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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
18 Mar 2023

NextImg:Russian Mercenaries Are Pushing France Out of Central Africa
French soldiers deployed in the Central African Republic board a cargo plane to leave the Bangui airport

“For those of you here for the first time, the Central African Republic is a country of opportunity, and everybody has the possibility to come back,” Pamir, the hero of the 2021 Russian movie Tourist, tells his assembled crew of military instructors. “Take advantage while the boat is full.”

Pamir (a callsign) and his dozen Russian compatriots are in the country on a training mission to help the embattled government regain control in the civil war-torn country. Unbeknownst to the Russians, there is a plot afoot: An ex-president, nefarious European powerbroker, and greedy Catholic priest are conspiring to launch a coup against the government.

But the Russians are in the way, so the French-speaking European raises a militia to attack their base.

“We need a little victory that will be globalized by the media,” the Francophone tells his ordained co-conspirator. He offers a word of prescient caution: “The Russians know how to fight—and, unfortunately, they do it well.”

The militants launch their assault on the base but are thwarted—almost single-handedly—by the brave Russians. The coup-plotters’ plan to disrupt the nascent country’s election is derailed, and the Russians go back home. Some, indeed, come back to continue helping the government try to maintain control.

The credits roll.

Screenshots from the trailer of the 2021 Russian movie Tourist.

As a movie, Tourist feels like a direct answer to the jingoistic Americana of Rambo 2 or Top Gun. But the film is more than just popcorn fodder. The film’s financier is one of the most powerful men in Russia, Yevgeny Prigozhin; and the subject matter is his own mercenary company, the Wagner Group.

Prigozhin and his quasi-private personal military have become an extension of the Russian state. The group is active from Syria, where his mercenaries have tortured and brutally murdered civilians; to Ukraine, where his forces have scored some of the only Russian military advances in recent months; to Francophone Africa, where he has won over some rare allies for an increasingly isolated Moscow.

The Wagner Group’s growing global footprint is causing some anxiety in Western capitals. But in a growing number of African nations, Russia is supplanting those old colonial powers as a reliable partner.

An Estonian soldier of the European Union Force

“The Central African Republic does not get a lot of attention,” Louisa Lombard, associate professor of anthropology at Yale, said. “But the attention that it does get these days is entirely about the Russians and Wagner.”

Lombard has studied and written extensively on conflict in the republic. “This is a country that has had more than a dozen peacekeeping missions since the mid-1990s,” she said. The largest of those missions launched in 2014.

“Despite the [Western] presence—of a lot of diplomats, and a lot of international peace builders—the Central Africans have not seen real improvement in their situation,” Lombard said. “In fact, there are still just about as many people displaced now as there ever have been; it’s been fairly stable at a quarter of the population over this entire period. Food security has not gotten better. Schools are still rarely open. All of these problems remain for Central Africans.”

That creates a space for Moscow. The Central African Republic “has been a kind of testing ground for [the Russians], a place to try out different things,” Lombard said.

Ostensibly, Wagner is in the region to bring security to the Sahel: to succeed where France and the United Nations have failed. Like in the group’s previous deployments to Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, Wagner—and its various affiliated companies—claims to be fighting rebel groups, building domestic security capacity, and carrying out development aid. It has been carrying out those missions, which it bills as explicitly anti-colonialist, in the region since roughly 2017.

There’s some truth to Wagner’s rosy assessment of its work in Africa. Its willingness to conduct dangerous operations—particularly in partnership with the military juntas that rule in Mali and Burkina Faso—is winning over local support.

The Central African Republic, or CAR, has signaled its plans to be a lasting importer of Russian grain and foodstuffs. The republic was one of just 14 countries to vote against a 2022 United Nations resolution calling on Russia to pay war reparations to Ukraine. During a visit from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Mali’s foreign minister pledged to deepen economic ties between the two countries—and blasted Western efforts to sanction Russia. When a coup brought a new military faction to power in Burkina Faso last fall, amid statements of concern from the United States and France, Prigozhin published a statement congratulating the coup plotters and their struggle against “colonialists, who robbed the people.”

