The Wagner, War Crimes and Warlord: The case of the Central African Republic

The Wagner Group’s involvement alongside the Russian troops’ capture and the sustained resistance with the Ukrainian forces over the city of Bakhmut in late February this year has further intensified the Russian stronghold in eastern Ukraine. Despite reports of increased Ukrainian forces counterattack on Russian military troops stationed in Bakhmut since May 2023 alongside the continued West sanctions on Russia, the Wagner Group and in extension the Russian economy appears to be unscathed by the Ukrainian military troop offensive.

The Wagner Group; considered separate from the Russian military, as a volunteer organisation has been considered as President Putin’s “private army” founded and backed by Yevgeny Prighozin, a close confidante and a former minister of President Vladimir Putin’s ‘kitchen cabinet’. With the intensification of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the pressures of the campaign alongside the free-will deals between the Wagner and Putin directly have further created a void in relations between the Russian Defence Ministry and Prighozin’s Wagner Group.

The article attempts to connect the Wagner’s increased finances to procure arms and ammunitions without having made any deals (overt or covert) with Sergei Shoigu or his military commander chief Valery Gerasimov. The centre of geopolitical context would shift to the Central African Republic (CAR), where the Wagner’s success in maintaining its security stronghold has been and continues to be unaffected with increased authoritarian political influences in the Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Wagner Group’s exploits across the Sub-Saharan Africa have been staged as a means to protect the citizens from the increased fragmentation caused by inter-clan rivalry that have surfaced from the regional geography and domestic politics of the concerned arena to that of national politics and regime change, in particular. In portrayal of such defensive light, the Group led by its founder-leader Prighozin have taken forward their soft and ‘behind the scenes’ offensive in efforts to finance the Group and the larger Russian offensive moves in the Ukraine War.

While the Wagner Group’s activities in Mali and Libya have been brought to the public light in a phased manner by the Western media in collaboration with the state channels, the Wagner’s exploits in the Sudan crisis as well as the Central African Republic regime have been unable to be deciphered until mid-May this year. There have been reports in the previous years which have briefed on the Wagner and in extension, the Russian involvement in the Sudan political regime in the support of the Rapid Support Forces led by General Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti. Thereafter the connection with the Rapid Support Forces have brought the Wagner mercenary in contact with the large gold mines of Sudan which are wholly controlled by General Hamdan Dagalo. However, the Wagner chief Prigozhin’s statement in March highlighted the Group’s neutrality in the Sudanese crisis of 2023 between the Sudanese National Forces and the Rapid Support Forces.

Coming to our focus of study, the Wagner’s campaign in Central African Republic has been brought to light in May 2023 with the Russian forces’ stronghold in Bakhmut against the phased and slow, yet equally powerful Ukrainian counter-offensive to recapture Bakhmut territory. The central question then arises as to the sources of funding for Wagner’s full-scale campaign in Bakhmut given the increased toll of the year-long war on the Russian economy and yet the projection of an ‘unaffected’ growth rate in Russia.

The answer to this lies in Central African Republic and in particular, its capital city of Bangui. Media reports have claimed that the Wagner Group provides a two-fold service to the country since its arrival in 2018. One, the Wagner Group’s overt assurance of protection of the Republic’s citizens from inter-clan rivalry. Two, the Wagner Group’s assurance to the the President Faustin-Archange Touadera on security protection and regime stability. All these services conveyed in covert return for their control over the Central African Republic’s gold mines and forests.

Some downtrodden communities of the Central African Republic consider the Wagner Group as their saviour in protection against the rival, elite clans that surround the capital city of Bangui. The Wagner uses this opportunity to glorify their strength among the weaker clans in the form of sponsor movies on the Wagner exploits of protection and worship by the minority clans of the Republic.

In the cover for civilian protection, reports have stated the Wagner Group’s outright use of violence tactics to torture civilian-linked gold firms to handover their business, manpower and profits to the Wagner Group. All these activities being approved by the nod of President Faustin of the Central African Republic. There have been instances of civilian victims having escaped from the clutches of the Wagner camps and fleeing out of the Republic into the nearby countries of Cameroon, Gabon and Democratic Republic of Congo.

In similarity with the Wagner Group’s war crime cases in Mali, the mercenary group has inflicted torture and camp custody cum brutal tactics on familial heads of firms dealing in gold mining business. Sources reveal that the Wagner Group adopts the brutal tactic of killing the victim’s close aides and family members. The victim was then brought a so-called Wagner private prison cell in the camp and met with brutal torture techniques that would measure slow, yet painful death of the victim.

According to CBS News, satellite images show the Wagner Group’s development of the Ndassima Gold Mine over which the Wagner has acquired a 25-year mining concession in 2018.

Source: CBS News

Although the Wagner Group does involve in acquisition deals regarding mining and land purchase, reports show the Wagner’s indirect involvement in signing contracts through its shell companies across the Central African Republic.

Among the shell firms owned by the Wagner Group, Midas Resources, Ferrum Mining and Bois Rouge have been found prominent in major gold mining and timber transportation deals across the Sub-Saharan African region countries. The gold mined from Ndassima is loaded onto a Wagner private aircraft stationed every Tuesdays and Saturdays in Bangui M’Poko Airport before it heads to the United Arab Emirates. Within eight hours of halt duration, the gold is supposedly unloaded and subsequently loaded into a Russian aircraft parallelly stationed and is then carried to Moscow. Apart from this, the Wagner has also been involved in timber transportation. The Wagner has been involved in exports of virgin redwood timber trees from the forests of Central African Republic. The collection of redwood timber trees is transported via checkpoints to Cameroon’s Garoua-Mboulai for storage prior to being shipped to foreign clients. The report indicates the mining and timber collection business of the Wagner Group under the government’s approval as indicated by a safe passage approval document demonstrated by drivers of Wagner trucks and stamped by the Central African Republic administration.

The ongoing Russian intervention in Ukraine and the Wagner Group’s increased acquisition of arms and ammunitions into the offensive in Eastern Ukrainian territories surrounding Bakhmut have continued to pressurise the day-to-day sustenance of the downtrodden economies of Sub-Saharan Africa, especially Central African Republic where the ‘poor continue to pay for their own suffering’. This series of Wagner supply chain in Sub-Saharan Africa may also indicate the Wagner Group’s lack of dependence and thereafter interest with mending their relations with the top leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defence, especially with the likes of Defence Minister Shoigu and Commander Gerasimov and thereafter the increased tensions over Prigozhin’s ‘prisoners turned army’ Group mutiny the Russian military in the Eastern Ukrainian battlefield.

Siddharth Shankar
Siddharth Shankar
Mr. Siddharth Shankar is currently pursuing his First Year Masters’ Degree from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, Karnataka. His research area of interest deals with the Geopolitics of Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean and Central Asian geopolitics.