DOGS OF WAR IN AFRICA
Wagner mercenaries have entirely captured Central African Republic, The Sentry report finds
Wagner mercenaries are committing widespread atrocities including murder, rape and torture against civilians in the war-torn state, says a new report.
Wagner, the Russian mercenary company which launched a brief rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government over the weekend, has captured the Central African Republic (CAR) and is conducting a campaign of terror to keep the country’s president in power so it can continue to plunder mineral resources.
Over the past five years, Wagner, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin has insidiously gained almost complete control of CAR’s entire security apparatus and is using it to eliminate opponents of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra or anyone who tries to stop Wagner itself seizing gold mines and other loot, according to a major report by The Sentry published today (Tuesday, 27 June).
The report, Architects of Terror: The Wagner Group’s Blueprint for State Capture in the Central African Republic, meticulously details how Wagner operatives – masquerading as “Russian military instructors” – first set foot in the chronically chaotic former French colony in 2018 and then systematically infiltrated the various arms of the security structure – or created new ones – to prop up the shaky president.
It was here that 15 South African soldiers were killed in March 2013 when they were overrun by Seleka rebels racing to topple the then president, François Bozizé.
Wagner stepped into the chaos to help Touadéra tighten his grip on power. But the result “was a campaign of terror”, The Sentry says.
It notes that armed groups on both sides continued to commit atrocities against civilians and that partly as a result, 5.6% of CAR’s population died in 2022, “more than twice as high as estimates for any other country in the world”.
But the Touadéra regime, backed by Wagner, is committing most of the atrocities, the report found, perpetrating “widespread, systematic, and well-planned campaigns of mass killing, torture, and rape throughout the country” under the cover of a counteroffensive against anti-Touadéra armed groups.
Part of the aim has been to terrorise political and military opponents and the wider population to accept the authority of the government and its Wagner backers. To “annihilate” Touadéra’s opponents – and also the ethnic groups which are perceived to support them – Wagner has deployed at least 2,600 troops who participate in atrocities themselves and have also trained and outfitted a parallel army of about a dozen new military units which it commands.
The Sentry was told that Wagner’s motto is “leave no trace”— in other words, kill everyone, including women and children. It says Wagner fighters, CAR soldiers, and militiamen trained by Wagner have committed crimes “that could qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
Putin’s private army
The report describes the Wagner group as “Vladimir Putin’s private army”, in part because it helped him counter the influence of Western power in CAR – where it displaced France – and elsewhere in Africa.
Wagner certainly seemed to be Putin’s private army until last Friday, 23 June, when Wagner’s financier and founder Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an insurrection in Russia, leading his fighters to within 330km of Moscow before clinching a peace deal with Putin and turning back.
Under the deal, Prigozhin has been banished to Belarus and has agreed to dissolve Wagner, according to some reports. But it is still uncertain how Prigozhin’s aborted rebellion or coup might affect Wagner’s operations in Africa, not only in CAR but also in Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan, among the countries where it exerts considerable influence.
The basic deal in these countries is that Wagner provides ruthless security to prop up undemocratic leaders and is rewarded mostly with mining concessions.
The Sentry says its report is based on more than 45 interviews, including with 11 soldiers of the CAR military and some militiamen. It says that apart from targeting the Fulani, Gbaya and Muslim communities from which the armed opposition draws most of its support, Wagner has launched several violent military campaigns to drive artisanal miners and other civilians away from mainly gold and diamond mines so it can seize them for itself.
The main prize for Wagner has been the Ndassima mine in central CAR, with gold deposits estimated at some $2.8-billion. The report notes that the CAR transferred the mine from the Canadian company Axmin Inc to Wagner’s Midas Resources in 2020, “apparently without legal basis”.
“In CAR, Wagner has perfected a blueprint for state capture, supporting a criminalized state hijacked by the Central African president and his inner circle, amassing military power, securing access to and plundering precious minerals, and subduing the population with terror,” the report concludes.
It recommends that the United Nations should establish a coalition similar to the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS – critically including African states – “to counter the Wagner Group’s malign influence on the African continent and elsewhere”.
It has also proposed that the US, UK, European Union, Canada, Japan and other countries should widen sanctions against Wagner and the individuals and entities in Touadéra’s inner circle.
And it recommends the US, the EU and the UK should designate Wagner as a terrorist group.
The Sentry’s report notes that the December 2020 elections were a turning point in Wagner’s terror campaign in CAR. Russia and Wagner worked to ensure Touadéra’s re-election, including by persuading the strongest militias and politicians to back him.
But the main political opposition leaders rejected the election as rigged and on 13 January, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), a coalition of armed groups led by former president Bozizé, launched an offensive on Bangui to try to disrupt election outcomes and overthrow Touadéra.
In response, Russia deployed an extra 900 “instructors,” bringing the total number of Wagner mercenaries to 2,600 at the end of 2021, The Sentry says.
UN reports confirmed that Russia also delivered heavy military equipment, including combat helicopters, aircraft, ground vehicles, reconnaissance drones and heavy weapons.
Vladimir Titorenko, Russia’s ambassador to CAR, declared in 2021 that “Russian instructors” – ie, Wagner mercenaries – would remain in CAR “until the CPC rebels and armed group bandits are completely annihilated”, the report says.
Mass summary executions
A UN group of experts warned in March 2021 that in the wake of these deployments, the CAR military and Wagner fighters were committing “mass summary executions, arbitrary detentions, torture during interrogations, forced disappearances, forced displacement of the civilian population, indiscriminate targeting of civilian facilities, violations of the right to health, and increasing attacks on humanitarian actors”.
But Bozizé’s CPC managed to withstand this onslaught, resorting to guerrilla tactics, as an EU report observed. In response, Touadéra and Wagner began to recruit hundreds more militiamen, including ex-CPC combatants.
The report says CAR military informants told The Sentry that since 2018, Wagner instructors had been training the CAR military at the Berengo military base 65km from Bangui, in “firearm training, hand-to-hand combat, and espionage, interrogation, and torture techniques”.
The report agreed with a November 2021 EU assessment that most deployed CAR military units “are operating under direct command or supervision by WG [Wagner] mercenaries”.
Contradicting most assessments that Touadéra is a hostage to Wagner, The Sentry said the president was still very much in charge, making the big decisions himself, but largely acting through Wagner to implement them, partly because he didn’t trust his own military, but also because he wished to keep his hand hidden.
Many military sources who had been on operations told the report’s authors that Wagner’s mottos are “cleansing” and “sweeping”. They said their Russian commanders had ordered them “to “cleanse” or “sweep” entire herders’ camps, villages, rural areas, and – significantly – mining sites throughout the country.”
This included killing entire communities, including women and children, burying them in mass graves or just dumping them in the bush.
“When we’re on a sweeping mission, we kill everything that moves,” a member of the Presidential Guard told the authors.
One such massacre by Wagner, national armed forces and militias was launched against the village of Boyo, about 240km northeast of Bangui in December 2021, aimed, The Sentry heard, at punishing Muslims and members of the Fulani ethnic group for supporting the CPC opposition.
The report said a UN investigation had estimated that at least 20 civilians had been killed, but The Sentry said perpetrators and victims it had spoken to put the toll much higher, at between 60 and 100.
The report agreed with a UN report that members of the Fulani and Gbaya ethnic groups – as well as Muslims – were bearing the brunt of many such massacres because of their perceived opposition sympathies, and characterised this as “ethnic cleansing”.
The report heard that “large-scale and systematic” rape against men and women was being used by Wagner and government soldiers and militia “as a form of psychological warfare to terrify and subdue entire communities”.
The authors reported that some senior government officials appeared entirely unashamed of what was being done. They said that in 2022, Fidèle Gouandjika, a ministerial adviser to Touadéra, had told Dutch media that “with our Russian partners… it is a surgical strike. That is to say, annihilate them… So it’s a physical elimination. Completely. And as brutal as possible.”
Gouandjika told The Sentry that the “brave” Wagner soldiers had enabled the reconquest of towns and villages “once occupied by terrorists who used to rape our women, wives, daughters and massacre defenceless peasants, burn down the houses and granaries of farmers and plundered cattle from herders”.
The report notes that in 2021, Justice Minister Arnaud Djoubaye Abazène confirmed a UN report that national armed forces, “Russian mercenaries” and the opposition CPC had committed human rights violations. DM