As France exits the region, Russia’s successful courting of the Sahel has expanded its illiberal bloc of countries that serve as trading partners and diplomatic colleagues for an otherwise-isolated Moscow.

Untangling Prigozhin’s thicket of private corporations and shell companies deployed to the region suggests some clues about Russia’s broader geostrategic aims—and how it may continue financing its war in Ukraine.

A close watch of Tourist reveals some useful clues from 2021. Freeze frame in a pivotal early scene, when the European puppet-master lands his Cessna aircraft on a desolate road to meet the Catholic powerbroker, and you can just make out the plane’s tail number: RA-67717.

Journalists have followed this plane’s exploits throughout central Africa, linking it, Prigozhin, the Kremlin, and a set of Russian mercenaries and businessmen to various political and business dealings in the region—from negotiating with rebel militias to exploring gold deposits.

Radio Free Europe traced that plane back to a pair of companies connected to Prigozhin: M Finans and Lobaye Invest.

Both companies, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, have been engaged in gold and diamond mining in Sudan and the Central African Republic since at least 2017, and are believed to be owned or controlled by Prigozhin. Both were sanctioned by Washington in 2020.

An investigation from European Investigative Collaborations, the All Eyes On Wagner project and the Dossier Centre revealed ties between Wagner’s work in the Central African Republic and a Russian diamond exporter.

Gold, coffee, wood: Prigozhin’s companies seem interested in a litany of resources that could earn him and his network of companies millions.

The idea that Prigozhin is hunting for riches, perhaps to finance the costly war in Ukraine, is a popular one. But it’s not quite as obvious as it sounds.

“Trying to get diamonds out of the ground in rural CAR, into cash?” said John Lechner, a freelance journalist and researcher who has spent considerable time reporting from the republic. “That’s a lot. That’s complicated.

“A lot of people who try and make money in CAR get their asses handed to them,” he said, adding that many of the mines currently in operation are more artisanal than industrial.

It’s an assessment Lombard shares. “I don’t think that any of it is [a] windfall, in the way that it sometimes gets presented,” she said.

Just because Wagner controls a diamond-producing town, she said, didn’t mean it could easily scale up a whole industry: “There are a fair amount of diamonds in the country—there’s more gold—but it’s very difficult. It’s not exploited on anything but an artisanal basis. So it’s not the kind of industry that you can come in and capture and immediately make tons of money from. And I think that’s probably true for most domains in the country.”

But although exporting goods from the region may be difficult, importing may be substantially easier—especially when it comes to weapons.

A man draped in a Russian flag in Bangui

In 2013, the United Nations passed an arms embargo on the Central African Republic, over protests from the government in the capital Bangui. “The [Central African Republic] government was in a very vulnerable position, and they essentially were looking for approval to buy weapons,” Lechner said. Not long after Wagner troops arrived in the country, Moscow began agitating for a relaxation of the embargo—it succeeded in 2020.

“Russia steps in and says: ‘We know what you want; you want guns. You want direct military assistance, right?’” Lombard said. “And the Central Africans say: ‘Yes, exactly. That is exactly what we want. We want to be able to go out there and fight back and rout the armed groups once and for all.’ And that’s what Russia promised, and that’s what Russia has delivered.”

Not long after, Russian transport planes—the same kind used in the shooting of Touristfull of weapons were dispatched to the republic. Those same Ilyushin IL-76 planes also appeared in last year’s coup in Burkina Faso, loaded with attack helicopters and fighter jets.

Russian shipments of military kit to Cameroon, likely destined for other countries in the region, were intercepted in 2021. A significant shipment of military goods also arrived in Mali earlier this year.

The Kremlin isn’t just exporting hardware. It’s also sending a significant number of personnel.

Photos posted to a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel show a Wagner fighter gifting a watch to local police officers in Bangui. On the watch is the name and emblem of the Officers Union for International Security—a firm being used, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, to “obscure an increase of Wagner Group personnel operating in CAR.” The U.S. government sanctioned the organization in January.

Another sanctioned group, Sewa Security Services, was set up to “provide a veneer of legitimacy for the presence of Wagner Group personnel” in the Central African Republic, according to the Treasury Department.

Regardless, the local government is lauding Russia’s activities in the region. CAR Prime Minister Félix Moloua heaped thanks and praise onto Moscow and Russian trainers during an interview with Russian broadcasters during a visit to St. Petersburg in January. “The people are asking for more of a presence from the Russian government,” he said.

Screenshot from a Russian propaganda cartoon featuring Emmanuel the rat.

In pro-Wagner material, it’s clear who the bad guys are.

In one cartoon, published widely online, a man sits alone at his kitchen table. From a crack in the floorboards, a rat—clad in white-and-blue stripes and a red beret—appears and begins pilfering food.

“It’s Emmanuel the rat; he’s your friend; he’s come to help you,” the kitchen radio says. “You can’t do anything without him. You need him.” The rat gets bigger and bigger. Advancing on the man, the rat threatens: “This is my house now; leave.”

The man calls for backup, which arrives not long later: A soldier with a Wagner Group patch on his arm arrives with a violin case. Inside is a sledgehammer (a not-so-subtle homage to the group’s preferred method of execution). The Wagner fighter attacks the rat, and wins.

Another cartoon, in the same style, shows a Malian fighter using an assault rifle to fight back a horde of French zombies. Just when it seems he’ll be overrun, a Wagner fighter parachutes down from an attack helicopter. “Do you need reinforcements, my friend?” he asks. Together, they lay waste to the zombie horde. When the unnamed French president dispatches a giant killer snake to Burkina Faso, the two soldiers arrive to lend their help. The two-minute video ends with the three men arriving in Côte d’Ivoire.

While it’s unclear whether they were designed by the Wagner Group itself or local groups supportive of the Russian mission, the cartoons certainly hit many of Wagner’s favorite notes.

Much like Tourist—which premiered at the national soccer stadium in Bangui, with some 10,000 people in attendance—these cartoons are part of an effort to normalize Russia’s engagement in the region and reveal some of Moscow’s objectives as it ingratiates itself to governments in the region.

The film, for example, depicts some very real, if exaggerated, events leading up to the 2020 Central African Republic election. The chief villains—a Catholic priest and a Francophone European fixer—mirror Russia’s real-life adversaries in the region. (The Catholic Church has warned about Russia’s growing influence in the region, as the Orthodox Church looks to gain a foothold.)

Prigozhin, before he became Putin’s shadow general, was Moscow’s master of propaganda. It was likely him who financed and set up the Internet Research Agency—the troll farm, advertising, and disinformation operation that aimed to wreak havoc in elections throughout the West.

Those same tactics have popped up throughout Africa. Facebook has taken down coordinated Russian-backed influence operations aimed at the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and elsewhere. As far back as 2020, Prigozhin-linked firms have dispatched influencers, election observers, and pundits to extol Russia’s virtues in the region.

There is no shortage of good visuals for Russia—video of locals throwing stones at departing U.N. vehicles, footage of the waving Russian tricolor, even photos of local women in Wagner Group t-shirts.

One video posted to a Wagner Telegram channel shows a burly man in fatigues jumping, waving his arms, and dancing to “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, joined by a chorus of children. According to the channel, the Wagner “instructors” held the event at a Russian property in Bangui “for the children of local security officials with the participation of the Russian side.”

President of the Central African Republic Jean-Bédel Bokassa is welcomed to Paris by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1969

The current geopolitical tug-of-war happening on the continent is a descendant of the so-called scramble for Africa that began in the 1880s. The mad dash of colonization between then and the start of World War 1 toppled dozens of independent polities, replacing them with European rule. A landbound Russia was left out, but Western Europe profited.

