By Alex Stonor
Russia has continuously sought to expand its military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the Central African Republic in recent years. In December 2020, after a rebel coalition renewed the 2019 ‘Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation’, Moscow sent 300 military instructors to add to the existing count of contractors providing safety to the government in CAR. In a country in which half of the people need humanitarian assistance, what is Russia’s end game? For Freelancers, we conducted an interview with a source in the security and development sector in CAR to gain on-the-ground insights on the security situation in the country
After an insurgency that lasted several months, rebels overthrew former president Francois Bozizé in 2013. The resulting breakdown in law and order and growing insecurity encouraged the UN to forbid the sale of weapons to the country. In 2017, Russian and CAR officials met in Sochi to renew a collaboration that started in the 1960s. That year, Moscow secured the UN Security Council’s approval to train CAR armed forces and provide them with weapons, despite the arms embargo in the country.
In 2018, after President Touedara’s visit to Moscow, which resulted in the grant of mining contracts in CAR to Russian companies, President Putin sent contractors from the infamous Wagner Group to Bangui. A 2018 article from ZNAK, a Russian newspaper, shows that the Wagner group trained private contractors in a camp in Krasnodar, Ukraine, to be sent to CAR.
Today, the government controls only a third of the country. CAR officials require UN MINUSCA peacekeepers, mostly from Rwanda, and Russian private military contractors (PMCs) to ensure the security of the capital Bangui as well as their personal safety, as the government is focused on rebuilding its own army. As an example of this military ‘collaboration’, Russians were among the forces that repelled a rebel attack 90 kilometers outside of Bangui on 26 January, 2021.
Russia therefore comes into play when security concerns are at stake. The Kremlin officially states that it has sent 535 military contractors to CAR. However, several UN-backed papers and local media reports state that the numbers are higher. While the ZNAK article shows evidence that the Wagner Group trained private contractors in a camp in Krasnodar, the German outlet ‘DW’ stated in April that Wagner employed at least 1,000 PCMs (private military contractors) in CAR. ‘Centrafrique Le Défi’, a local website, also highlights that members of another Russian contractor company, the Sewa Security Services, take part in ensuring the safety of the government and its assets.
Why is the Kremlin military involved in an insurgency 9,000 kilometers away from its borders? Although the official narrative is that Russia acts in response to a request of help from CAR, it is also eyeing the country’s rich reserves of minerals (notably diamond, gold, and uranium). As an
example, Sewa Security Services, is also used to provide security for Lobaye Invest, a mining company.
The Russian-CAR partnership therefore goes behind security and political interests. It is a geostrategic one, guided by economic interest. This particularly explains why the political, economic, and mining elites of CAR have grown increasingly dependent on Russian private
security companies since 2018. Going forward, it appears that Moscow will reinforce its foreign diplomatic and military hegemony in CAR.
Russia’s military intervention in CAR is also one of military abuses and exactions. On 31 March, the UN working group on the use of mercenaries shared concerns on the role of Sewa, Wagner, and other Russian contractors in violence committed in the country since December 2020. It claims “serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by private military personnel” have occurred, including “mass summary executions, arbitrary detentions, torture during interrogations, enforced disappearances, (…) and increasing attacks on humanitarian actors.”
We have (virtually) met with one of these humanitarian actors based in CAR. This party, who works for an international NGO in CAR, expressed his intentions to remain anonymous.
Can you introduce yourself and the work you do in CAR?
I’m an NGO worker. I have been in CAR for a year now. I was here for the electoral crisis and I’ve seen the Russian engagement increasing here.
Do international NGOs interact in any way with Russian mercenaries on the ground?
There isn’t any interaction between INGOs and Russian mercenaries on the ground. The Russians systematically refuse any contact with non-armed actors. There have been attempts by some INGOs to contact them on the ground for security reasons, such as giving them the locations of
their bases to avoid being attacked or suffering collateral damage, but all these attempts have ended in failure, and sometimes resulted in physical threats. For example, INGO employees were held at gunpoint at the entrance of a Russian base for trying to communicate with them.
That said, the officers in the capital are more open to discussion. They do not hesitate to communicate for the sake of form, but in substance, nothing concretely positive has come out of exchanges with Russian contractors.
Russia was not a colonial power in Africa. Is Russia settling in as a potential diplomatic arbiter in CAR instead of France?
Russian influence is definitely stronger in CAR right now. France does not want to intervene in Africa like it did before if it’s not a matter of terrorism, this is why they left CAR few years ago and did nothing during the electoral crisis that started in December 2020. So France left the field open
for Russia. While Russians used to have a relationship with CAR only in security matters a few years ago, they now cooperates with CAR authorities in the fields of energy, minerals, security, infrastructures, communications/media, and many more economic fields. Russia is definitely trying to supplant France, and one of the more visible aspects of this ‘war of influence’ are the media and social media, where many anti-French articles are published, mostly by pro-Russians journals or accounts. However, France also uses social media to discredit Russians.
What are Russian contractors’ interaction and relationship like with NGOs in the area? For example, do they see them as a nuisance or are they indifferent?
Relations between Russian contractors’ and NGOs are very difficult: they don’t discuss and Russians see NGOs as a nuisance because they try to reach the warfield and therefore they are a problem for their operations. Furthermore, they are not well aware about IHR and do not respect it
at all, and NGOs sometimes denounce their practices (torture, kidnapping, executions of prisonners, killing of civilians, conditions of detentions…).
They sometimes use violence against NGOs when they try to reach areas of conflict. They also loot bases of NGOs when they capture new localities. Some NGOs see Russian contractors as a threat just as much as other armed groups.
Have you noticed cultural differences between Russian contractors and locals leading to disagreements or conflict?
They certainly have cultural differences. But FACA are just listening to what Russians are telling them to do. They have the lead on the field and therefore disagreements are not allowed. But I have an anecdote: in one town, Russians send FACA out of their bases to buy alcohol. When
the FACA came back, there was another FACA that was on guard. He confused the one that was outside with a rebel, and shot him. When the ICRC came to pick up the body, they found two bodies, and the Russians explained that it was due to a crossfire between those two soldiers. But we
learned later that one of the bodies had received a single shot in the head from a bullet of another caliber than the 7,62 mostly used by FACAs.
Do you believe Russia is sending quality contractors?
I will not call them contractors, but soldiers. They are not well trained but they were involved in several armed conflicts before coming to CAR. Syrians or Libyans are also among contractors. Local sources say they are those who the regular army did not want to engage.
Have you seen competition or confrontation between contractors of other nations and Russians?
Not at all, Russians have the lead here and most of the international actors find it convenient that they do the dirty job.
Would you prefer to be in an environment with Russians contractors or US/Western contractors?
Tough question, actually I don’t know… US mercenaries in Iraq were not very sweet either. But I guess I’d probably prefer US contractors in regards to what Russians are doing here…
Have you got any thoughts on the recent UN reports about Russian mercenaries actions in CAR? Have you witnessed that ?
The UN does not state anything we did not already know regarding their actions here. But some French journalists have left the country after the article they made about that report, over concerns of retaliatory
violence from mercenaries.