The Wagner Group Must Leave the Central African Republic
The activities of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic (CAR) must be stopped immediately. Though it styles itself as a private security company, the Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization made up of tens of thousands of mercenaries. In fact, it is often referred to as “Putin’s Private Army” (Faulkner). The Group first entered the CAR in 2018. Initially, its activities were building a cultural center and making several deals to gain access to mining sites, including the lucrative Ndassima gold mine. Then, the President of the CAR, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, turned to the Wagner Group for help with controlling various rebel groups within the country. While it may seem strange that a foreign group has been able to conduct such activities inside a sovereign country, it is important to note that the situation in the CAR is highly unusual. The government relies heavily on both international peacekeepers and mercenaries in order to keep control of Bangui, the capital city. However, the Wagner Group’s so-called security measures have resulted in thousands of human rights violations. United Nations experts have documented mass shootings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and attacks on civilian facilities by the Wagner Group, and yet they largely act with impunity (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).
The CAR is incredibly rich in natural resources. The country has ample amounts of diamonds, uranium, gold, oil, and forestry products. Yet it is one of the poorest countries in the world (The World Bank in Central African Republic). The CAR was colonized by France in 1894, at which time it was known as the Ubang-Shari territories. It became an independent nation in 1960. But even after its independence, France still continued to exert influence and meddle in the CAR’s affairs. Civil war and rebellions have plagued the country since the 2000s and UN peacekeeping forces have been engaged at various points in time. In 2013, following a coup and the outbreak of a civil war, France sent up to 1,600 troops to the country. However, the presence of French troops in the CAR stoked anti-French sentiments among its residents, many of whom still recall the horrors of French colonialism. Much of the French political establishment has not come to terms with the country’s colonial legacy and simply does not understand the damage that colonialism inflicted around the world. As a result, Russia and the Wagner Group have been able to position themselves as an alternative to France for restoring order in the CAR. Indeed, Russia has effectively positioned itself to Africans as anti-colonial as it did not colonize African countries as France and other European countries had done (McGlynn).
In truth, the Wagner Group is more colonial in nature than the private security firm it portrays itself as. By aligning with the Russian government, it is actually supporting an imperialist agenda. This glaring hypocrisy plays out in Russia’s imperialist past and present-day actions. Direct Russian imperialism included conquests in Europe, Asia, and even North America, as most of Alaska was once part of the Russian empire (Kassymbekova).
Indirectly, the Soviet Union supported several authoritarian regimes around the world, helping them to oppress millions of people. Further, Russia’s justifications for its war on Ukraine rely on classic imperialist talking points, such as denying Ukraine’s statehood and patronizingly claiming to be liberating Ukraine from itself. According to various military intelligence sources including the U.S. Pentagon, the Wagner Group has approximately 50,000 mercenaries fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russia. Despite Russia’s imperialistic actions and use of the Wagner Group to execute its agenda, they both claim to be anti-colonial. The problem in Africa, however, is that the Wagner Group is simply supplanting French imperialism with Russian imperialism by exploiting the natural resources of the countries where it operates for Russia’s gain. According to the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, “the Wagner Group of mercenaries are exploiting natural resources” and she states “Make no mistake: people across Africa are paying a heavy price for the Wagner Group’s exploitative practices and human rights violations” (The Guardian).
But due to the French colonial legacy in the Central African Republic and the Wagner Group’s proclaimed anti-colonial sentiments, many of its citizens are willing to look the other way and embrace the Wagner Group. For example, on the popular Lengo Songo radio station in Bangui, Honore Bendoit, a sub-prefect in the regional capital of Bria, stated that “When your house is burning, you don’t mind the color of the water used to put out the fire … We have calm thanks to the Russians. They are violent and they are efficient.” At the same time, there have been vocal dissenting voices such as Abdoul Aziz Sali, a mining economist, who said that “They are arrogant and violent. When they come to a meeting, they do not even sit down.” Marcelin Eenjikele, a journalist for Radio Lengo Songo, revealed that journalists “have to ask permission of [their] Russian controllers” in order to let outside journalists in. Further, United Nations experts have documented arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances, summary executions, sexual violence, and rape (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner). This has included, for example, the beating and killing of 13 unarmed civilians on July 21, 2021, and the massacre of 10 to 15 civilians in April 2022 (African Defense Forum).
Disturbingly, Wagner Group also has Neo-Nazi and white supremacist elements – the group is documented to have ties to Russia’s far-right. There is also speculation that the group chose its name precisely because the German composer Richard Wagner was Adolph Hitler’s favorite composer (Ling) (The Economist).
Wagner Group’s involvement in the Central African Republic is part of a larger Russian agenda (Wall Street Journal). First, as discussed above, the group is inextricably tied to the Russian government and Putin. The U.S. Treasury, in recent sanctions, describes it as a Russian proxy. The founder of Wagner Group is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man who is nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” (U.S. Department of Treasury ). He is an ex-convict, having been convicted of various crimes during the days of the Soviet Union, including robbery and theft. However, he was pardoned in 1988. Since his release from prison, he opened several restaurants and cultivated ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He then founded Wagner Group in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea. The U.S. has accused him of orchestrating interference during the 2016 elections (Law). The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) posits that “the Wagner mercenary group, the Wagner private military group, is the most influential Russian actor operating in Africa today, and that its activities and the network of front companies that bolster it are a malign influence on the continent” (Ehl).
Russia’s “Africa strategy” involves a multi-prong agenda formed in part to reduce U.S. and European influences and to “project power on the world stage” especially in the United Nations (Adibe). Russia is seeking to assert itself using soft power throughout Africa as an anti-imperialist force. For example, on its South African consular social media account the Russian Embassy states, “Russia was among the few world powers that neither had colonies in Africa or elsewhere nor participated in [the] slave trade throughout its history. Russia helped, in every possible way, the peoples of the African continent to attain their freedom and sovereignty” (McGlynn). By distancing itself from the tyranny of colonialism by the West, Russia has sought to align itself with the struggles of African countries against Western influence, and also to distinguish its own imperialism as exceptional.
Further, Russia seeks Africa’s rich natural resources (Adibe). And while Russia is writing a separate narrative for why African countries like the CAR should see it as an ally, it is ultimately exploiting the country for its own gain, much like the European colonizers before it. In exchange for providing the CAR with security forces, the Wagner Group has been granted access to the country’s gold mines. Given its close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, it is inevitable that the profits that the Wagner Group reaps in the Central African Republic will go towards furthering Putin’s imperialist agendas.
Third, Russia is creating dependency by providing African nations with arms and security, the latter often provided by the Wagner Group (Adibe). But, since the Wagner Group is technically a private company, this allows the Russian government plausible deniability (Rácz). Thus, the Russian government can claim that they are not affiliated with the Wagner Group and thus not liable for Wagner’s human rights violations, even as Wagner advances the interests of the government.
The activities of the Wagner Group are exploitative and a form of neocolonialism. It is estimated that Wagner could amass a profit of almost $1 billion from mining, which it would likely use to obtain new weapons and recruit more fighters (Politico). This money should go to the people of the Central African Republic, not to a transnational criminal organization to use to further its activities.
Wagner and other mercenaries must leave the CAR in order to increase stability in the country. The country would be better served by United Nations peacekeeping forces and other diplomatic channels to restore order instead of mercenary fighters that commit human rights violations without any recourse. Further, as the Wagner Group is largely a front for Russia and Vladimir Putin, it is critical for the CAR government to exercise control and prevent Russian imperialism from taking hold.
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