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

Eurasia Daily Monitor 21(19)

February 7, 2024

Andrew McGregor

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 the CAR’s relations.
  • Wagner’s influence in the CAR has waned following the Prigozhin mutiny despite assurances 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.

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Landlocked, desperately impoverished and development-free, the Central African Republic (CAR) hardly seems like a strategic prize, but 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 has endured security challenges as French military forces withdrew and Russian “mercenaries” flowed in to replace them.

CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra

Russia’s Wagner Group was initially welcomed to the CAR in 2018 by President Faustin Archange Touadéra, who carried out a January reshuffle of the government in which important posts were reallocated to cronies, militia leaders and mistresses of the president (Corbeau News [Bangui], January 14).

Last December, the CAR’s presidential spokesman announced that the nation, so closely intertwined with the Wagner Group, was now “in the process of diversifying its relations,” especially in the area of strengthening its armed units. Potential partners named included Russia, but not the United States, though the spokesman noted 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 American NGO reputed to be a private military contractor (PMC). The Washington-based BGD claims a presence in Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Libya, delivering “permanent solutions to the economic, environmental and societal harm cause by armed conflict and the hazardous remnants of war” (Bancroft Global Development website).

Since its arrival, Wagner has become deeply involved in the CAR’s diamond and gold sectors, timber extraction and alcohol production. Wagner also inserted advisors at top government levels and launched intensive propaganda efforts in Sango, the local lingua franca. Russian is taught at the local university, a Bangui restaurant serves Russian cuisine and the construction of a Russian Orthodox church is Bangui is 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 (FACA) into armed auxiliaries of the Wagner Group.

Colonel Denis Pavlov, SVR (Alleyesonwagner)

After Wagner’s failed June 2023 mutiny and the subsequent death of Wagner strongman Prigozhin, some 450 to one thousand Wagner personnel left CAR without replacement (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], 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, but under the authority of the Russian Defense Ministry. Denis Vladimirovich Pavlov replaced Vitaly Perfilev (a former French Foreign Legionnaire) as security director, while Dmitry Sytii (victim of a 2022 parcel-bomb attack that both Prigozhin and the CAR blamed on France) was replaced as Maison Russe director but remained on to manage Wagner business interests (RFI, December 18, 2023). Pavlov is not a Wagner man, but is instead from the SVR, Russia’s external intelligence agency (Alleyesonwagner.org./RFE/RFL, December 7, 2023; Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], December 17, 2022; Izvestia, May 29, 2023).

Last May, the CAR ambassador to Russia mentioned Bangui’s intention to establish a Russian military base “where there could be from five to ten 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).

“Russia, the CAR is with you” (al-Jazeera)

Washington is alleged to have first broached the idea of American military training and humanitarian aid in exchange for a Wagner withdrawal within 12 months in a memo passed to the CAR president at the December 2022 United States-Africa conference. The existence of this memo was denied by the CAR’s foreign minister, though she did admit to the establishment of a “cooperative relationship” with the US (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], March 3, 2023).

Rumors of the existence of the US memorandum led to protests against the departure of Wagner and a supposed American assault on CAR sovereignty Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], March 3, 2023; Corbeau News [Bangui], 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 American mining concessions (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 23, 2023; RFI, December 18, 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 American plans to assassinate President Toudéra (RFI, December 18, 2023).

Michael Stock in Somalia (WSJ)

BGD founder, Michael Stock, and Franco-South African Richard Rouget, a former associate of French mercenary Bob Denard, 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 (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], December 23, 2023).

Richard Rouget, a.k.a. “Colonel Sanders”

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

There has been much talk of the CAR’s new “security diversification strategy,” though it is unrealistic to imagine Russian and American military personnel happily running parallel security and training operations in Bangui; there are limits to diversity. What will be tested in the coming days is the Russian Defense Ministry’s commitment to foreign adventures initiated by Prighozin’s free-booting Wagner Group.

Assessing the War in Sudan: Is an RSF Victory in Sight?

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor 21(24)

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

December 15, 2023

After eight months of brutal warfare, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) now appear to have the upper hand against the better-armed Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Led by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” the RSF has conducted a highly mobile campaign against the SAF’s reactive and defensive posture, allowing the group to take the initiative in all regions of the conflict. With the Sudanese capital of Khartoum now a devastated battlefield, the ineffective government, led by SAF commander-in-chief General Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, operates from a temporary base in Port Sudan, which suffers from power shortages and a chronic lack of fresh water.

Peace talks in Jeddah between the two military factions, assisted by Saudi, American, and African Union mediators, were indefinitely suspended earlier this month after both sides failed to meet commitments agreed upon in earlier negotiations (al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], December 4; Africa News, December 5). The animosity between the factions is severe and historically based in the rivalry between the poor Arab tribesmen of western Sudan (the RSF) and the Arab elites of the Nile region who have controlled Sudan and its military since the country gained independence in 1956.

RSF Commander General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

Resistance to the RSF onslaught is weakening at all levels, placing Sudan’s diverse population at risk of rule by Arab supremacists with a record of savage conduct and a general ignorance of the means of development, administrative techniques, economic theory, and international relations.

The Impending RSF Conquest of Darfur

Four of Darfur’s five states, comprising nearly 80 percent of the western province, are now in RSF hands. North Darfur state and its capital, al-Fashir, may be the RSF’s next target. Al-Fashir is strategically and symbolically important as the former capital of the once powerful Fur Sultanate (c.1650-1916). Security in North Darfur is provided largely by the Joint Protection Force (JPF), an alliance of five non-Arab armed movements that has been busy recruiting in the region in anticipation of an RSF offensive. The RSF has also been recruiting from the region’s Arab population, setting the stage for a vicious ethnic conflict that will inevitably result in the mass slaughter and displacement of many of North Darfur’s civilians. Convoys bringing supplies to North Darfur from central Sudan have stopped, creating shortages of food, fuel, and medicines (Sudan Tribune, December 7).

JEM Leader Jibril Ibrahim (Sudan Tribune)

Two major armed movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army of Minni Minawi (SLA-MM), abandoned their self-declared neutrality on November 16 to announce their support for the SAF. Both groups also declared their willingness “to participate in military operations on all fronts without hesitation” (Radio Dabanga, November 17). JEM leader Jibril Ibrahim also condemned the RSF’s use of Arab mercenaries from Chad and Niger who have been promised the right to settle on land cleared of its non-Arab residents. The declaration followed months of murder and rape inflicted by the RSF on the non-Arab Black population of Darfur. The most notable atrocity involved the murder of some 1,300 civilians (mostly Masalit, an ethnic group in western Sudan and eastern Chad) in a camp for displaced people in West Darfur. The RSF attack began on November 2 and only ended three days later (Al Jazeera, November 10). The non-Arab Masalit have been targeted by the RSF and Arab militias since the start of the war in what appears to be an effort to ethnically cleanse the region of its indigenous Black population (see Terrorism Monitor, June 26).

Zaghawa Nomads (X)

Despite their small numbers, the ambitious Black African Zaghawa ethnic group plays a leading role in Darfur’s anti-government opposition. SLA-MM leader Minni Minawi, JEM leader Jibril Ibrahim, and al-Tahir Hajar, leader of the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), are all Zaghawa. During the fighting for Nyala, RSF gunmen were accused of assassinating prominent members of the Zaghawa community (Sudan Tribune, September 16).

Darfur Governor and SLA-MM Leader Minni Minawi (AFP)

Minni Minawi, governor of Darfur since August 2021, remains wary of the SAF, which continues to be commanded by members of Sudan’s riverine Arab elite. The rank-and-file troops are composed of conscripts from other regions, including many non-Arabs. Without substantial reforms to the composition of the SAF, Minawi notes its victory might only mean a return to an oppressive status quo (Sudan War Monitor, December 4).

RSF’s Series of Conquests

Under pressure from the RSF, garrisons across Darfur have fallen like dominos. Nyala, Sudan’s second-largest city, is the capital of South Darfur and an important military strongpoint. It fell after a long siege followed by a four-day assault that ended on October 26, killing hundreds of civilians during the shelling of the city (Asharq al-Awsat, October 29).

Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, was lost after the SAF’s 21st Infantry Division fled on October 31, allowing the RSF to walk in. Al-Geneina, capital of West Darfur, was taken by the RSF on November 4 after most of the 15th Division garrison fled, leaving hundreds of troops and weapons behind. Masalit civilians and captured troops were abused, whipped, and forced to run barefoot through the rubble (Sudan War Monitor, November 6). Gathering smaller garrisons along the way, the remaining defenders fled to Chad, where they were disarmed and interned. Elsewhere in South Darfur, officers have changed into civilian clothes and made for the border with South Sudan (Sudan War Monitor, November 27).

SAF Leader General al-Burhan (BBC)

As it consolidates control of Darfur, the RSF is now poised to begin operations against al-Ubayd, the capital of neighboring North Kordofan. The RSF has already driven away the SAF’s garrison in the western Kordofan town of al-Mojalid and the nearby Balila oilfield (a joint Sudanese-Chinese project), despite intensive airstrikes by the SAF (Asharq al-Awsat, October 31; al-Taghayeer [Khartoum], November 27).

Where Do Armed Opposition Movements Stand?

The war of the generals has finally shattered the hard-won 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA), which promised a new era of peace in Sudan by reconciling the government with the nation’s leading rebel movements. However, two of the most powerful movements rejected the process entirely. In practice, the JPA has been described as “a mechanism to disburse political patronage to a few key rebel leaders.” [1]

One of the principal armed movements in Darfur is the largely Fur-based Sudan Liberation Army of Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLA-AW). The group helped launch the 2003 rebel attacks on the SAF that sparked nearly two decades of war in Darfur (Darfur means “abode of the Fur”). The movement was not a signatory to the JPA and is not part of North Darfur’s Joint Protection Force. Nonetheless, General Yusuf Karjakula led a group of SLA-AW fighters from its Jabal Marra stronghold to al-Fashir in late November where they deployed to protect IDP camps from RSF assaults (Sudan Tribune, December 3). The general also met with SAF and JPF commanders, suggesting the SLA-AW may be considering joint operations to defend al-Fashir despite long-standing distrust of the SAF.

Many of the armed opposition movements have begun to split internally over the issue of alignment with the RSF or the SAF (for the rebel movements, see Terrorism Monitor, August 8). Even Minni Minawi’s faction of the SLA is experiencing divisions between its SAF-supporting leader and its military commander, General Juma Haggar, who supports the RSF (Sudan War Monitor, December 4). The Sudan Liberation Army-Transitional Council (SLA-TC), led by Al-Hadi Idris Yahya Farajallah, is considered close to the RSF, though the movement’s vice-president, Salah al-Din Abdel-Rahman al-Ma’rouf “Salah Rasas,” is considered to be a supporter of the SAF (Sudan War Monitor, December 4). A new faction of JEM under Sulayman Sandal Haggar split from the movement in August 2023 after some JEM members charged leader Jibril Ibrahim with backing the SAF (Darfur24, August 30).

Some rebel leaders are attempting to remain neutral, like Al-Tahir Abu Bakr Hajar, leader of the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), though some of his men were reported among the defenders of Nyala (Sudan War Monitor, October 26).

Foreign Intervention in the Sudan Conflict

There are allegations of foreign interference in the conflict, notably support for the RSF from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia’s Wagner Group, as well as Ukrainian support for General al-Burhan’s SAF.

Alleged Ukrainian Sniper on Ridge Northwest of Omdurman (Bellingcat)

Al-Burhan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in Ireland on September 23 to discuss responses to the pro-RSF activities of the Russian Wagner Group in Sudan (Kyiv Independent, September 23; Sudan Tribune, September 23). The meeting came days after the release of videos alleged to show Ukrainian drone attacks on RSF forces in the Sudanese capital (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 14). Since then, videos have emerged of Ukrainian snipers operating in the hills northwest of Omdurman, as geolocated by independent investigative collective Bellingcat (Bellingcat.com, October 7). There have also been videos released on November 6, allegedly showing personnel of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Intelligence engaging with RSF fighters, Wagner personnel, and members of Russia’s special forces in the Sudanese city of Omdurman (Kyiv Post, November 6; Sudan War Monitor, November 10).

Journalists seeking confirmation or denial of these activities have been referred to the words of Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service HUR MOU (Holovne upravlinnja rozvidky Ministerstva oborony Ukrajiny), who stated last May that “we have killed Russians and will continue to kill Russians anywhere in the world, until the complete victory of Ukraine” (New Voice of Ukraine, May 17). RSF leader Hemetti has expressed his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his paramilitary force is alleged to have engaged in gold smuggling with Wagner operatives in exchange for arms and advisors.

Small operations of the type allegedly engaged in by Ukraine in Sudan ultimately have little influence on the outcome of the war. However, they do diminish the local reputation of Wagner operatives who have helped finance Russia’s war in Ukraine by smuggling gold from regions of western Sudan under RSF control.

General Yassir al-Atta

General Yassir al-Atta (deputy to al-Burhan) stated that military intelligence and diplomatic sources had confirmed that the UAE was shipping supplies to the RSF through neighboring countries, including Chad. The allegation was denied by authorities in the UAE (Radio Tamazuj [Juba], November 29). The UAE is Sudan’s main trading partner, has been a major investor in Sudan in recent years, and is the primary destination for gold smuggled out of western Sudan. Al-Atta’s description of the UAE as a “mafia-state” led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two countries (Radio Dabanga, December 11).

Atta’s remarks also incensed Chadian authorities. On December 11, they demanded an official Sudanese apology for claiming the UAE had been allowed to ship weapons and munitions to the RSF through Chad. N’Djamena promised to take “measures” if the apology did not come within three days (Sudan Tribune, December 11). Darfur governor Minni Minawi had already accused Chadian authorities of allowing the passage of arms and mercenaries through Chad to the RSF in mid-November (Radio Dabanga, November 17).

There are further allegations that the Zaghawa generals who control Chad’s powerful military are annoyed by the UAE’s support of the mainly-Arab RSF and are providing clandestine support to their Zaghawa kinsmen in JEM and the SLA-MM (Sudan Tribune, December 7).

Destruction of Khartoum

Little remains in SAF hands in Khartoum other than the much-battered army headquarters and a small patch of Khartoum North (Bahri) connected by the SAF-controlled Blue Nile rail bridge. Khartoum’s al-Jaili refinery, the largest fuel production facility in Sudan, was destroyed in a bombing on December 6, the fourth such bombing of that location since the war began. Both the RSF and the SAF accuse the other of being responsible for the destruction (Sudan Tribune, December 6). RSF posts are dispersed throughout Khartoum; in the SAF’s attempt to find and destroy them, large parts of the city have been smashed by airstrikes and artillery, including many of its most notable buildings.

The RSF now controls all of Khartoum State, with the exception of the SAF-controlled pockets in Khartoum and northern Omdurman. RSF patrols have been spotted recently in eastern Sudan, possibly preparing the way for an occupation of that region. Twenty-five miles south of Khartoum, the strategic Jabal Awliya military base and airport fell on November 20 after a siege and two-day assault, removing a major obstacle to a RSF incursion into White Nile State (Radio Dabanga, November 21).

Conclusion

The SAF is highly demoralized and suffers from high rates of desertion and defection. Resistance to the RSF is collapsing in many parts of the country, diminishing hopes for a negotiated settlement. There are thousands of dead, soldiers and civilians alike. The country’s GDP is expected to decline by 18 percent this year due to the war (Africa News, October 12), with over half the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Six million Sudanese are displaced and cut off from normal avenues of support. As famine approaches, the only trade activity that still works is the import and distribution of arms, despite an international embargo.

Civilian groups that had previously discovered the power of the people when overthrowing President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 have now discovered that they have zero influence in the current military power struggle. Most alarming is the emergence of patterns of ethnic and tribal violence that have ways of resisting political settlement while perpetuating grievances both new and traditional. Focused on self-enrichment, the RSF’s barely literate leadership has no rational plan for reviving the state. There is little chance that the RSF’s military success can translate into a brighter future for Sudan’s 46 million people.

Note:

[1] Amar Jamal, “Key Actors in the Juba Peace Agreement: Roles, Impacts and Lessons,” Rift Valley Institute Research Report, September 14, 2023, p.16, https://riftvalley.net/sites/default/files/publication-documents/RVI%202023.09.14%20Key%20Actors%20in%20the%20JPA.pdf

Warlords and Mercenaries in Central Africa: The Struggle for Power in Chad and the Central African Republic – Part One

Part One – Why is Chad’s New Intelligence Director a Fulani Warlord Convicted of War Crimes?

The answer involves Russian mercenaries, the battle-death of an African strongman and a struggle between Paris and Moscow for influence in Africa.

Dr. Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 6, 2022

Introduction

Chad and its southern neighbor, the Central African Republic (CAR), have been closely connected since the 18th and 19th centuries, when the old Muslim sultanates now incorporated into Chad treated the savannas and forests as a source of slaves and ivory. In the CAR, exploitation by the sultanates was followed by French colonial occupation and decades of post-independence misrule enabled by French neocolonialism, including the bizarre and bloody rule of “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa. The legacy of these destructive activities is that the CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world.

Despite this, the instability in the CAR attracts mercenaries, bandits and rebels, including many who straddle the line between these occupations. Chadians have long been prominent in these “trades” in the CAR but their influence has been challenged by the arrival of Russian mercenaries operating with the approval of the CAR government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. While the trade in slaves and ivory has passed, there are new possibilities in the land-locked nation for riches in diamonds, gold and other minerals, though development of the mining sector remains constrained by insecurity, high start-up costs, lack of transportation infrastructure and a local labor force familiar only with subsistence farming, herding and artisanal mining.

FACA Patrol at the CAR-Chad Border (Accueil)

Both Chad and the CAR exist as a legacy of French colonialism, both incorporating a variety of ethnic groups inside borders drawn by the French and their colonial counterparts in Africa.  One prominent group common to the borderlands between the two nations is the Fulani, an almost exclusively Muslim ethnic group that has spread across the Sahel. Comprised of an estimated 25 million people, many of the Fulani continue to follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle centered on herding cattle. [1] At a time when pressure on water resources and pastureland is increasing, the herders have come into conflict with agriculturalists dependent on the same resources. What was once a low-scale conflict has been greatly exacerbated by the influx of modern arms into the Sahel, with individual murders now replaced by massacres and cycles of brutal retaliation.

General Abdalkadar Baba Laddé

One individual who has tried to profit from the insecurity along the Chad/CAR border is “General” Mahamat Abdalkadar Oumar, better known by his nickname Baba Laddé (“father of the bush,” a Fula language term for a male lion). A warlord and highwayman (locally coupeur de route) with political pretensions, Baba Laddé now finds himself in the center of the border conflict and a larger struggle between traditional French influence and that of upstart Russian forces operating to the north of Chad in Libya, and south of Chad in the CAR. Baba Laddé belongs to the Mbororo (a.k.a. Wodaabe) branch of the Fulani, a nomadic sub-group of the Fulani best known for their adherence to Fulani customs and a traditional way of life focused on cattle-herding.

Having been sprung from a stretch of incarceration in some of Chad’s grimmest prisons, the 52-year-old Fulani warlord was appointed Chad’s new director of intelligence (officially Directeur général des renseignements généraux) on October 14, 2021. The general’s appointment indicates N’Djamena’s desire to focus on threats from its southern border, a region where troops of the Force Armée Centrafricaine (FACA – Armed Forces of Central Africa) carry out operations against Muslim rebel movements with support from Rwandan special forces and some 2,000 Russian mercenaries. When a variety of rebel movements joined forces in late 2020, they nearly succeeded in taking Bangui, the CAR capital. However, FACA’s foreign allies and troops of the UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR stopped the rebel offensive on the outskirts of Bangui on January 13, 2021. A government counter-offensive succeeded in driving most of the rebels back into the bush or across the border into Chad in the following months. Baba Laddé has support in his new role from the Fulani president of Nigeria, Muhammad Buhari.

The International Response to the Crisis in the CAR

In response to the communal violence sparked by the 2013 takeover of the CAR by Séléka (a coalition of Muslim rebel movements), France deployed troops in the CAR through Operation Sangaris from 2013 to 2016. The force was withdrawn amidst controversy over a UN report claiming sexual abuse of children by French troops (as well as African troops) and was replaced by a 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA). At present, the UN mission consists solely of African and Asian peacekeeping contingents. These operate under a mandate to support the deployment of CAR security forces or to engage in joint operations with FACA designed to restore security. Complicating the relationship is the fact that FACA rarely moves out of its bases unless it is accompanied by Russian mercenaries or Rwandan Special Forces operating outside of any UN framework.

The French ended their military cooperation with the Touadéra regime in June 2021, but continue to run a logistics mission in Bangui and contribute military trainers to the European Union Training Mission (EUTM). Created in 2016, the EUTM’s mandate to provide military and ethical training to CAR troops has been renewed until November 12, 2022. MINUSCA does not conduct any military training.

The total number of personnel in MINUSCA, including soldiers, police, prison guards and civilians, is just over 19,000 in a mission that now costs over $1 billion per year (Le Quotidien [Dakar], January 19, 2022). Like its predecessors, the peacekeeping mission has been plagued by continuing allegations of sexual abuse of civilians. In mid-September, 2021, the entire Gabonese deployment was sent home after charges of sexual exploitation (UN News, December 11, 2021).

“Father of the Bush” – A Rebel Turns Regime Supporter

After 14 years of open rebellion to the regime of President Idriss Déby Itno of Chad, Baba Laddé surrendered in September 2012, but efforts at reintegration failed and he fled Chad for other parts of Africa before being persuaded to return in 2014. An archetypal African strongman, Idriss Déby (Bidayat/Zaghawa), chief-of-staff of the Chadian army, became president in 1990 after mounting a coup against his former patron, President Hissène Habré (Akanaza Tubu). Habré died of Covid-19 in August 2021 while serving a life sentence in Senegal for sadistic behavior and crimes against humanity that left as many as 40,000 dead during his presidency.

In July 2014, Baba Laddé was made prefect of Grande Sido, a department of Moyen-Chari province bordering the Central African Republic. The region was home to thousands of Muslim refugees from the CAR. Baba Laddé was dismissed in November 2014 when President Déby swept many governors out of office. Popular in Grande Sido, Baba Laddé used the confusion of local protests against his removal to escape a military convoy sent to arrest him on December 1, though his wife and bodyguard were severely beaten by enraged troops (RFI, December 3, 2014).

MINUSCA arrested the fugitive warlord a week later. Following the detention, his supporters demanded his release as a political refugee who feared for his life in Chad and should be given the opportunity of seeking political asylum elsewhere. In an open letter to MINUSCA, Shaykh Aboulanwar Djarma, opposition figure and former mayor of N’Djamena, expressed the opinion held by Baba Laddé’s friends:

If we cannot deny that some of Baba Laddé’s men have committed criminal acts, these were never ordered by Baba Laddé; on the contrary, he has always repressed those of his fighters who were perpetrators of such acts. The Chadian opposition has evidence of this, and several states also have in their possession evidence that exonerates Baba Laddé of criminal acts (Centrafrique-presse, December 12, 2014).

Nonetheless, MINUSCA sent Baba Laddé to Chad in January 2015, where he was confined in the notorious Koro Toro desert prison. The extradition marked a temporary end to Baba Laddé’s efforts to overthrow the governments of Chad and the CAR.  Many of his fighters joined the recently formed Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique (UPC) rebel group, led by Baba Laddé’s former lieutenant, Ali Darassa Mahamat, a Fulani specialist in guerrilla tactics.

In early 2018, the still untried Baba Laddé became seriously ill in prison, but was not included in a general amnesty for former rebels in May 2018. In the same year, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries expressed concerns regarding human rights violations and long-term detentions without due process at the Koro Toro prison. [2] Finally convicted and found guilty of rape, arson, armed robbery, criminal conspiracy and illegal possession of weapons after nearly four years in detention without trial, Baba Laddé was sentenced to eight years in December 2018 (Tchadinfos, December 6, 2018).

Surprisingly, the warlord’s reconciliation with the Déby regime began before Idriss died on the battlefield. Baba Laddé’s sentence was commuted by the president on August 10, 2020 and he was freed the following September 7. It was a major shift in the late president’s interaction with Baba Laddé, whom he had previously described as nothing more than a highwayman. With rising tensions along the southern border with the CAR, Déby likely began to see the value in an asset with intimate knowledge of the border region and all those operating in it.

Still wary of the regime that had suddenly released him, Baba Laddé quickly left Chad. While living in Dakar after his release, Baba Laddé attempted to file papers for a run as candidate for the Front Populaire pour le Redressement (FPR) in the April 2021 presidential election, but was rejected by the Supreme Court of Chad on the grounds his party was not recognized. Laddé complained at the time that authorities sought to “criminalize” him by “wanting to create a rupture between the Popular Front for Recovery [FPR] and Chadian national opinion” (Jeune Afrique, March 11, 2021).

During the 2021 elections, Idriss announced his intention in March of doing something that still seemed unthinkable – bringing Baba Laddé back to Chad and into the fold of the regime. Shortly after this, Baba Laddé announced that he was abandoning the armed struggle against the Déby regime and would support the president’s re-election campaign: “I made the choice of peace. That’s what made me come back. Not just for Chad but for the sub-region… So, I came home, just to support [Déby] because he keeps the peace” (RFI, April 4, 2021).

In late January 2022, the members of Baba Laddé’s FPR gathered in Mandoul region (on Chad’s southern border with the CAR), sparking fears in some quarters that they intended to form a militia acting in parallel to the national army. The movement in turn announced that the FPR fighters were only assembling prior to demobilization or integration into the national army according to the terms of Baba Laddé’s agreement with former president Idriss Déby (Alwihda Info [N’Djamena], January 27, 2022).

Baba Laddé and the Fulani

Through convenience or in an effort to provide some political/ideological legitimacy to his armed movement, Baba Laddé has often posed as a defender of the Fulani people, though he has rarely expressed any type of ideology surrounding this standpoint.

In December 2011, Baba Laddé issued an open letter “to the People of Azawad” (northern Mali) that helped define his approach to the issues of the Fulani and their place in the ethno-political structure of the Sahel. Baba Laddé urged an alliance between the Fulani, the Tuareg, al-Qaeda, Ogaden separatists and the Saharan Polisario. He also expressed his support of Mali’s Songhay and Fulani-dominated Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias “because these people are afraid, afraid of being dominated, of being second-class citizens in an independent Azawad.” (Jeune Afrique, December 23, 2011). [3]

Baba Laddé, asserting that not all of Africa’s problems are due to European-imposed borders drawn without reference to local ethnic groups, suggested that federalism may provide a means of restoring the great multi-ethnic states of the past: “Let us remember the empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, the Almoravids. All of these pre-colonial states were multi-ethnic. There have always been states in Africa and they have always been multiethnic and that’s an abundance of wealth!”

Turning to the issue of violent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and agricultural communities across the Sahel, Baba Laddé offered a slogan rather than a solution: “Farmers and breeders must be united. In the Central African Republic, in Chad and in Azawad.” Though admitting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are ideologically in error, the Fulani warlord spoke sympathetically of their struggle: “Seeing the disastrous world where capitalism, perverse sexuality and corruption reign, they chose to destroy this world. Seventy years ago, they would have been communists, 110 years ago they would have been anarchists, in 2011 they are Salafi-Jihadists” (Centrafrique-presse, December 8, 2011).

In September 2021, Baba Laddé claimed to have been informed by a number of rebel movements in Mali that they would take up arms again if Russian mercenaries arrived in Mali, a decision based partly on what they had seen of the Russians in the CAR. The warlord called for a broad Fulani resistance to Russian expansion in the Sahel:

All the Central African communities are victims of the barbaric exactions of the Wagner mercenaries, but particularly the Muslims and even more particularly the Fulani civilians… We call on all Fulani, friends of the Fulani or more simply those attached to human rights to mobilize against Wagner… The fight is total against the Wagner mercenaries and the local allies of these barbarians (Corbeaunews, September 24, 2021).

There are many, however, who consider Baba Laddé’s ventures into ethnic politics a convenient cover for his illegal activities. The late Idriss Déby questioned Baba Laddé’s political credibility, insisting he was nothing more than “a former Chadian gendarme who became a coupeur de route [highwayman] and trafficker in ivory. He is not a rebel, as some media claim, but a great bandit. This kind of character does not constitute a threat to Chad. For the Central African Republic, maybe” (Vanguard [Lagos], December 6, 2021).

Death of a President

Even as president, Idriss Déby kept a tight rein on the military by remaining both a general and Chad’s defense minister. In these capacities he continued to take to the field to lead important operations in person, such as the March 2021 offensive against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region. Déby’s presence there was required to bolster Chadian forces after a disastrous March 23 defeat of a garrison of largely inexperienced troops at the hands of Boko Haram on Lake Chad’s Bohoma Peninsula. One hundred Chadian troops were killed and 24 armored vehicles destroyed by the Bakura faction of Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li al-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (the original faction of Boko Haram, led by Abubakar Shekau until his death in May 2021). The Bakura faction is led by a Nigerian, Ibrahim Bakura “Doron.”

Only a few weeks later, President Déby’s rule was challenged from the north in the form of an offensive by the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Change and Concord in Chad), a Libyan-based movement of anti-Déby rebels from northern Chad. FACT was created by Mahamat Mahdi Ali in March 2016 and is dedicated to the overthrow of the Déby regime. Only one week after securing his election to another 5-year term, President Déby arrived at the frontline, but was mortally wounded by FACT rebels in the Kanem region of Chad on April 18, 2021. There was wide speculation that the FACT fighters were trained by Russian mercenaries in Libya (The Times [London], April 23, 2021; NYT, April 22, 2021; Foreign Policy, November 30, 2020). While confirmation was elusive, the claims were well-noted in N’Djamena.

During their long stay in Libya, Chadian FACT fighters were employed as mercenaries by Russian-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called “Libyan National Army” (LNA). Backed by Egypt, the UAE and Russia, Hafter, a self-appointed “field marshal,” armed the Chadians and housed them at al-Jufra Airbase, the main base of the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries operating in Libya (Al-Araby, May 6, 2021). FACT’s association with the Russians was criticized by Baba Laddé: “FACT claims to want democracy. But Wagner will only ally with a rebellion if they are sure a dictator will take over and let them plunder the resources” (Corbeaunews, September 24, 2021).

In a bizarre incident, ten Russians were detained in June 2021 by Chadian police in a military operational zone in Kanem, close to where President Déby was killed in April. Though fighting in the region between Government troops and Libyan-based rebels had ceased only a month before, the Russians insisted they had organized a trip to a remote part of Chad because it “was very interesting” and “very rich in natural sites.” The wayward tourists, the apparent vanguard of a previously unknown Russian interest in touring “natural sites” in Chadian war-zones, were escorted to N’Djamena “for their own safety” and flown back to Moscow (Reuters, June 25, 2021).

A Family Dynasty in Chad?

With the quiet support of Paris, the late president’s son and commander of the presidential guard, Mahamat Idriss Déby “Kaka” (Zaghawa/Gura’an Tubu) seized power in N’Djamena with a group of loyal officers, citing “extraordinary circumstances” that necessitated defiance of the CAR Constitution, according to which the President of the National Assembly would become temporary head-of-state until early democratic elections could be organized. [3] According to Mahamat Idriss, the president of the national assembly “refused to take office and no one could force him to become the head of state against his will. You are free to ask him about this” (Africa Report, June 30, 2021).

CMT President Mahamat Idriss Deby (Vincent Fournier for Jeune Afrique).

Mahamat dissolved the legislature, replacing it with a Conseil Militaire de Transition (CMT -Transitional Military Council) with himself as president that would oversee the nation until elections in 18-months’ time. Since then, the CMT has begun pressing for a five-year transition period.

Chad’s leaders often have connections through marriage to leading figures in neighboring Darfur and the CAR; Mahamat is married to the daughter of Abakar Sabone, a spokesman for the CPC rebel coalition and former advisor to Séléka leader and former CAR president Michel Am-Nondokro Djotodia.

Abdelkerim Idriss Déby, half-brother to Mahamat, graduated from West Point in 2014. He became hugely influential in the administration and was the man to talk to for investments and project approvals under his father’s rule. He continues to play this role in the CMT and works closely with Mahamat.

General Taher Erda

Mahamat Idriss also has the support of powerful figures such as General Daoud Yaya Brahim, the CMT’s defense minister, and General Bichara Issa Djadallah, a Rizayqi Arab, chief-of-staff under Idriss Déby and cousin of Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti” (the number two man in the Sudanese military junta). Another Déby family loyalist in the CMT is General Taher Erda, a Zaghawa and the new commander of the presidential guard. Loyal to Idriss since 1989, he is related to veteran Zaghawa rebels and twin brothers Tom and Timan Erdimi. In the often-small world of Chadian politics, the Erdimis are cousins of Mahamat Idriss. Timan is the leader in Qatari exile of the Chadian rebel Union des Forces de Résistance (UFR). Tom disappeared in late 2020 while staying in Egypt, but was discovered alive this month in Egypt’s notorious Tura prison (south of Cairo) by a relative accompanying a visit by Mahamat Idriss to the Egyptian capital (RFI, January 18, 2022). [5] Steps are being taken to obtain his release.

Chad is unaccustomed to worrying about a threat from the southeast, where the region that now forms the CAR was an established source of slaves, ivory and other resources for Chad’s Muslims and the Arab and African tribes of Darfur. Now facing an assertive military alliance of CAR regulars, Rwandan Special Forces and Russian mercenaries, Chad’s CMT would like to avoid threats from the southeast while it keeps forces available for regional counter-terrorism commitments and to protect Chad’s northern border from further incursions by rebel forces, especially those suspected of having some degree of training or support from Russian contractors. [6] Regarding the presence of Russian “Wagner Group” mercenaries in the CAR, Chad’s foreign minister, Cherif Mahamat Zene, stated: “external interference, wherever it comes from, poses a very serious problem for the stability and security of my country… There are Russian mercenaries present in Libya, who are also present in the Central African Republic” (UN/AFP, September 24, 2021).

The Wagner Group is a firm of private military contractors (PMCs) established in 2014 by Dimitri Utkin, a Special Forces and GRU veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars (where his call sign was “Wagner”), though the outfit is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a leading Russian businessman and Kremlin insider with close connections to President Putin. The company, together with several other Russian PMCs, provides openings for Russian political and economic influence in various conflict zones while providing deniability for the Kremlin, which routinely disavows any knowledge of their activities. Besides the CAR, the Wagner Group operates in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Sudan; it has recently been engaged by Mali’s new military government. Burkina Faso might be next; the new ruling military junta there is headed by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who was previously unsuccessful in persuading the nation’s former civilian government to allow the entry of Russian mercenaries to combat Islamist extremists.

Chad’s foreign minister added that the May 30 attack border on a Chadian village near the CAR border was “backed” by Russian mercenaries and also claimed that the FACT rebels who killed President Idriss in April were trained by the Wagner Group (AFP, September 24, 2021). Though not referring to Russia by name, defense minister General Daoud Yaya Brahim alleged that the “death of our Marshal, weapon in hand” occurred when Chad was “attacked by some powers, we think, by big countries” (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], September 25, 2021).

Chad’s military rulers are in the midst of a diplomatic campaign to convince its neighbors, military partners and aid sources that their intentions are benign and dedicated to the restoration of democracy in Chad (if Idriss Déby’s regime could be called democratic). To this end, the CMT has made a number of moves intended to generate acceptance of the military junta.

Goukouni Waday

Concerned with the growing Russian influence in both Libya and the CAR, the military council in Chad declared a general amnesty for members of the armed opposition on November 29, 2021. The intent was to promote a resolution to the seemingly endless rebellion so greater strategic threats may be addressed. Responsibility for Qatar-sponsored peace talks was given in late November to Goukouni Waday (or Ouddei), former president of Chad and leader (derde) of the Teda Tubu. Goukouni is well-suited to lead the talks, respected for being part of the royal Tumaghera clan of the Teda Tubu and for having fought in many of Chad’s civil conflicts alongside or against (sometimes both) many of the imprisoned or exiled rebel leaders. Many political prisoners of the Idriss Déby regime were behind bars for “crimes of opinion.” The recommendations of Goukouni’s committee for nearly 300 pardons and amnesties were largely approved, with pardons issued to major rebel leaders, including Mahamat Nouri Allatchi (Anakaza branch of the Daza Tubu), leader of the Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD) rebel coalition, Abakar Tollimi (Bidayat/Zaghawa), president of the Conseil National de la Resistance pour la Democratie (CNRD) and Adouma Hassaballah Djadalrab, former head of the Union des forces pour le changement et la démocratie (UFCD), who has been held in the cells of the secret police in N’Djamena since his extradition from Ethiopia in 2011 (Jeune Afrique, November 24, 2021).

Besides the armed groups, there is also a civil political opposition that rejects the takeover by Mahamat Idriss and the CMT. One of its leaders is economist and politician Succès Masra, who was prevented from running against Idriss Déby in the April 11 election.  Masra has pointed out that Mahamat’s succession contravenes the constitution; he and his movement, Les Transformateurs, seek a ban on military officers like Mahamat from running for the presidency, though it may be some time before there is another election. Mahamat Idriss has insisted that “the members of the CMT will not stand for election once their mission has been accomplished” (Africa Report, June 30, 2021). Since the CMT coup, most of the opposition parties have been legalized, including Les Transformateurs.

The Chadian Army

In September 2021 Chad’s defense ministry announced its intention of nearly doubling the size of the Armée Nationale Tchadienne (ANT) to a force of 60,000 troops by the end of 2022. According to General Daoud Yaya Brahim, “the objective is to build elites capable of adapting to the asymmetric warfare our Sahel countries are facing” (Reuters, September 25, 2021).

The army’s reliance on the culturally similar Zaghawa and Tubu minorities of northern Chad for military leadership and recruits for its better-trained and better-paid elite units can create dissension in the ranks and risks to field operations; in 2019, there were two incidents in which northern troops refused to engage relatives in the armed opposition, which is also composed mainly of Zaghawa and Tubu tribesmen. The Chadian minority of African Christian and animist ethnic-groups in southern Chad has played only a minor role in Chad’s military, political or armed opposition leadership since the overthrow of President François Tombalbaye (ethnic Sara) in 1975.

Chad is an important member of both the G5-Sahel, a counter-terrorist and development alliance that also includes Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a counter-terrorist military alliance battling Islamist extremists in the Lake Chad region. The MNJTF includes Chad, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.

Chad is also a major contributor of troops to peacekeeping missions in the CAR (MINUSCA) and Mali (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali – MINUSMA).

Ali Darassa Mahamat – Baba Laddé’s Successor

Many African states have limited ability to deliver security to their citizens, especially those where militaries are weak, resources scarce, borders porous, officials corrupt or incompetent and the landscape favorable to banditry or prolonged insurgencies. Rebels have their own challenges, notably in securing steady sources of food, arms, munitions and recruits, so that conflicts tend to drag on for years without conclusion. Eventually both sides adjust to the semi-permanent state of conflict and learn to profit from the instability at the expense of the people both sides pretend to be rescuing. At this point the only apparent chance of restoring peace is to reward rebels and bush warlords with integration into the state security services or administrative structure, often with an understanding they will still be able to carry on their most profitable sidelines.

General Ali Darassa (REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun)

Such was the case with the Khartoum peace accord signed in February 2019 (the Accord politique pour la paix et la réconciliation – APPR) by the CAR government and some 14 rebel movements, including the leaders of the main Muslim armed groups in the country. Baba Laddé‘s successor, ‘Ali Darassa Mahamat, leader of the UPC, Mahamat al-Khatim (a.k.a. Mamahat al-Hissène), leader of the Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC), and Sidiki Abass (a.k.a. Bi Sidi Souleymane), leader of the Retour, Récupération, Réhabilitation (3R) movement, were all made “special military advisors to the office of the prime minister [Firmin Ngrebada at the time]” despite allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As called for in the Khartoum Accord, their men were supposed to be integrated into “special mixed units” with FACA regulars. Each rebel leader was given responsibility in the zone they used to control as insurgents, a frightening prospect for residents who hoped the peace deal would remove the warlords from their regions rather than entrench them with official sanction. The mixed units of rebels and FACA regulars were resisted by Touadéra and never implemented, leaving thousands of gunmen to their own devices while their leaders enjoyed the perks of being a cabinet minister in Bangui.

Darassa’s mainly Mbororo Fulani UPC movement has had repeated clashes with CAR security forces and MINUSCA peacekeepers in the Ouaka prefecture of south-central CAR, especially around the city of Bambari, capital of Ouaka. A raid by Portuguese paratroopers attached to MINUSCA destroyed the UPC headquarters at nearby Bokolobo in January 2019.

Darassa abandoned the Khartoum Accord in August 2020. Shortly afterwards, CAR National Assembly deputy Martin Ziguele accused Darassa of keeping the population of over a dozen towns and villages in slavery, as well as being responsible for the assassination of four Catholic priests (Humanglemedia, August 5, 2020).

The UPC and five other rebel groups formed the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC) on December 15, 2020, with the declared aim of overthrowing President Touadera. However, Ali Darassa announced the UPC’s withdrawal from the CPC in 2021, citing the continuing suffering of the civilian population from political violence. In November 2021, Ali Darassa accused the Wagner Group of committing a series of murders and massacres of CAR civilians, many of them targeting ethnic Fulanis (Corbeaunews-Centrafrique [Bangui],  November 30, 2021). However, Ali Darassa’s complaints failed to shift attention from himself and US sanctions were imposed on him on December 16, 2021 in consequence of the UPC’s own “brutal atrocities against civilians” (Reuters, December 17, 2021).

The UPC appears to have been the target of a disinformation campaign when a recent press release bearing the UPC logo announced the dissolution of the UPC. Ali Darassa responded with his own “disclaimer letter” denouncing the “gross lie” perpetrated by President Touadera, the Wagner “killing machine” and livestock minister Hassan Bouba Ali, the “traitor and bastard” of the Fulani community.  Darassa promised the UPC was ready to liberate the Central African people from Touadéra and his “blood-drinking allies” (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 4, 2022). Bouba was earlier condemned by Baba Laddé in September 2021 as “an accomplice in the massacre of his own people” (Corbeaunews, September 24, 2021).

Darassa’s attack on Hassan Bouba was not surprising; Bouba was formerly the number two man in the UPC. A Fulani livestock-trader and former member of Chad’s secret police, Bouba was once close to Baba Laddé. Bouba’s appointment to the government as the UPC’s representative (the Khartoum Accord having called for rebel representation in the government) angered Darassa, who had lost trust in Bouba and opposed his appointment. As Livestock Minister, Bouba acted as the government’s main mediator with the rebels and was its main source of intelligence on rebel activities. Nonetheless, Bouba was arrested in November 2021 in connection to his alleged role in ordering a massacre of 112 civilians at a refugee camp in 2018 (Justiceinfo.net, November 23 2021). Bouba, considered close to the Russian mission, was the only individual actually arrested out of 25 arrest warrants issued for individuals accused of crimes against humanity in the CAR. Instead of facing charges at the Cour pénale spéciale (CPS – Special Criminal Court, a hybrid chamber of local and international magistrates intended to deal with war crimes in the CAR), Bouba was freed by the gendarmes a week later and awarded the National Order of Merit by President Touadéra on November 29, 2021 (Le Monde/AFP, December 8, 2021). The sequence of events confirmed the impunity enjoyed by pro-government warlords and militias.

In recent weeks, UPC operations in Basse-Kotto prefecture (east of Darassa’s stronghold in Ouaka prefecture) have been hampered by a wave of defections and the surrender of “Colonel” Sallé Ali, who claimed Darassa suspected him of being in league with FACA (Radio Nedeke Luka [Bangui], January 7, 2022).

A leading UPC official, Mahamat Abdoulaye Garba, was arrested at the beginning of February. Under interrogation, he confessed to working as an agent of the French Embassy and a conduit for messages from the French to Ali Darassa. Mahamat Abdoulaye was reported to have implicated Baba Laddé in a pro-French conspiracy and to have asked Darassa on behalf of the French what it would take for Darassa to appeal to all Fulani to join a battle against FACA and its Russian allies (Nouvellesplus, February 3, 2022). Seeing a Russian hand in the arrest and interrogation, Darassa responded to the allegations with a press release condemning the Wagner Group’s attempts to “tarnish the image” of France, the Chadian state and its director of intelligence and investigations, General Baba Laddé (Corbeaunews, February 5, 2022).

