Russia's influence in the Central African Republic is growing as the country grapples with insurgents, according to the International Crisis Group. The CAR government hired the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary contractor for security. But Wagner's alleged rights violations against killing civilians, aid workers, and journalists have caused tensions with CAR's western supporters and uproar at home.
In the CAR, the civilian population continues to suffer at the hands of armed groups in parts of the country. Last week a rebel attack in the northwest killed at least 30 people.
And from January to November, there were 387 violent incidents against humanitarian workers, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The central African nation is seeing an increase in violence as government forces supported by Russian fighters battle rebel groups who oppose President Faustin-Archange Touadera rule.
The CAR hired the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary contractor for security.
Pauline Bax, a senior editor and policy advisor at the International Crisis Group, says the mercenaries and other fighters have helped keep the current government in power.
“A lot of the fighters are not necessarily Russians. There is a Libyan contingent. There are Syrian fighters, people from Ukraine and Chechnya fighters as well. It’s hard to get any clear idea what exactly they do in the countryside, but they have been very successful in repelling rebels from most of the major towns. And this Wagner force together with the national army has managed to secure a lot of mining zones as well as major towns in the country which was unprecedented; this hasn’t happened in the Central African Republic in the last 20 years,” she expressed.
In January, the government forces and Russian soldiers carried out a counteroffensive against armed groups known as the Coalition of Patriots for Change, pushing them out of the capital, Bangui.
But reports of civilian abuses by the Russian mercenary group and government forces have overshadowed successes.
In a June report, UN investigators highlighted human rights abuses and excessive force committed by the Russian mercenaries.
The human rights researchers report showed six civilians were killed inside a mosque in Bambari and three others were killed in Ippy town. Two of them were individuals with disabilities.
The Russians arrived in the Central African Republic in 2017 after the meeting between President Faustin-Archange Touadera and Russia’s foreign minister.
Russian donated weapons to CAR’s weak military and provided 175 military instructors. Since then, the number of Russian instructors has grown to 1,200.
Tobias Wellner is a sub-Saharan Africa senior intelligence analyst with Dragonfly Intelligence, a group that works on global security and political risks. He says that Wagner group records in other countries show they work with Russia’s security systems.
“For some of Wagner’s actions, for example, in Ukraine and Syria, there has been certain support between Wagner’s mercenary forces and Russian troops. To a certain degree, we can say Russia is probably using Wagner as a foreign policy tool; it allows Russians to deepen connections and defense resource sectors where Wagner is operating,” he pointed out.
The group’s security service has attracted some African governments like Mali and Sudan.
Wellner says governments who lack proper governance structure will attract mercenary groups who are accountable to no one.
“Mercenaries companies work for money and don’t ask questions about democracy like military training and support missions paid by western governments would. Wagner’s advantage as the Russian company is probably also that within Russia there are less questions asked about the company, so there is less scrutiny for Wagner as a private company back at home in Russia,” he said.
The group was deployed in Mozambique to combat the Islamic State terror group operating in the country’s north. The Wagner group evacuated its fighters in November 2019, after dozens of them were killed.
In the Central African Republic, rebel groups are gathering again to fight the government troops and Russians.
Bax of ICG says the existence of rebels in the country poses a threat to the government.
“Now the rebels are gathering more in strength and launching ambushes on army forces and mercenaries' troops as well and increasingly using Improvised Explosive Devices. So, a lot of the fighting continues to this day in areas that are very remote and hard to access, and the general understanding is that if the mercenary force would no longer be there, there will be a clear threat to the government and President Touadera,” he noted.
Some experts say Russia’s influence in Africa is limited, unlike the Chinese, who are involved in infrastructure projects and trade, and Western governments that help fund many governments projects.