When the tattooed Russian fighters arrived in Alindao, a town in the southern Central African Republic (CAR), the rebels fled — and the people rejoiced.
“They were white. They were very big,” said Fatima, 32. “They looked so strange, they had tattoos everywhere — snakes, skulls, human heads . . .[but] they were going to help.”
But soon stories began circulating from nearby villages — of looting and torture, killings and rape. Then one day last month they took Fatima’s brother from their home. The next, they took her to a nearby military camp, where she says three of them raped her until she lost consciousness.
“They were very scary — we were all so scared,” she said. “We thought they came here to restore peace to our country. Now I wish they’d never come.”
The mercenaries who attacked Alindao belong to a Kremlin-linked network of companies known as the Wagner Group that has helped president Faustin-Archange Touadéra beat back rebels and saved his government, according to security, humanitarian, diplomatic and opposition sources in the CAR.
The US accuses Evgeny Prigozhin, a caterer known as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “chef,” of bankrolling Wagner — accusations he has long denied. Sources say the group has up to 3,000 armed fighters in the country. Russia says it has some 1,100 unarmed military trainers in the CAR, part of a deal Moscow inked with Bangui in 2018.
The deployment has given Russia a foothold in the region, seizing on widespread resentment at former colonial power France and using it as a template for its expansion into other troubled neighbouring countries such as Mali. But it has also prompted allegations of human rights abuses at the UN security council. The unofficial links to Wagner have given Moscow plausible deniability, analysts say.
With a long history of instability, coups and armed insurrection, the CAR is for Wagner, as one diplomat in Bangui put it, “a perfect laboratory”. Here, said the diplomat, they could “show what they can do in order to sell it to other countries” eager to put down their own insurrections.
Wagner’s involvement also allows Moscow to regain some of the cold war-era influence it has lost in Africa in recent decades, while antagonising the west at low political and monetary cost, according to experts who study the group.
Along the way, the mercenaries have taken over gold and diamond mining areas, targeted Muslim and Fulani ethnic minorities, and had multiple altercations with members of the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, Minusca.
“They have completely changed the equation on the ground,” said a security source in Bangui. “The operating environment is just ideal for them, there is no real state and you have quite a toothless government that was really looking for a way out and found it in these mercenaries.”
In written answers to questions the Financial Times sent to Prigozhin’s catering company about Wagner’s operations in the CAR, Alexander Ivanov, head of the Officers’ Union for International Security, said that there were not “large numbers of Russian mercenaries” in the CAR and the Russian instructors — which the Kremlin says it sent — were not involved in any fighting or commercial activity.
Turning away from France
Wagner has already found willing customers for its services across Africa, including Mozambique, Madagascar, Sudan — and Libya, where the UN accused them of allegedly committing possible war crimes.
Its next client may be Mali, an ex-French colony where the ruling military junta has suggested hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries after Paris announced it would halve its 5,000-troop presence fighting the jihadist insurgency roiling the Sahel.
The Malian junta fears that a French withdrawal or downsizing could make insecurity worse, and is seeking “other partners”. There are echoes here of the CAR’s experience. Bangui turned to Russia when France pulled troops out after a three-year mission that failed to quell a bloody civil war.
France’s reputation in the CAR — and in other former colonies including Mali — is so low that even those who condemn the Russian presence see some small silver lining. “I’m very happy that the French influence has shrunk and is getting smaller,” said Gervais Lakasso, an artist and activist in Bangui. “[It is] one of the biggest things that makes Touadéra popular.”
‘They can’t control them’
The Russian presence is visible in Bangui, where armed fighters dressed in fatigues ride around in bulletproof military trucks. Russian fighters help guard the president, whose national security adviser had long been Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence officer.
Yet prime minister Henri-Marie Dondra denied the presence of Russian mercenaries. “We have not signed a contract with private companies, we have a contract with Russia,” he told the FT. “We have a bilateral co-operation agreement which is very clear.”
He added that to his knowledge “there are no other forces that are present” beyond Russian, UN or Rwandan troops also in the country on a bilateral agreement.
Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow’s instructors were operating in the country legally and had helped “the CAR’s army significantly increase its fighting capacity, as a result of which its units have inflicted significant casualties on fighters of various illegal armed groups”.
But Sorcha MacLeod, member of the UN human rights council’s working group on mercenaries, said Russians and affiliated foreigners “are involved in human rights violations, they are potentially involved in war crimes”.
Dondra insisted that “whenever there have been abuses, as soon as the government is informed, we immediately start an investigation,” noting that the majority are committed by armed groups.
Last month, the CAR government released a report acknowledging for the first time that Russian instructors had committed human rights abuses. But Russia’s foreign ministry said it had not been informed: “If the insinuations about their atrocities had any real foundation, and the local population was actively protesting, the CAR’s leadership would hardly have insisted on the further presence of specialists from Russia,” it said.
Foreign officials, opposition figures and civil society members argue that the government is, to one degree or another, captured by Wagner, which it depends on for its security and status in power. “I think [the government] made a deal with someone and now they don’t know how to handle it,” said one foreign official in Bangui. “They can’t control them.”
It is unclear how Russian fighters are being paid for their services. Wagner-linked companies including the US-sanctioned outfits Lobaye Invest and others have made inroads in the CAR’s mining sector. Some opposition figures and foreign officials suggest it is one way the government compensates them.
With international donors, led by the EU and the World Bank, providing roughly half of the country’s $400m annual budget, “we can’t rule out that donor money is going towards paying them”, said a foreign official in Bangui.
“In a way, the [EU] and the World Bank are paying the mercenaries, which is a very awkward position to be in,” another diplomat in Bangui said.
Ivanov said the Russian instructors had “no relation to seizing control of gold and diamond extraction”. Prigozhin’s Patriot media group said Lobaye Invest worked in the CAR legally and said the officials who suggested Russian forces were being paid from western donor funds “should be prosecuted for libel and expelled from the CAR”.
On May 30, Denise Brown, the number-two UN official in Minusca, travelled to an area near the border with Chad to investigate alleged human rights violations by the national army.
A public UN report notes only that “bilaterally deployed and other security personnel obstructed the access of a United Nations delegation led by” Brown.
But four sources familiar with the incident said that when Brown and her delegation landed in a helicopter, the Russian paramilitaries trained AK-47s on the group — a sign of the impunity with which they operate in the CAR.
“This is a shit show,” said one veteran security official in Bangui. “They have no rules. It’s completely different than anywhere else.”
Ivanov said he was unaware of the incident but suggested that Brown had failed to inform the CAR’s defence ministry of her travel “due to her ignorance” of local regulations and that “her unapproved flight could have been interpreted as a life-or-death threat” by personnel on the ground.
Multiple diplomats and humanitarians in Bangui warned it was only a matter of time before skirmishes between Russians and Minusca erupted into real violence.
Meanwhile, civilians are bearing the brunt. In PK5, the Muslim enclave of Bangui, victims of Russian brutality are easy to find — more arrive every day.
“We have experienced all sorts of rebellions over the years, from all armed groups, and then the Russians came in and made it even worse,” said a 66-year-old imam from the mining town of Bria. “It’s complete chaos — we had no choice but to flee.”
Mercenaries had stolen his CFA Fr6m ($10,600) savings and were stealing anything they can get their hands on: old clothes, jerry cans, water bottles, the sundry possessions of the poorest people on earth. He wondered: “What do they need with our old trousers?”
“The first time they came, I was very happy, we all were — finally our suffering from the armed groups will end because they’re here to help the government and save us,” he said. “But eventually we realised [what] they were doing . . . and we ran for our lives.”