Heavy friends: Wagner’s Central African allies
Russia only officially recognizes unarmed “military instructors”
BANGUI: A year ago, the President of the Central African Republic, Faustin Archange Touadera, called on the Kremlin to save his government. As the rebels advanced towards Bangui, the Central African capital, ahead of the presidential elections, Russia sent hundreds of paramilitaries, helping Touadera to reverse the trend. But today, analysts say, the men of the Russian private security group Wagner who support Touadera’s presidency are becoming a handicap.
The intertwining alienated France, the CAR’s traditional supporter, sparked allegations of atrocities and failed to defuse hostility to the Touadera regime, they say. “After the Touadera regime came under Russian supervision, it isolated itself from its Western donors and got rid of the opposition, while the peace initiatives have never borne fruit,” explains Thierry Vircoulon of the think tank of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
CAR faces a growing humanitarian crisis – out of a population of around five million, more than three million will be in need of assistance next year, according to the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator, OCHA. CAR’s involvement with Wagner is being emulated further north, in jihadist-stricken Mali, whose military-led government is also asking for help.
Russia, an ally of the CAR since 2018, only officially recognizes the presence of unarmed “military instructors” to train its ill-equipped armed forces. But NGOs on the ground, as well as France and the United Nations, claim that some of the Russians deployed in the country are agents of Wagner – a claim denied by Moscow. “I haven’t signed anything with a company called Wagner,” Touadera said in September in an interview with Jeune Afrique.
A victory, but no victory
The CAR plunged into a sectarian civil war in 2013, which was then quelled by French military intervention, paving the way for Touadera’s first election in 2016. In 2018, a peace agreement that brought leaders rebels in government ushered in a lull. fight. But rebel groups, many of which claim to represent religious or ethnic groups, have retained control of two-thirds of the country.
As Touadera campaigned for re-election in elections at the end of December last year, violence resumed and a rebel coalition advanced in the capital. Russian aid – backed by troops sent by Rwanda as part of a bilateral deal – foiled the takeover bid and forced rebels out of major cities, allowing the government to say it had regained control of most of the country.
But the pushback has also sparked allegations of bloody abuse. The United Nations have sounded the alarm bells on “major rights violations” committed by the Central African forces and their Russian allies, including extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence. In October, Touadera declared a “unilateral ceasefire”, hoping that his stronger position would unlock a national dialogue to encourage peace. However, the timing of the much-vaunted forum has not been announced and rebel attacks on local populations and security forces have continued, particularly in the north-west of the country.
IFRI’s Vircoulon said the rebels were now engaged in a “guerrilla” war after failing in their frontal assault on power. Roland Marchal, an expert at the French Center for International Studies, said the attacks were likely to continue. The rebels’ apparent change of tactics hit Russian paramilitaries hard, who sustained “a large number of injuries,” he said.
A diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russians wielded increasing influence in Bangui, especially in the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and finance, including the customs service. In a report released in June, US investigative NGO The Sentry said “transnational criminal networks” had “captured state institutions and held entire communities hostage.” “This is a looting and killing machine, serving the interests of the Central African President and his foreign allies, especially the Kremlin-linked private army known as the Wagner Group, as they plunder the ‘gold, diamonds and other mineral wealth in the country, “said The Sentry co-founder John Prendergast. – AFP