For Part Two, see:  https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4756

Notes

  1. The Fulani speak a common language (known as Fula, Fulfulde or Pulaar) but are known by several other names in their broad geographical range from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, including Fulbe, Fula, Peul, Peulh, and Fellata. It should be noted that in the 21st century, not all Fulani are cattle herders following traditional means of existence; many are urbanized city dwellers speaking a variety of languages and are well represented in the business communities of the Sahel and the coastal regions of West Africa. For background on the Fulani crisis, see: “The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, CTC Sentinel 10(2), February 22, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3881.
  2. Debriefing statement on its mission to Chad, 16 – 23 April 2018 by the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the right of peoples to self-determination, n.d. (2018), https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22986&LangID=E
  3. For Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso, see: “’The Sons of the Land’: Tribal Challenges to the Tuareg Conquest of Northern Mali,” Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2012, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=447; “Mali’s Ganda Iso Militia Splits over Support for Tuareg Rebel Group,” Terrorism Monitor, February 21, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=808.
  4. Kaka is Chadic Arabic for “Grandmother”; Mahamat was given the nickname after being raised by his grandmother.
  5. For the Erdimi twins, see https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2263.

Warlords and Mercenaries in Central Africa: The Struggle for Power in Chad and the Central African Republic – Part Two

Part Two – Can Russian Military Contractors Overcome Tribal Politics and French Influence in the CAR?

Moscow’s Privatized Point-Men in Central Africa Have Had It Their Way So Far. Can It Last?

Dr. Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 5, 2022

Moscow’s addition of Russian “contract soldiers” to its fighting force in Chechnya has evolved into the regular use of contract fighters to spread Russian political and economic interests in conflict zones, especially those experiencing seemingly intractable conflicts. Unlike those who served in Chechnya, the new generation of contract fighters operate outside Russia’s formal military structure. Like earlier European mercenary groups in Africa, it is understood by the leaders of these “contractors” that their reward for saving governments under threat will be guaranteed access to the wealth generated from resource extraction.

Central African Republic (Worldometer)

The use of mercenaries as bodyguards for the president has a long history in the CAR, with Chadian gunmen usually filling this role, so the introduction of Russian mercenaries as presidential security was hardly unprecedented. What is surprising is the eagerness with which African nations such as the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Mozambique, Mali and others have welcomed the return of White European mercenaries after decades spent trying to drive them out of Africa. The surprise is even greater when it is plain the mercenaries from the east are still using the playbook used by the White mercenaries of the 1960s and later:

  • Separate the ruler from the ruled by forming a bodyguard of mercenaries who control access to the leader;
  • Insert economic “advisors” who direct national finances;
  • Ensure rights to mining and other extractive industries are given to firms favored or owned by the mercenaries;
  • Establish discreet and deniable connections to European states or corporate interests seeking to establish or expand their influence and holdings in Africa.

The leaders of Wagner Group appear to be familiar with the work of earlier European mercenaries in Africa, including Frenchman Bob Denard, a mercenary who worked for Belgian mineral interests in Katanga in the 1960s. Denard later became the power behind the throne in the Comoros Islands by controlling its 500-man presidential bodyguard through the 1980s, maintaining connections to Jacques Foccart, France’s point-man in Africa before deciding to take over the country himself in 1995.

Bob Denard in Katanga

The Russians are also sure to have studied the disastrous South African deployment in Bangui in 2013 and the book Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa, an influential 2016 tactical work by South African mercenary Colonel Eeben Barlow, based partly on operations carried out against Boko Haram in Nigeria by his mixed-race “Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection” unit (STTEP). [1]

Civil War in the CAR

Both Ali Darassa and Mahamat al-Khatim were officially dismissed as special military advisors on December 31, 2020 (RFI, January 2, 2021). Al-Khatim’s Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC) suffered serious losses in arms and personnel during the late 2021 government counter-offensive. A recent communiqué from the MPC chief-of staff, “General” Abdraman Mahamat Abfiessa, accused the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a Christian, of “using a Hitlerian strategy to erase the Muslim identity of the Central African Republic” (Corbeau News [Bangui], January 7, 2022).

Sidiki Abass (DW.com)

Sidiki Abass, whose Retour, Récupération, Réhabilitation (3R) militia was notorious for torture, rape and murder, quickly returned to the bush after the 2019 Khartoum Accord that was meant to end the fighting. He died in March 2021 from wounds either received in an attack on a village on November 16, 2020 or in an ambush of his convoy in December 2020. Sidiki was succeeded by the self-described “General Bobbo.” The 3R’s hold on diamond-rich areas and control of the cross-border cattle trade with Cameroon have enabled it to buy arms and recruit mercenaries of their own (Vanguard [Lagos], December 6, 2021). Many of these mercenaries come from Chad, some with combat experience on Libyan battlefields. There is no difficulty for them in crossing the permeable border between Chad and the CAR.

Mahamat al-Khatim

3R is mostly Fulani, as is the UPC, and began its run in 2015 as a Fulani self-defense militia. Al-Khatim’s MPC is a mix of Arab and Fulani fighters. The conflict in the northern CAR reflects the growing militancy of the Fulani people across Africa’s Sahel belt, though their struggles remain uncoordinated, lack central direction and are generally fuelled by local issues and ethnic rivalries rather than ideology. Baba Laddé is one of the few to have tried to situate the violence between Fulani groups and their neighbors within a larger ethnic framework, with some attempt to define larger goals for a multinational Fulani alliance.

Fulani herders in the CAR are actually targeted by both certain rebel groups and government forces (and their allies), whether through taxation in the form of cattle or retaliatory attacks in response to operations by self-identified Fulani “self-defense” groups. In dealing with the Fulani, the Russians are reported to make little distinction between civilian herders and armed fighters (Le Monde/AFP, January 14, 2022).

The ongoing violence in the CAR began when its president, François Bozizé Yangouvonda (Gbaya ethnicity), was deposed in March 2013. Bozizé had seized power in a 2003 coup but was expelled by the Muslim Séléka alliance of Arab and Fulani rebel groups in 2013. Bozizé fled Bangui for Cameroon in March 2013 as Russian-educated Séléka leader Michel Djotodia took power as the CAR’s first Muslim president. Bangui and other parts of the CAR were plunged into violence as hastily-formed “anti-Balaka” Christian militias began retaliatory attacks on Séléka fighters and Muslim civilians for attacks on CAR Christians.

Djotodia, a member of the Gula ethnic group from Vakanga prefecture, was forced to resign in January 2014 and an interim government was formed as UN, African Union and French troops attempted to restore stability and security. In March 2016, academic and former prime-minister Faustin-Archange Touadéra was elected CAR president. Following the election, French troops withdrew, creating immediate security challenges for the new president.

Bozizé attempted a return to the CAR in late 2019 with the intention of running in the December 2020 presidential elections, but the CAR’s constitutional court announced his disqualification on moral grounds due to outstanding international warrants and UN sanctions for torture and war crimes. Instead, Bozizé was alleged to have mounted a failed coup attempt in December 2020, a week before elections were to begin. The action prompted Russian and Rwandan reinforcements.

Six of the strongest rebel groups mounted a joint offensive against the Touadera government in December 2020, calling themselves the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC). Their plan to cut off the capital was foiled by the response of CAR troops, Rwandan special forces and Russian mercenaries. By January 13, the rebels began to retreat. Ten days later, the government reported the death of 44 rebels at Boyali (54 miles from Bangui), “including several mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and the Fulani.” (Al-Jazeera, January 25, 2021).

In late February 2021, the Bozizé stronghold of Bossangoa 175 miles north of Bangui was captured by CAR troops supported by Russians and Rwandans. Bozizé, who was being investigated for “rebellion” at the time, took charge of the CPC in March 2021. He is now believed to reside in N’Djamena; in his absence, Ali Darassa has taken control of the rebel coalition.

The CAR government declared a unilateral ceasefire in October, 2021 to encourage a dialogue with rebel factions. The move, however, had little impact on the ongoing violence; the rebels had little interest and the government offensive continued. 3R forces attacked the town of Mann in the northwest, killing five civilians and one soldier in December 2021, while a particularly gruesome machete attack by pro-Touadéra militias in the CAR’s center-east left 15 civilians dead including women and children; many others suffered mutilations and amputation of limbs (AFP, December 20, 2021; ).

Increasing the instability in Bangui is the revival of the Requin (“sharks”), a pro-ruling party militia known for its violence. Created in 2019 by Touadéra’s Mouvement cœurs unis (MCU – United Hearts Movement), the Requin were dissolved in July 2020 under international pressure. Resurrected in 2021, the group mounts heavily-armed patrols through Bangui at night (Jeune Afrique, January 12, 2021). They have been accused of mounting an assassination campaign against members of the Gbaya (François Bozizé’s ethnic group) and circulating lists of opposition figures to be eliminated (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 18, 2021). Russian mercenaries are also reported to have targeted the Gbaya with summary executions (ICG, December 3, 2021).

Clashes on the Chad/CAR Border

Unsurprisingly, tensions between a pro-French government in Chad and a pro-Russian government in Chad’s traditional Central African hinterland have created a state of instability along the border between the two nations. At times, these clashes have threatened to spark a wider conflict.

An attack by Russian fighters and CAR regulars on a Chadian border post on May 30, 2021 resulted in the death of six Chadians and three Russians. Chad’s defense ministry claimed that five of their soldiers had been captured and executed. Bangui insisted the clash was “a mistake” resulting from CAR forces and their allies pursuing rebels near the border (Reuters, June 2, 2021). A diplomatic crisis followed and more Chadian troops and weapons were sent to the border. The incident came only weeks after the Russian ambassador to the CAR criticized Chad for failing to prevent the passage of arms and fighters across the border into the CAR (Africa Report, June 4, 2021). Asked why Chad did not respond militarily to the execution of its troops, Mahamat Idriss would only respond: “Let’s just say that we exercised a lot of restraint after these murders were committed” (Africa Report, June 30, 2021).

Sani Yalo (DR)

Following the incident, the CAR’s top “fixer,” Sani Yalo, was sent to N’Djamena to assure Chad’s leadership that President Touadéra had no interest in creating insecurity on the border. Yalo is a political operator and one of President Touadéra’s closest advisors, despite having no official position. Believed to be pro-Russian, Yalo has demonstrated his survival skills and importance by acting as a presidential advisor during the presidencies of Ange-Félix Patassé, François Bozizé and Michel Djotodia. Touadéra refuses to extradite Yalo to Equatorial Guinea, where he is wanted for his alleged involvement in a 2017 attempt to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Jeune Afrique, October 16, 2019).

A further confrontation followed on December 10, 2021, when Russian mercenaries pursuing CPC rebels crossed the border into Chad. After a firefight with Chadian troops in which one Chadian was killed, the Russians withdrew, taking one captured soldier with them (Corbeau News, December 12, 2021).

Instability on the CAR’s South-Western Border with Cameroon

The regions adjacent to the 560-mile-long border between Cameroon and the CAR are beset by cattle-rustling, banditry, kidnappings and arms trafficking. When pressed, rebel groups from either nation take refuge on the other side of the border and have become heavily involved in resource exploitation, including the hunt for gold. Life in the border region has become precarious; 3R rebels launched attacks on CAR civilians and security forces near the Cameroon border on November 28, 2021, killing 30 civilians and two soldiers.

It is not only Fulani herders who are now in conflict with agricultural communities. In northern Cameroon, there have been repeated and bloody clashes between Arab Shuwa herders and Musgum (a.k.a. Mulwi) and Masa (a.k.a. Masana, Yagoua) farmers and fishermen over access to diminishing water resources. With the influx of arms to the Sahel region in recent decades, massacres have replaced traditional modes of dispute resolution; as one traditional chief in north Cameroon noted: “Today, when there is a problem between two people from different communities, all the communities get involved with weapons” (Reuters, December 9, 2021). Many Cameroonians have fled the violence into the CAR, while some 300,000 CAR residents have fled the other way into Cameroon.

The Russian Third Phase in Africa

Tsarist efforts to establish a colonial foothold in the Horn of Africa after the collapse of the Egyptian Empire in the late 19th century came to naught. This was despite the notable efforts of a handful of adventurous Russian officers and Cossacks who became influential in the court of the Abyssinian emperor and even managed to plant a Russian flag at Fashoda on the White Nile before the arrival of the French or British. However, there was little interest in Africa at St. Petersburg, as Russia focused on consolidating its rule in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Soviet efforts in the post-colonial era were more determined and resource-targeted, but decades of military and diplomatic work had unsatisfactory results – the Russians were expelled from Egypt due to Cold War political manoeuvring and the application of Marxist economics by inexperienced Soviet-trained leaders to non-industrial societies in sub-Saharan Africa resulted in famine, economic collapse and intractable civil wars. These latter, naturally, were fuelled by Western states desiring to make the communist presence in Africa as costly as possible. These strategies transformed Africa into a proxy battleground until the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Soviet project in Africa.

Ten Russian BDRM-2 armored scout cars were delivered to FACA in 2020; two broke down almost immediately.

The third phase of Russian interest in Africa may be inspired by Soviet-era efforts (especially its search for African military bases), but has abandoned the ideological element of the Soviets. This eases the entry of Russian business interests and resource extractors that are often closely tied to the provision of some combination of military contractors, arms supplies, personal security, political advisors and information manipulators. These, in turn, have direct connections to Kremlin insiders like Yevgeny Prigozhin (owner of the Wagner Group) who can get things done even without having official status in the Russian government. For unstable regimes with no other means of re-asserting government control in profitable but rebellious regions, it is an attractive model.

The Wagner Group and Russian arms arrived in January 2018, not long after a visit by President Touadéra to Sochi, where he met with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Four years later, Russians have become a highly influential, if not dominant, force in the national army, the gendarmerie, the mineral sector, the presidency and the National Assembly. The Wagner force is mainly Russian, but is reported to include a number of Syrians and Libyans whose knowledge of Arabic is useful in dealing with the CAR’s Muslim communities.

A report leaked from the EU’s foreign service in November 2021 described Russia’s use of a “complex hybrid strategy” in the CAR, including “support through proxies in the National Assembly.” The report also noted the Wagner Group’s “alleged reliance” on official Russian military infrastructure, transport and health services (EU Observer, November 29, 2021). Two weeks later, the EU imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and eight specific individuals associated with it, citing “serious human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings [and] destabilising activities in some of the countries they operate in,” including Libya, Syria, Ukraine and the CAR.

In March 2021, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries cited various abuses by Russian mercenaries in the CAR, including mass summary executions, torture, arbitrary detentions, indiscriminate targeting of civilians and attacks on humanitarian workers. The UN investigators were also alarmed by the “proximity and interoperability” between the mercenaries and the peacekeepers of the UN’s Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA) forces (Al-Jazeera, March 31, 2021). In response to the UN’s claim Russian fighters had looted and murdered in the CAR, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov insisted such reports were “yet another lie” (AP, June 28, 2021). Anti-MINUSCA protests in Bangui organized by Touadéra’s Russian advisors quickly followed the release of the UN report. Since the protests, Russian diplomatic efforts have prevented UN experts from pursuing further investigations.

However, the relationship between MINUSCA and the Russians inevitably deteriorated as the year progressed due to the conflict between their mandates and the difference in their methods.  Whatever cooperation existed between the two groups was finally put to rest on November 1, 2021, when ten unarmed Egyptian policemen joining the MINUSCA force were wounded at Bangui’s M’Poko Airport in an attack by the Russian-controlled Presidential Guard. MINUSCA described the attack as “deliberate and unjustifiable,” though a presidential spokesman claimed the reports had “nothing to do with reality” (Reuters, November 3, 2021; UN News, November 2, 2021). [2]

In recent weeks, Russian mercenaries in Bria, capital of the Haute Kotto prefecture, have been in the habit of rounding up young men on a daily basis for use as forced labor in the construction of a nearby base. When no young men were to be found for several days, the Russians carried out a military operation in the early morning, surrounding Bria and opening fire on fleeing youth. Four were killed, prompting the rest of the town to flee to the bush or to the safety of a nearby displaced persons’ camp. The Russians returned late in the day to carry away the bodies of the deceased from a mosque where they were awaiting burial (Journal de Bangui, January 5, 2020; HumAngle [Abuja], January 5, 2022).

Claims of abuses by Russians in the CAR have been dismissed by a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman: “If the insinuations about their atrocities had any real foundation, and the local population was actively protesting, the CAR’s leadership would hardly have insisted on the further presence of specialists from Russia” (Financial Times, October 25, 2021).

The Russian fighters are steady consumers of imported vodka and land for a local vodka distillery in the CAR has already been expropriated. When vodka runs short, the mercenaries are known to add isopropyl alcohol, Mecurochrome and various chemical-based wound disinfectants to beer to give it the necessary kick. Three Russians died from drinking these concoctions in mid-2021; four more died and six others were hospitalized in the last week of January 2022. Troops of the Force Armée Centrafricaine (FACA – Armed Forces of Central Africa) are said to avoid drinking with their Russian comrades (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 31, 2022).

Valery Zakharov is the CAR’s national security advisor, assuming both military and diplomatic roles, including negotiations with Mahamat Darassa and other rebel leaders. The former intelligence agent, variously described as a veteran of the FSB or the GRU, also has a business role through mining firm Lobaye Invest Sarlu and Séwa Sécurité (or Sewa Security Services – SSS), a Russian private military contractor (PMC) engaged to guard President Touadera and other CAR officials. [3] According to Zakharov, Russia is not presently seeking a military base in the CAR, but did not rule it out in the future: “There is already a Russian military representation in the CAR, which is still sufficient for operational coordination between the Central African and Russian Ministries of Defense, the issue of opening the base is not yet on the agenda” (Descifrando la Guerra, March 7, 2021). While a military base may become a reality in the future, for now instability in the CAR has created an entry point for Russian interests in the CAR’s valuable mining sector.

Russian Members of Sewa Security Services in the CAR (Jeune Afrique)

In a September 2021 interview, a defensive President Touadéra pretended to have little knowledge of Wagner, Sewa Security or Lobaye Invest, adding that an appeal for security assistance from EU states had failed to obtain a favorable response. However, Russia, “with whom we have a long-standing relationship,” responded positively with arms and military trainers: “I have nothing to hide about the Russians” (Africa Report, September 24, 2021).

Prigozhin is reported to control both M-Finans, specializing in precious metals and the provision of private security services, and Lobaye Invest Sarlu, specializing in the mining of non-ferrous metal ores. Mining permits are regularly issued without consultation of the CAR’s National Assembly, a violation of the national constitution (Jeune Afrique, August 20, 2019). According to the US Treasury Department, Prigozhin’s CAR operations are “reported to be coordinated with the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense.” [4]

Yevgeny Khodotov is the managing director of Lobaye Invest Sarlu, with contracts to explore for gold and diamonds, sometimes through another company called M-Finance. The US Treasury Department has identified Khodotov as an associate of Prigozhin. He is reported to be in contact with Noureddine Adam, leader of a faction of the Runga-dominated Front Populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), as well as former president Michel Djotodia (Jeune Afrique, August 20, 2019). [5] The FPRC, under its military commander Abdoulaye Hissène, is known for targeting Fulanis; in 2016 the group massacred 85 people in Bria during a brutal raid on the town that displaced 11,000 people (Reuters, November 26, 2016). The FPRC was targeted by government-controlled militias in 2019-20. Noureddine Adam is now believed to be living in Sudan after the CAR government’s counter-offensive.

UPC Rebels, 2018 (Radio Ndeke Luka)

Reports of a massacre of civilians carried out in January near Bria (Haute-Kotto prefecture) by FACA and Russian mercenaries have ignited a UN investigation by MINUSCA officials. The incident occurred during a January 16-17 operation against Darassa’s UPC. Dozens of civilians were reported killed; a military source described “summary executions” and “more than 50 deaths” (AFP, January 21, 2022, al-Jazeera, January 22, 2022).

Nonetheless, Touadéra’s Russian advisors have tried to popularize the unfamiliar Russian presence in the CAR, providing medical services and sports equipment, funding a “Miss Centrafrique” contest and producing a film lionizing the Russian fighters. “The Tourist,” a Prigozhin-financed movie about young Russian military advisors in the CAR battling bloodthirsty rebels, was shown at a Bangui sports stadium to as many as 70,000 people, some of whom were helpfully supplied with Russian flags to show their enthusiasm. Dubbed into the local Sangho language (a lingua franca in the CAR), the movie featured Wagner Group mercenaries as extras. A “quickie” by film standards, the movie was shot in March-April 2021 and premiered in May (Moscow Times, May 21, 2021).

FACA Troops Wearing “Russie – Je Suis Wagner” T-shirts (Corbeaunews)

Displaying little regard for the political sensitivities of the CAR rulers who were trying to disavow any knowledge of Wagner Group mercenaries in the country, the Russian mercenaries created a “Je Suis Wagner” (I am Wagner) t-shirt they issued to the gendarmerie and FACA members (some of these bear a large “Russie” logo over the shirt’s image). Soon, the shirts were being worn by fashionable youth and members of the ruling party alike (Corbeaunews [Bangui], October 31, 2021).

Young Girl Styles “Je suis Wagner” T-shirt (Corbeau News)

The services of private Russian security firms don’t come cheap, and questions have been asked regarding the possibility that donations from the World Bank and the EU, which provide half of the CAR’s $400 million budget, might be used to pay the Russian mercenaries on top of access to gold and diamond deposits (Financial Times, October 25, 2021).

The French Reaction

Unhappy with the Russian challenge to France’s traditional zone of influence, French president Emmanuel Macron has used strong language to condemn the growing criticisms of France in the CAR: “This anti-French rhetoric legitimises the presence of predatory Russian mercenaries at the highest levels of the state, with President Touadéra who is today a hostage of the Wagner group. This group is taking over the mines and, in the same way, the political system” (Journal du Dimanche, May 29, 2021; RFI, May 31, 2021).

France is still far from out of the picture in the CAR, and some indication of its lingering influence might be seen in the June 10, 2021 resignation of Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada and his cabinet. Ngrebada was an architect of the 2019 Khartoum Accord and believed to be close to the Russians, at whose embassy he sought refuge when the Séléka movement occupied Bangui in 2013. Five days after his resignation, he was replaced by former finance minister Henri Marie Dondra, believed to be closer to the French who lobbied hard for Ngrebada’s removal. Dondra, whose family lives in France, declined the protection of Russian bodyguards (Jeune Afrique, June 18, 2021). Despite Dondra’s acceptability to the IMF/World Bank, there has been internal pressure to replace him. Dondra is reported to have already submitted his resignation earlier this month; the president is expected to respond in the coming days. The prime minister has struggled with demands from the Wagner Group, a staff picked by a president to whom he has never been close, increased reluctance to provide continuing financial support to the CAR by France and the EU, and finally ethnic insults made by the spokesman of the leader of the National Assembly (African Intelligence, February 4, 2022). Though the World Bank is unhappy about the Russian mission’s influence on certain government institutions, Dondra’s successor is likely to be more accommodating to the Russian presence in the CAR.

