🔒 Premium from the FT: Wagner faces challenge in its African stronghold as CAR vote looms

By Andres Schipani in Nairobi for the Financial Times

Wagner is facing its first big test in Africa since Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny, as the Russian mercenary group attempts to shore up the Central African Republic’s ruler during a divisive referendum.

President Faustin-Archange Touadéra has called a controversial vote on July 30 to override the CAR’s constitutional bar on running for a third term, raising tensions in a country that has been battling rebel groups for a decade.

___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Touadéra owes his survival to the Wagner fighters who arrived in 2018 to instruct the CAR army and helped thwart an attempted rebellion two years later.

CAR has since become a vehicle for Russia’s African ambitions and a “client state” of Moscow, according to western diplomats in the capital Bangui, amid speculation that Touadéra is now a hostage of the Wagner fighters who provide his personal security, alongside Rwandan soldiers.

Read more: Wagner in SA: “Extremely likely” to meddle in election

The Russian mercenaries have been accused of serious human rights violations in CAR, including the massacre of civilians.

Wagner’s ability to continue providing security services to African countries has been cast into doubt since Prigozhin’s failed rebellion last month. Vladimir Putin initially branded the Wagner boss “a traitor” for his aborted march to Moscow but later dropped all charges.

“The rebel coalition remains very fragmented but they might take advantage of the security vacuum left by Wagner to take back control of some areas,” said Enrica Picco, director of Central Africa at the Crisis Group think-tank.

Diplomats and security officials in Bangui have confirmed that 200-600 Wagner personnel had left CAR over the past week.

Some have suggested their departure could be a routine redeployment or related to the onset of the rainy season, although Wagner’s commander in CAR denied there had been any change.

Read more: Premium from the FT – The myth of autocratic competence takes another hit

“We’re still in Bangui and the provinces,” Vitali Perfilev told the Financial Times from the capital. “There are no problems, we stay in Africa.”

Wagner has a similar security deal with the military junta in Mali that hired the mercenaries in 2021 to fight a long-running jihadist insurgency. The military company also has a relationship with Burkina Faso and elements inside Libya and Sudan.

Ben Wilson Ngassan, spokesman for the G-16 civil society group opposed to the constitutional change, spoke of a “feeling of dread” in CAR over any weakening of the Wagner force, as it would leave the capital vulnerable to rebel attacks.

The UN has warned of security concerns and the potential for violence around the referendum. Touadéra has ramped up arrests of possible dissidents in recent weeks to combat growing unrest, according to analysts.

The fate of Wagner’s overseas operations remains uncertain. The Kremlin acknowledgment that Putin held face-to-face talks with Prigozhin and Wagner leaders could signal Moscow’s openness to the Wagner continuing operations overseas.

Read more: Premium from the FT: Putin system crumbling – after march on Moscow things won’t ‘normalise’

Alexander Ivanov, head of Russia’s Officer’s Union for International Security, the group that sent in the military instructors after the deal with Touadéra, said this weekend that Wagner “remains in the CAR so the inhabitants can sleep peacefully”.

“I spoke with Yevgeny Prigozhin and he confirmed that aid to CAR would continue in full,” he added.

Fidèle Gouandjika, a senior adviser to Touadéra, shrugged off security concerns around the referendum. “The Wagners are not there to secure the elections, they’re there to fight the rebel groups,” he said, adding it was the job of UN peacekeepers to safeguard the vote.

“If the Kremlin decides the Russian instructors return to Russia, then Russia will fill the gap with other soldiers,” Gouandjika said of any Wagner departures. “Our agreement must continue . . . We’re been reassured by the Kremlin.”

Foreign officials say any withdrawal of Wagner personnel may be a ploy aimed at forcing Touadéra to pay them more for their services. Wagner has already taken control of lucrative gold and diamond mines in CAR as payment for its security services. The US last month placed sanctions on a group of companies in CAR it accused of being connected to Wagner.

Even after any withdrawal, Wagner would still have about 1,000 Russian mercenaries in CAR, analysts say, along with the local former rebels it hires for particular missions. “The bulk of Wagner forces are still there and will contribute to secure strategic locations,” said Picco.

Read also: