebellions, the Central African Republic is, to use the words of a Bangui diplomat, a “perfect laboratory” for the Wagner group. There he can “show what he is able to do to sell his services to other countries” that want to crush internal uprisings. According to some experts, Moscow could also regain some of the influence it exercised in Africa at the time of the Cold War, proposing itself as an antagonist of the West at very low financial and political costs.
In the course of their operations, Wagner mercenaries managed to take control of areas where gold and diamond mines are located, targeted Muslim and Peul minorities, and clashed several times with Minusca, the United Nations mission made up of fifteen thousand blue helmets. “They completely changed the situation on the ground,” a security worker told Bangui. “It is an ideal environment to operate: the state is absent and a weak government, which was looking for a way out, found it in these mercenaries.”
Responding in writing to questions that the Financial Times had sent to the Prigožin catering company, Alexander Ivanov, director of the Union of Officers for International Security, said that in the Central African Republic “there is not a large number of Russian mercenaries” and that the Russian instructors the Kremlin says it sent were not involved in the fighting or commercial activities.
Malian authorities fear that the French withdrawal could make the country more insecure and are therefore looking for other partners
The Wagner group has found clients all over Africa, from Mozambique to Madagascar, from Sudan to Libya, where the United Nations has accused the group of possible war crimes. The next customer could be Mali, another former French colony, whose military junta would like to have 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries at its disposal, after France has withdrawn half of the five thousand soldiers committed against the jihadist insurgency in the Sahel. The Malian authorities fear that the downsizing of the French presence could make the area more insecure and therefore are looking for “other partners”.
The experience of the Central African Republic was similar: Bangui turned to Russia when France withdrew its troops after a three-year mission that failed to stop a bloody civil war. The French reputation in the Central African Republic – and in the other former colonies including Mali – is so low that even those who condemn the presence of the Russians can see some positive sides. “I am happy that the French influence has shrunk and is diminishing even more,” says Gervais Lakasso, an artist and activist from Bangui. “It’s one of the things that made President Touadéra more popular.”
The Russian presence is clearly visible in Bangui, where uniformed men drive around in armored military vehicles. These fighters are in charge of the personal security of the president, who has long hired Valerij Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence officer, as an advisor. Yet Prime Minister Henri-Marie Dondra denies the presence of mercenaries. “We have not signed contracts with private companies, we have a contract with Russia,” he said. “It is a very clear bilateral cooperation agreement”. As far as he knows, “there are no other forces present” besides the Russian ones, the UN and the Rwandan ones, also present in the country on the basis of a bilateral agreement.
Moscow’s foreign ministry said its instructors are legally operating in the Central African Republic and have contributed to a “significant increase in the military capacity of the national army, which is evident from the numerous casualties inflicted on armed groups.” However Sorcha MacLeod, who is part of the working group on mercenaries of the UN human rights council, argues that the Russians and other foreigners affiliated with them “are involved in human rights violations and possibly war crimes”.
“Wherever there has been abuse, as soon as the government becomes aware of it, it launches an investigation,” said Dondra, stating that in most cases the culprits are armed groups. In September, his government admitted for the first time that Russian investigators had committed human rights abuses. But the Russian foreign ministry denies: “If the allegations about the atrocities committed had a foundation and the local population were protesting, the Central African leaders would hardly have requested the sending of other units of specialists from Russia”.
According to foreign officials, opposition figures and civil society, the Bangui government is, in one way or another, hostage to the Wagner group, on which it depends to maintain security and power. “The government made a deal and now it doesn’t know how to manage it anymore,” explains a foreign official in Bangui. “He can’t control them.” It is also unclear how Russians are paid for their services.
Some companies linked to the Wagner group, including Lobaye Invest, subject to sanctions by the United States, have taken the mining sector of the Central African Republic by storm. According to some opposition members and foreign officials, it is one of the ways Bangui uses to reward them. As international donors, led by the European Union and the World Bank, provide roughly half of the country’s total annual $ 400 million budget, “we cannot rule out that some of the international contributions are used to pay these people,” observes a foreign official from Bangui. “In a sense, the Union and the World Bank pay the mercenaries: a rather uncomfortable position,” comments another diplomat.
According to Ivanov, Russian instructors “have nothing to do with controlling gold and diamond mines”. According to the media of the Patriot group, which is headed by Prigožin, Lobaye Invest works legally in the Central African Republic and whoever insinuates that Russian forces are paid with money from Western donors “should be sued for defamation and expelled from the Central African Republic. “.
On May 30, 2021 Denise Brown, Minusca’s number two, wanted to visit an area near the border with Chad to investigate alleged human rights violations by the Central African army. A UN report states that “security forces from both sides and other units have prevented access to Brown’s delegation”. Four sources familiar with the facts said that when Brown’s team landed with the helicopter, the Russian paramilitaries aimed their Ak-47s at them, proving the impunity with which they operate in the country. “It’s indecent,” says a Bangui security expert. “There are no rules. What happens here does not happen anywhere else ”.
Ivanov replies that he knows nothing of the incident, but suggests that Brown may not have informed the defense ministry “because of his ignorance” of the local laws and that “the unauthorized flight could be interpreted as a deadly threat” by the troops. on the ground. Diplomats and aid workers in Bangui argue that it is only a matter of time before the skirmishes between the Russians and Minusca turn into outright violence.
Meanwhile, civilians pay the highest price. In Pk5, the Muslim quarter of Bangui, it is not uncommon to find victims of Russian brutality. New ones arrive every day from other parts of the country. “We have experienced all kinds of rebellions at the hands of various armed groups, but after the arrival of the Russians things got worse”, says a 66-year-old imam from Bria. “It’s total chaos, we had no choice but to escape.”
The mercenaries stole the 6 million cfa francs (9,100 euros) he had put aside and took everything they could get their hands on: used clothes, jerry cans, water bottles and items owned by some of the poorest people on earth. “What will our old trousers be for?” Asks the imam.
“When they arrived I was very happy, we all were. Finally, the suffering that the rebels had inflicted on us was about to end, because the Russians had come to help the government and save us, ”he admits. “In the end, however, we understood what they were really doing… And we ran away to save our lives”.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)