Russia has established a strong military presence in the Central African Republic (CAR) over the past four years, clandestinely using dubious actors like the military company Wagner, which is allegedly close to President Vladimir Putin. Wagner has become the deniable vanguard of a major Russian push into Africa, many analysts believe.
Wagner, supposedly run – or at least funded – by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man often called ‘Putin’s chef’, may already have made itself indispensable to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. This raises serious questions about whether it can be – or indeed should be – dislodged.
A force of about 1 200 to 2 000 Wagner operatives plus a contingent of some 300 crack Rwandan troops prevented the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) rebel army from capturing Bangui a year ago. The CPC comprised six signatories to the failing 2019 Khartoum agreement and was led by former president François Bozizé. The rebels advanced on Bangui after Touadéra won the December 2020 elections, from which Bozizé had been excluded and which were widely believed to have been rigged.
The Russians then advanced into the countryside, routing more rebels as they marched. They restored more security to the CAR than it has seen for a long time, achieving what other outsiders – including France, Libya under the late Muammar Gaddafi and even South Africa (in 2013) – had failed to do.
And so the Russians were at first widely welcomed by CAR citizens. However, their popularity later waned as they increasingly committed severe human rights abuses against civilians, according to the United Nations (UN) and others. And the International Crisis Group and Africa Confidential say they have targeted not only members of the Fulani and Gbaya ethnic groups – Bozizé is a member of the latter – but also Muslims in general. (Some rebel groups in the CPC alliance predominantly profess that faith.)
From his perspective, Touadéra’s greatest dilemma may be that his heavy reliance on Wagner and Russia more generally has poisoned his relations with Western countries, particularly France.
The United States (US) is also annoyed and had already sanctioned Prigozhin for his alleged role in trying to influence its 2016 elections. The US and the European Union also recently slapped sanctions on Wagner for a suspected range of human rights abuses, not only in the CAR but in Libya, Syria, Sudan and Ukraine. Wagner also briefly joined the fight against insurgents in northern Mozambique, though it quickly withdrew after setbacks.
Western disapproval matters because the CAR relies primarily on Western donors to provide more than half its US$496-million annual state budget. The country doesn’t acknowledge Wagner’s presence, and no one has seen a contract between them, though few doubt they have a deal. No visible contract means no evidence of legitimate pay, fuelling allegations that Wagner is being reimbursed instead with lucrative mining contracts.
A UN Panel of Experts found Wagner and Russia’s Lobaye Invest SARLU – which has won gold and diamond mining concessions – were ‘interconnected’. And the ICG points out that ‘Russian media have linked Lobaye directly to Prigozhin.’
A similar standoff between France and the West on the one side and Russia and particularly Wagner may be occurring in Mali. A Russian force of some 450, mainly Wagner, operatives is reportedly starting to fill a vacuum created by the partial withdrawal of France’s 5 100-strong Barkhane force from the Sahel region. Mali’s government denies Wagner’s presence, admitting only to ‘Russian instructors.’
Nevertheless, Wagner’s alleged presence has also provoked strong protests by France, which essentially saved Mali from being overrun by jihadists and separatists in 2013. France has threatened to completely withdraw military support to Mali. Sweden has already announced its exit from the European force Takuba because of Wagner’s arrival. Such decisions are difficult because they may further weaken the fight against the common enemy – violent extremism.
Nevertheless, the CAR and Mali cases raise some stark questions about Western responses to Wagner and Russia’s interventions there and elsewhere. Are these just fits of hypocritical pique by the West because Russia is beating it at its own game of exerting influence and exploiting commercial opportunities in Africa? Or are there significant differences between Western and Russian intervention?
A security analyst who requested anonymity noted that Russia – and for that matter China – are in many respects doing what Western countries have done for much longer. And that is securing access to African resources and markets and seeking stronger diplomatic and strategic alignment with the continent in global fora.
He says complicating any analysis or comparison is that Russia’s involvement in the CAR and elsewhere in Africa is probably more covert, so it’s hard to know just where it is and what it’s doing. (There are rumours that Russia has its eyes on Burkina Faso, for example.)
But he added that Wagner’s growing presence is clearly problematic on two points. The first is that, like most private military companies, its military doctrine seems to converge around annihilating the enemy with little regard to civilian collateral damage. So human rights abuses are a big problem.
The second point is that Wagner and Russia seem to have no regard for democracy when choosing who to support. Some even suggest Putin seeks out African partners who have fallen out with the West because of their undemocratic behaviour, as this makes them vulnerable to such blandishments. And perhaps also to stick his finger in the West’s eye. In Mali, for example, Russia and Wagner evidently moved in only after the 2021 coup by Colonel Assimi Goïta and his reluctance to return the country to democratic civilian rule.
Russia, like China, likes to present itself as aligned with African organisations on issues like this. And yet when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions on Mali this month, Russia and China blocked UN Security Council moves to back ECOWAS. The security analyst believes that if the African Union and regional economic communities like ECOWAS want to use these solutions, they need to be more consistent and coherent.
By turning a blind eye when the likes of Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara blatantly manipulate constitutions to stay in power, they undermine their own moral authority in dealing with military officers who respond with coups. And the same would apply to Russia and Wagner when they back such putschists.
But Wagner’s growing presence on the continent also poses some difficult questions to the international community, including the West. The problem is not only about democracy but also stability and security. If no one else can provide it, African countries may continue to turn to the likes of Wagner – though it’s too soon to judge its overall effectiveness either.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant