Wagner’s Influence in Central African Republic Wanes as American PMC Enters the Scene

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 19

(Source: Andr.B/Xinhua News Agency)

Executive Summary:

  • President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, nicknamed “President Wagner,” of the Central African Republic (CAR) welcomed the Wagner Group in 2018 but is now “in the process of diversifying its relations.”
  • Wagner’s influence in the CAR has waned following the Prigozhin mutiny despite reassurances from Russian authorities of continued support. For example, Touadéra’s government last year approved a US competitor to Wagner to operate in the country.
  • The situation in the CAR and other countries where Russian private military companies operate is a test of Moscow’s ability to focus on any foreign issue beyond the Ukraine War.

In January, President of the Central African Republic (CAR) Faustin-Archange Touadéra carried out a governmental reshuffle. Touadéra (or “President Wagner” to his detractors) sidelined CAR Prime Minister Félix Moloua, enabling him to reallocate essential posts to cronies, militia leaders, and his mistresses (Corbeau News, January 14). This has further centralized power in the CAR into Touadéra’s hands (Africa News, August 8, 2023). Landlocked, desperately impoverished, and underdeveloped, the CAR hardly seems like a strategic prize. Still, it may soon be the focus of a new “Cold War” struggle for Africa and its resources. Like other former French colonies in Africa, the CAR previously endured security challenges when French military forces withdrew, and Russian “mercenaries” filled the void to replace them.

Touadéra initially welcomed Russia’s Wagner Group to the CAR in 2018. But in December 2023, the CAR’s presidential spokesperson announced that the nation, closely intertwined with the Wagner Group, was now “in the process of diversifying its relations.” The CAR specifically aims to strengthen its armed units. Potential partners included Russia but not the United States, though the spokesman noted that the president was fond of saying: “I have my arms open to work with everyone” (RFI, December 24, 2023).

“Everyone” appears to include Bancroft Global Development (BGD), an US company that works parallel with non-profit organizations and is reputed to be a private military company. Washington-based BGD claims to be present in Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and Libya, delivering “permanent solutions to the economic, environmental, and societal harm caused by armed conflict and the hazardous remnants of war” (Bancroft Global Development, accessed February 7).

Since its arrival, Wagner has become deeply involved across various sectors in the CAR, including diamond and gold extraction, timber harvesting, and alcohol production. Wagner also inserted advisors at the top levels of government and launched intensive propaganda efforts in Sango, the local lingua franca. Russian is taught at a local university, a Bangui (the CAR capital) restaurant serves Russian cuisine, and the construction of a Russian Orthodox church in Bangui has been accompanied by a drive to encourage conversions from the nation’s Roman Catholic majority (Izvestia, May 29, 2023). Russian arms and training have turned elements of the Forces Armées Centrafricaines into armed auxiliaries of the Wagner Group.

After Wagner’s failed June 2023 mutiny and the subsequent death of Wagner strongman Yevgeny Prigozhin, some 450–1,000 Wagner personnel left the CAR without replacement (Radio Ndeke Luka, July 7, 2023; AFP, July 7, 2023). Russian authorities traveled to Bangui last September to assure CAR officials that the Russian mission there would continue under the authority of the Russian Defense Ministry. Denis Vladimirovich Pavlov replaced Vitaly Perfilev, a former French Foreign Legionnaire, as security director. Pavlov is not a part of Wagner but is instead from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (Radio Ndeke Luka, December 17, 2022; Izvestia, May 29, 2023; All Eyes on Wagner, December 7, 2023). Dmitry Sytii, a victim of a 2022 parcel-bomb attack that both Prigozhin and the CAR blamed on France, was replaced as Maison Russe’s director but remained to manage Wagner’s business interests (RFI, December 18, 2023).

Last May, the CAR ambassador to Russia mentioned Bangui’s intention to establish a Russian military base “where there could be from 5 to 10 thousand soldiers. Moreover, they could be used in other countries if necessary” (Izvestia, May 29, 2023). On January 26, Russian ambassador to the CAR Alexander Bikantov said that the size and location of the planned base had yet to be determined (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 26).

Washington allegedly broached the idea of US military training and humanitarian aid. As outlined in a memorandum passed to the CAR president at the December 2022 United States-Africa conference, this was conditional on the withdrawal of Wagner from the CAR within 12 months. The CAR’s foreign minister denied the existence of this memo, though she did admit to having established a “cooperative relationship” with the United States (Radio Ndeke Luka,March 3, 2023).

Rumors of the existence of the US memorandum led to protests against the departure of Wagner and a supposed US assault on CAR sovereignty (Radio Ndeke Luka, March 3, 2023; Corbeau News, January 25). Russian reports echoed earlier French claims that BGD employees were seeking land near the capital for the operation of surveillance drones and the training of a CAR military unit that would protect US mining concessions (RFI, December 18, 2023; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 23, 2023). One newly formed pro-Russian civil society group described the “deployment of Bancroft mercenaries” as an “official declaration of war on the Central African people” (RFI, January 26). Wagner’s propaganda machine in Bangui has warned of US plans to assassinate President Touadéra (RFI, December 18, 2023).

BGD founder Michael Stock and Franco-South African Richard Rouget visited the CAR last September. Contacts with BGD are reported to be handled by two close advisors to President Touadéra (RFI, December 18, 2023). Though BGD has been tight-lipped regarding its association with the CAR, confirmation of a deal with BGD was issued by a presidential spokesman on December 22, 2023 (Radio Ndeke Luka, December 23, 2023).

Perhaps sensing fissures in the regime’s stability, Touadéra’s rule has been challenged by two former prime ministers, Martin Ziguélé (2001-2003) and Henri-Marie Dondra (2021-2022) (Jeune Afrique, December 20, 2023; Jeune Afrique, January 5). Like most other CAR opposition figures, these former prime ministers must operate in exile following detentions and intimidation efforts by Wagner personnel. Nonetheless, most opposition leaders see the arrival of BGD as a means of preserving the regime’s power rather than the people’s security (Radio Ndeke Luka, December 30, 2023).

There has been much talk of the CAR’s new “security diversification strategy,” though it is unrealistic to imagine Russian and US military personnel happily running parallel security and training operations in Bangui. The Russian Defense Ministry’s commitment to foreign adventures initiated by Prighozin’s Wagner Group in Africa will be tested in the near future as the United States becomes more involved in the region.