The Investigation

To the surprise of many, on October 1, 2021 CAR Minister of Justice Arnaud Djoubaye Abazène (a relative of Michel Djotodia) released the results of an investigation by a Special Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in the CAR that implicated the CPC rebels, MINUSCA troops and “Russian instructors who operate in support of FACA” in repeated and egregious violations (Le Monde/AFP, October 1, 2021). Aware of the repercussions the report would have, Djoubaye did not provide advance notice to the Russian military mission or the Russian embassy. After presenting the report, the Minister of Justice was roundly assailed as “pro-French” by deputies in the Touadera camp.

Only two weeks after Djoubaye made the accusations of war crimes and human rights violations public, the CAR’s National Assembly issued a public letter of thanks for the “interventions of the Russian contingent alongside our forces” in retaking the regions occupied by “terrorists,” along with “our sincere congratulations for your bravery” (Afrik.com, October 16, 2021). The letter, completely undermining the Minister of Justice, was yet another example of the growing Russian influence in the Assembly.

Djoubaye was forced to defend his report in a parliamentary interpellation several days later, though he opened by criticizing the “almost generalized impunity” enjoyed by military, political and criminal human rights violators in the CAR. Repeating that the majority of such violations were committed by rebel movements, Djoubaye noted the “privilege of jurisdiction” enjoyed by FACA’s foreign allies, an acknowledgement that crimes committed by these entities were unlikely to be prosecuted in the CAR. Attempting to still the waters, the Justice Minister finished by stating that the report of the Special Commission of Inquiry “was not intended to affect the morale of FACA or that of the allies who are applauded by our people” (Centrafrique-presse, October 24, 2021).

Djoubaye and the Tribal War in the North

Djoubaye has himself been accused of helping orchestrate attacks amounting to war crimes in his hometown of Birao (capital of Vakaga prefecture) in 2019. The attacks were carried out by pro-government militias on members of the Runga community, especially those close to the FPRC (Monde Afrique, July 3, 2021). Dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced in the violence between neighboring ethnic groups.

The three militias involved in the attacks on the Runga included:

  • The Mouvement des libérateurs centrafricains pour la justice (MLCJ), composed largely of Kara and Gula from the region of Birao. The MLCJ was founded by Abakar Sabone and is now led by Gilbert Toumou Deya, currently a cabinet minister under the integration terms of the Khartoum Accord. The political/military movement is reported to have been reinforced by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries (Mondafrique, March 28, 2020).
  • The Rassemblement patriotique pour le renouveau de la Centrafrique (RPRC). The movement’s founder and political leader, Herbert Gontran Djono Ahaba, is now a cabinet minister. The RPRC, operating in the northeast CAR, is now led in the field by Gula “General” Zakaria Damane (a.k.a. Moustapha Maloum). Damane cooperates with Lobaye Invest in the Ouadda region of Haute-Kotto prefecture.
  • The Parti pour le rassemblement de la nation centrafricaine (PRNC) is led by Nour Gregaza (a.k.a. Mahamat Nour Nizan) and Issa Issaka Aubin, former army chief-of-staff under the presidency of Michel Djotodia (Mondafrique, March 28, 2020; RFI, June 6, 2019). The movement was created by a June 2019 split with the RPRC.

The clashes in Birao led to a vicious split in the ranks of the FPRC in neighboring Haute-Kotto prefecture. Diamonds appeared to be at the core of a further clash in Bria in January 2020, between the Kara and Gula peoples who own the mines and their former Runga allies in the FPRC who control the sale and trade of diamonds from the region (AFP, January 20, 2020). The fighting was joined by fighters of the Kara and Gula-dominated MLCJ. The FPRC’s internal ethnic struggle spread to its main base in Ndélé in the Bamingui-Bangoran prefecture (southwest of Vakaga prefecture) in April 2020, with dozens slaughtered. “General” Azor Kalité, a Bria-based Gula warlord and former senior member of the FPRC, and eight companions were arrested by MINUCA on suspicion of war crimes as the fighting continued in May (AFP, May 20, 2020; Monde Afrique, May 27, 2020). A pact of non-aggression between the Runga and Gula factions of the FPRC helped reduce the violence in August 2020. Ndélé was eventually recaptured by government forces in June 2021.

The Haute-Kotto and Vakaga prefectures are located on the historically turbulent fault line between Muslim north Africa and traditionally animist sub-Saharan Africa (which now includes many Christians). Many of the ethnic-groups of these regions converted to Islam in the 19th century as a way of attempting to evade enslavement by the Fulani, Arabs and Maba from Chad and Fur and Arabs from the Darfur sultanate (Muslims are forbidden to enslave other Muslims, though this restriction was not always observed in practice in Chad’s southern hinterland). Vakaga is the CAR’s northernmost prefecture and the only one to share borders with both Chad and Sudan. Though oil reserves are present in the region, it remains sparsely populated due to its depopulation by 19th century slave raids. Vakaga has been brought under some semblance of government control since the FACA/Russian/Rwandan offensive and many Hausa and Sara who fled to Sudan and Chad are considering a return (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 31, 2022).

The Army of the Central African Republic

Senior FACA officers complain the Russians are recruiting their own battalions and deploying them to act as support units in their operations without respect to the FACA hierarchy (Corbeaunews [Bangui], December 21, 2021). To the chagrin of members of the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), many of their graduates, so carefully instructed in human rights issues, are heading straight into FACA battalions controlled by Russian mercenaries. The EUTM now focuses on strategic advice having suspended its training program two months ago over concerns it could not cooperate with Russian mercenaries that did not share the values of contributing European nations. An offer was made to resume training if Russian control of FACA ended and the army began to respect human rights, but these conditions seem unlikely to be met (Defense-gouv.fr, February 5, 2022).

A FACA soldier wearing the Wagner Group Death’s-Head patch (Corbeau News).

Of even greater concern is last year’s wave of arrests of former and active FACA senior officers by Russian contractors with the apparent acquiescence of the government:

  • Former FACA chief-of-staff General Ludovic Ngaïfei Lamademon was arrested at his home on January 16, 2021 and detained at the Camp Roux military prison, where he was questioned regarding his relationship with rebel CPC leaders. The arrest occurred when a column of FACA armored vehicles and Russian APCs smashed through the gates of his house, with FACA troops firing wildly despite the absence of any resistance. Ngaïfei was accused of organizing a coup against the government after speaking critically of the president in the local press. The retired general had been dismissed by President Touadéra following a dispute in 2018 (Corbeaunews [Bangui], February 1, 2021);
  • Colonel Rodongo, commander of FACA’s signals battalion, was arrested by the Russians in Kaga-Bandaro;
  • The Russians came for the captain-chief of the FACA detachment in Bria in July 2021. The officer fled to a local MINUSCA detachment, but was turned over to the interrogators of the research and investigation section of the CAR gendarmerie (Corbeaunews [Bangui], October 24, 2021).
  • Colonel Moussa Kitoko, commander of the north-east military zone, was arrested at Ndélé by Russian mercenaries, who accused the colonel of selling ammunition to the FPRC rebel movement (Corbeaunews [Bangui], October 24, 2021).
  • Chief Warrant Officer Guetel, head of the Berberati remand center, was also arrested by the Russians in mid-October, 2021.

Beside the arrests of their colleagues, FACA officers are, like their Chadian counterparts, unhappy with the system of promotion, which seems to elevate favorites of Touadéra or his Russian advisors. Despite the apparent success of the FACA/Russian/Rwandan offensive in early 2021, morale remains low in the army and defections to rebel groups are common. In August 2021, a group of soldiers of all ranks sent a 20-page letter to President Touadéra criticizing the handling of the army. The letter cited tribalism and favoritism in promotions, an unclear purpose for the army, the arrests of senior officers and the “humiliation and dishonor” in the ranks due to their subordination to the Wagner Company and Rwandan special forces: “Is it an army at the service of the people or an army to defend the interests of certain individuals who are in power?” (Journal de Bangui, August 23, 2021).

Female soldiers of FACA are no longer allowed on active operations due to the strong risk of sexual assault by their Russian allies under the influence of drugs and alcohol, something allegedly experienced by two out of three female recruits (Corbeaunews [Bangui], December 27, 2021; Letsunami.net [Bangui], January 15, 2022).

Major General and Chief of Staff of the Central African Armed Forces Zéphirin Mamadou is reported to work closely with General Oleg Polguyev, former intelligence chief of Russia’s airborne forces and a member of the official Russian mission (rather than Wagner).

Rwanda in the CAR

Rwanda is not a neighbor of the CAR, but, as with its earlier intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government of President Paul Kagame is interested in gaining access to mineral resources of the type found in the CAR.

The Rwandan component of MINUSCA consists of two infantry battalions, a mechanized battle group and a field hospital. Rwandans began providing protection for President Touadéra and other authorities in 2016 (East African (Nairobi), August 4, 2021). Rwanda is the largest single contributor to MINUSCA, with roughly 1700 troops and 500 policemen under UN command. [6]

In 2020, Rwanda deployed “force protection troops” from the Forces de Défense du Rwanda (FDR) to the CAR under a bilateral defense agreement. The agreement allowing Rwanda to deploy troops in the CAR outside the MINUSCA framework was signed in October 2019. Accompanying economic agreements gave Rwanda access to the CAR’s mining sector and permitted Rwandan officials to be inserted into CAR mining operations. The deployment came “in response to the targeting of the Rwanda Defense Force under the UN peacekeeping force by rebels supported by François Bozize” (Govt. of Rwanda, December 20, 2020). In early August 2021, another battalion of 750 troops from the FDR arrived in the CAR; one of their main tasks was to secure the vital highway connecting Bangui and Cameroon (New Times [Kigali], August 9, 2021).

According to Valery Zakharov, the Rwandans “act very efficiently and professionally. Of course, without the support of Rwanda, it would be difficult to repel the aggression of the militants and immediately go on the offensive. We are in constant contact with the Rwandan forces, as well as with all other partners” (Descifrando la Guerra, March 7, 2021).

Soldiers of Fortune in the CAR

Some European mercenaries have taken advantage of the CAR’s state of insecurity for their own profit. Horațiu Potra, a Romanian mercenary and former French Legionnaire, became involved in Baba Laddé’s plan to overthrow both François Bozizé and Idriss Déby. Potra, allegedly a dealer in war-zone diamonds, is closely associated with a number of rebels and mercenaries active in Chad and the CAR and was an instructor of the presidential guard of Ange-Félix Patassé.

Another shadowy adventurer is the Italian Elio Ciolini (a.k.a. Bruno Lugon, a.k.a. Bruno Raul Rivera Sanchez, a.k.a. Gino Bottoni Di Ferrara, a.k.a. Colonel Eliot). Nicknamed il faccendiere (“the henchman”), Ciolini has spent time in the prisons of several states on drug and weapons charges. Now working in the CAR as an “adviser to the presidency for national security,” Ciolini manufactured a fake coup attempt in Bangui while posing as “Colonel Eliot” of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s combined foreign and defence ministry. As “organizer” of the coup, Ciolini contacted a number of political and military leaders in the CAR in what seems to have been an attempt to flush out opponents of President Touadéra and his Russian backers. Ciolini was seen many times in Bangui in the company of Dmitri Alexandrov, a top Russian advisor to the president, before he disappeared in May 2020 (Jeune Afrique, July 1, 2020). Alexandrov (real name Dmitri Sergeevich Sytii) is a director of Lobaye Invest, a Russian mining firm tied to Prigozhin operating in the CAR. Sytii, who speaks four languages, works as an interpreter in high level talks and leads propaganda operations in Bangui that denounce MINUSCA and local politicians who resist the Russian expansion or favor a partnership with France. 