France, even more than other European powers, strove to maintain its influence in the region after countries gained independence in the mid-20th century. In West Africa, it deliberately shaped small nations that would remain dependent on the metropole in Paris, economically and militarily. In the Central African Republic, it lent its enthusiastic support to Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who spent more than a decade as president-then-emperor of the country. Around the same time, Paris substantially reduced foreign aid to anti-colonial revolutionaries such as Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara—many believe his assassination has Paris’ fingerprints on it.

Into the 21st century, and the dawn of the global war on terror, France sent forces into Mali and Chad to fight Islamist groups. Between 1950 and 2020, France undertook more than 50 military interventions into Africa, often to prop up what it saw as friendly elites, including dictators.

That influence permeates the economies in West and Central Africa. The CFA franc, the currency for more than a dozen African nations, has been dubbed “monetary imperialism” due to an array of built-in financial terms advantageous to Paris. Even decades after independence, the French-run oil industry continues to be a dominant player in the region—even though it was caught up in an enormous and long-running graft scheme.

In recent years, renewed secessionist and rebel movements in the area have been just one of many military concerns. Jihadist groups—often affiliated with the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or both—have waged deadly campaigns against civilians and governments. Thousands of French troops, often supported by the European powers and U.N. peacekeeping missions, were deployed to the region.

Those missions have made frustratingly little progress and have led to rising resentment. Violence and instability has risen, and investigations have linked French operations to civilian deaths.

The worsening security atmosphere have led to fractious politics: Coups in Mali in 2020 and Burkina Faso in 2021, and alleged coup attempts in Niger and the Central African Republic, as well as the actual events dramatized in Tourist—are all, at least in part, attributed to the rising violence. Chad’s then-president and a close France ally, Idriss Déby, was actually killed in combat with rebels in 2021.

Over the past year, many of France’s missions have ended. Paris withdrew its forces from Mali last summer with a plan to keep thousands of soldiers in the region—but requests from governments in the Central African Republic and Burkina Faso saw France end missions there earlier this year. It seems only Niger is the last remaining enthusiastic partner of the Élysée.

Lombard said that reckoning had been a long time coming.

“In the post-cold war era, a lot of the donors thought that they could use aid as a kind of carrot to say: ‘We know what’s best for you, and you need to do it or else we won’t give you this money,’” she said. “It’s the eat-your-vegetables approach to rebuilding some of these countries.”

Moscow has been incredibly effective at offering an alternative to that paternalistic approach. “This is where Russia steps in and says: ‘Yes, you’re right; you should have all of those things. And particularly on this military front, but also on other fronts as well,’” Lombard said.

people shop at a market in Bangui in 2014

And when those countries ditched France, Wagner Group was waiting in the wings to take France’s place.

During a segment on the Cameroon-based Panafricanistes TV, citizens of the region called in to voice their frustration with the status quo.

“Why is France refusing to collaborate with Russia?” one caller asked. “It’s simply because France has never wanted to collaborate with Africa. She sees us as slaves.”

Another blasted the recent announcement from Paris that development aid to Mali would be cut off, calling it “punishing.” But, he said, “Mali will overcome and liberate itself completely. Not only Mali, but Niger—we’re calling on all populations in the region. Togo, Benin, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire. Be ready to run France out of all aspects of your life: social, economic, political.” In that vein, he framed Russia as an equal victim of the West’s punitive streak.

Jonathan Batenguene, an analyst for Panafricanistes TV, told Foreign Policy that decades of failure have pushed both populations and governments in the region to look toward “more reliable and efficient partners.”

“When we see France and the [United States[ deploy significant aerial surveillance and airstrikes, for the local populations, the most important question remains: Why is it continuing to make things worse?” he said. “Why aren’t these powers allowing us to curb this problem?”

“For many Francophone Africans, what you name as ‘anti-French propaganda’ is nothing more than a caricature of the desire for total independence of the African people,” Batenguene said.

While there’s little doubt that Russia has launched a charm offensive to win over governments and populations in Africa, Batenguene said it was “racist and imperialist to reason that Africans don’t have the capacity to decrypt the world in which they live, except through the Russians.”

Not everyone has been happy with Russia’s presence. Jihadist militias have started naming the Wagner Group in their videotaped missives. Late last year, a bomb was delivered to a Russian diplomatic outpost in Bangui, injuring a high-ranking Russian official, according to a government statement. But pro-Wagner channels have spun that attack as evidence that the terrorists fear Russian involvement. They have been quick to publicize videotaped threats from jihadist groups against the Russian forces.

A Russian armored personnel carrier drives in the street in Bangui in 2020

In 2019, the Guardian and the Dossier Center published leaked documents detailing the Kremlin’s view of the region. They included Prigozhin’s plans for the Central African Republic, with a goal to “replace national assembly representatives and foreign minister, who are orientated towards France.”

While improved security may be an incidental result of Russia’s presence in the region, there’s reason to think it is not the primary objective. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that U.S. intelligence warned the government in Chad that Russian forces are working with local rebels to destabilize and oust the national government, echoing allegations made by the governing junta.

If Wagner forces are legitimately helping quell the insurgent threat, there is overwhelming evidence that they are doing so with a disregard for innocent life. Investigations from VICE World News and CNN have implicated Wagner troops in perpetrating rape, torture, and murder of civilians in the Central African Republic. Three journalists working on a documentary on the Wagner Group’s presence in the region were murdered by a gang of killers who, according to local reports, spoke neither French nor Sango, the local language. The Armed Conflict Location & Even Data Project has found that Wagner forces have disproportionately targeted civilians in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have both uncovered evidence of human rights abuses by the Wagner Group in the region.

French soldiers of the lower the national flag at their base at Bangui

Batenguene says those investigations and allegations don’t amount to much. “The U.N. is an organization that has been losing credibility in Africa, as a result of its lack of impartiality,” he said, adding that “we don’t talk about the airstrikes that killed 19 civilians, according to a 2021 report from [the U.N.].” He went on to cite allegations, made in a recently published book, that France had been implicated in extrajudicial executions and incarcerations in secret prisons.

Last November, amid a wave of anti-French and pro-Russian protests in Burkina Faso, Lassina Zerbo called the sudden Russophilia “more related to the gap that others are leaving.” Zerbo was elected as the country’s prime minister in 2021 and promptly deposed in a military-backed coup d’état in early 2022—a putsch celebrated by Moscow.

“I’ll give you an example of somebody who had a flag—the Russian flag,” Zerbo said, onstage at the Halifax International Security Forum. He told of a low-level military officer protesting outside the French embassy who was approached by a reporter to ask which flag he was flying. “He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’” Zerbo said. “The reporter asked where he got it. ‘Oh, I was given the flag to just demonstrate.’”

Central Africa, Zerbo argued, is less concerned with strategic games and more concerned with local pressures: development, human rights, economic opportunity, education, and, of course, security. “In the same way that the outcome of the Ukraine war will be the future of democracy, the outcome of the war against terrorists in the Sahel will lead the future of democracy in that region,” he said.

Batenguene said the West failed to appreciate the “powerful wind of liberty blowing across the African continent, which rejects all forms of imperialism.” Russia’s involvement in that trend, he said, was incidental. “Mr. Prigozhin is more popular in Western media than he is on the streets of Africa,” he said.

Russia’s involvement, however, looks set to replicate many of the worst impulses of imperial power in the Sahel and may help keep democracy and liberty down. For the people who actually live in the region, replacing one bad foreign actor with another will be an exercise in frustration.

But even if the local population sours on Russia as it did on France, that won’t be vindication for the West, Lechner said.

Instead, France—as well as other rich countries, NATO, and the United Nations—should recognize its own failures and recognize the limits of its peacekeeping missions.

“I think people have a very legitimate right to question whether there might be better ways of going about these things,” Lechner said. “This should be a reckoning for the West.”

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