Two days after France suspended a military training and operational support mission to the CAR in June 2021 to protest the failure of Ngrebada’s government to combat an anti-French disinformation campaign on social media, French national Juan Rémy Quignolot was charged with weapons, espionage and threats to state security (i.e., aiding and training rebel groups). The charges came a month after the former French paratrooper, known to work as a bodyguard for aid organizations, was arrested in Bangui with a small cache of weapons, a few camouflage uniforms and cash in several currencies. Though the arms seized from Quignolot were described in many places as “a very large arsenal” endangering the state, photos of the seized weapons and gear revealed only two hunting rifles (one with a scope), a handgun and an M-16 automatic rifle, nothing especially unusual for a security practitioner in an insecure region and certainly not enough to mount a coup, as CAR security has suggested was his intent. [7]  Paris quickly characterized the arrest as a “manipulation” and part of an anti-French disinformation campaign after reports of the seized “arsenal” and arrest were prominently featured on Valery Zakharov’s Twitter account (al-Jazeera, June 9, 2021). The 55-year-old’s arrest came at a time when accusations were being made of human rights abuses by the Wagner Group in the CAR. According to his sister, Quignolot is being held in solitary confinement with a daily plate of rice to keep him alive as he faces a possible sentence of life at hard labor (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 9, 2022).

Conclusion

In the CAR, it has become clear a cabinet of government ministers cannot be formed from rebel leaders and bandit chiefs, especially those who serve only themselves and have committed war-crimes and murders of CAR civilians. The impunity enjoyed by those rebel leaders now absorbed into the highest levels of the government only encourages others to view violence as the quickest path to wealth and influence. Such a structure cannot hold, hence the need for no-questions-asked assistance from mercenaries.

Alexander Bikantov, a proponent of a Russian presence in the CAR, is taking over as Russian ambassador this month from Vladimir Titorenko, who was perceived locally as inserting himself into CAR politics and was also occasionally at odds with Wagner Group officials. In October/November 2021, Bangui was visited by both Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner Group founder Dmitri Utkin in an attempt to calm growing differences between the Russians and CAR authorities.

Weak states compelled to hire mercenary forces to enable their survival are always at risk of the mercenaries taking over state institutions for their own profit, especially if expected wealth does not materialize. From the mutiny of mercenaries over pay in 3rd Century BCE Carthage to the mercenary mutinies in 1960s Congo, it is a familiar pattern. If continued insecurity in mineral-rich areas and pushback from CAR politicians delays the get-rich-quick schemes of the Russian mercenaries and their backers, the result could be an internal conflict that would both test and reveal Moscow’s control over the military contractors.

The Russians are strong enough to take rebel-held towns and territory, but lack sufficient numbers to occupy them, a task that is turned over to the unreliable forces of FACA. Rebel movements are, in classic guerrilla fashion, able to melt into the bush to await the departure of the Russians and Rwandans before moving back into their usual areas of operation. The incompetence of the national security forces prevents the delivery of state services and humanitarian relief to areas in desperate need of same, encouraging further rounds of rebellion. The victories obtained by the Russians are thus illusory; as elation over the initial success of the 2021 anti-rebel offensive dissipates and the mission becomes overwhelmed by the very real (but unprofitable) needs of the population, the Russian contractors will be more likely to focus on protecting the mining facilities operated by Russian interests.

The mandate for the EUTM to provide ethical and military training to FACA will expire in September 2022 and cannot be renewed without the approval of President Touadéra and his government. At the moment, training has been suspended, and if the mandate is not renewed (and it is questionable whether the EU at this point even has any interest itself in renewing it), it is likely that military training will fall to the Russians, completing their takeover of FACA.

Mercenaries are ultimately a poor means for states to project power and influence; without the discipline of formal military structures, they begin to act with an assumed license that is ultimately counterproductive to the interests of state sponsors. Such was the experience of the Americans with the Blackwater PMC in Iraq; even Bob Denard, with all his contacts in the French secret services, was eventually reined in and arrested by French troops in the Comoros Islands in 1995 after mounting his fourth coup attempt.

Managing the ever-shifting ethnic rivalries and alliances in rebellious and difficult-to-reach parts of the CAR will tax the patience of the small Russian force of advisors and mercenaries, intensifying a greater focus on profits rather than security. The Russian role in driving the rebel formations back into the bush has helped build Russian popularity in some sectors of society, but this may quickly evaporate if the contractors come to be seen as economic predators.

Notes

  1. For the SADF experience in Bangui, see: “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive,” April 4, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=238, and “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout,” April 4, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=236. For Eeben Barlow and mercenary tactics used against Boko Haram in Nigeria, see: “Last Hurrah or Sign of the Future? The Performance of South African Mercenaries against Boko Haram,” AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report, June 30, 2015, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3371.
  2. Egypt contributes over 1,000 troops to MINUSCA, making it the fourth largest contributor.
  3. Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti (FSB – Federal Security Service) is Russia’s domestic intelligence agency. The Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (GRU – Main Intelligence Directorate) is the main military intelligence agency.
  4. “Treasury Increases Pressure on Russian Financier,” US Department of the Treasury Press Release, September 23, 2020, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1133
  5. In 2015, Noureddine Adam tried unsuccessfully to resurrect an expanded version of the old Dar al-Kuti sultanate called “the Republic of Logone.” In its early days (1830-1890) the sultanate was under the control of the Chadian sultanate of Wadai, providing the Wadaians with a steady source of slaves and ivory; in its latter years (1890-1911), the sultanate was invaded by the Nubian slaver Rabih al-Zubayr (1842-1900), who used it as a base for even more intensive slave raids in the region. The Islamic sultanate and its slave-labor plantations survived Rabih’s death at the hands of the French for some years under Rabih’s successor, Muhammad al-Sanusi.
  6. The top ten military contributors to MINUSCA include seven African nations and three Asian nations. MINUSCA Fact Sheet, January 5, 2022, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/mission/minusca
  7. Private ownership of a semi-automatic rifle is illegal in the CAR.

Falling off the Fence: Russian Mercenaries Join the Battle for Tripoli

Andrew McGregor

October 8, 2019

Russia’s so-far ambiguous approach to Libya’s internal conflict, one of reassuring both sides of its continued support, has begun to shift with the deployment of Russian mercenaries backing “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar on the front lines of the battle for Tripoli. Despite Moscow’s search for deep-water ports on the Mediterranean coast, control of oil supplies to Europe, influence over migrant flows to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, and preference in massive reconstruction contracts, the Kremlin has still refrained from offering Haftar unequivocal support in his attempt to conquer Libya and create a family dynasty.

Russian Mercenaries in Southern Tripoli (Libya February TV)

Haftar first began seeking Russian assistance in 2015 after being impressed by Russian military operations in Syria and promised “oil, railways, highways, anything you want” in return for military aid and diplomatic support in his battle with Tripoli’s Presidential Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations (Meduza, October 2, 2019). Moscow declined any official military support at that time, opting instead to unleash its private military contractors (PMC), beginning with the arrival of the RSB Group in 2017. Haftar met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner PMC boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in Moscow in 2018 (Novaya Gazeta, November 9, 2018; YouTube, November 7, 2018). Russian officials insisted Prigozhin was at the meeting only in his capacity as caterer (RIA Novosti, November 11, 2018). But Wagner PMC personnel subsequently arrived in Libya in March of this year to carry out repairs to Russian-made military equipment (Janes.com, September 13, 2019).

A number of important documents related to Wagner PMC activities in Libya were obtained in September by the Dossier Center (funded by former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Russian news portal The Project, in cooperation with the Daily Beast news agency (The Project, September 12). One of the more interesting documents was written or modified by Pyotr Bychkov, a trustee and African expert in Prigozhin’s Fund for the Defense of National Values (FDNV). The document outlines Haftar’s efforts to exaggerate or publicize his Russian military connection in order to awe his enemies. Haftar comes under criticism for using extortion and bribes (some $150 million provided by the United Arab Emirates) rather than military activity to ensure his campaign to bring southwestern Libya under his control (FDNV, April 10).

Russia is reportedly seeking a role for Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed during the 2011 revolution (Alarabiya.net, December 30, 2018; Bloomberg, September 25, 2019). Two Russian operatives working for the FDNV were arrested by the GNA in May on charges of political interference related to meetings with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi (Nation News, July 5). Documents obtained by the Dossier Center revealed Russian operatives were unimpressed by Saif al-Islam, noting that he had “a flawed conception of his own significance” and would require full-time Russian minders if used as a political frontman. Hedging their bets, the Russians created Facebook pages promoting both Qaddafi and Haftar. While plans to help rig elections should Haftar run in the future were outlined, it is clear that the Russians were similarly unimpressed with the field marshal (The Project, September 12).

Shortly after Haftar’s Tripoli offensive began, Russia moved to veto a UN Security Council statement calling on the LNA to halt its advance on Tripoli (France24, April 8). Haftar arrived in Moscow three days later. United States President Donald Trump made a secret phone call to Haftar on April 15 (made public on the April 19), reversing US support for the UN-recognized PC/GNA government without consulting the State Department.

A Russian briefing report dated April 6 noted that LNA officers appealed to the commander of the Russian PMC, Lieutenant General A. V. Khalzakov, for deployment of a Russian drone to find a GNA artillery battery that had inflicted serious casualties on LNA forces. The appeal was denied (FDNV, September 13).

GNA forces targeted an LNA operations room in Souk al-Sabat (35 kilometers south of Tripoli) on September 9, killing a reported seven Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries. The men were believed to be operating a howitzer battery firing on Tripoli (Anadolu Agency, September 19; Libya February TV, September 9; for the Ukrainian role in Libya, see EDM, September 6).

Russian and Sudanese mercenaries fighting for Haftar were reported to have made gains in southern Tripoli this month before being repulsed by the Islamist Sumud Brigade, led by Salah Badi (Libya Observer, September 21). Photos of Russian Wagner PMC mercenaries began to appear on local social media on September 22 (Libya Observer, September 22).

(Citeam.org)

A GNA strike on an LNA position on the Sabea frontline (south of Tripoli) on September 23 reportedly killed four LNA commanders and several Russian mercenaries (Libya February TV, September 23). The airstrike was carried out with a precision not commonly found in GNA air operations and was likely the work of Turkish Bayraktar drones operated by Turkish pilots in Tripoli. The Russians were allegedly caught in the open as they prepared to lead an assault on GNA positions (Meduza, October 2). Sources consulted by Meduza offered estimates of between 15 and 35 Russians killed in the airstrike, though an anonymous source in the Russian defense ministry claimed only one Russian had been killed. Meduza, an investigative news service specializing in Russian affairs, based its revelations on interviews with Wagner PMC fighters and commanders as well as Federal Security Service (FSB) and interior ministry forces veterans with close ties to Wagner Group.

 Vadim Bekshenyov (Citeam.org)

Further operations in the area uncovered personal belongings apparently abandoned as Russian fighters retreated. The possessions of one Vadim Bekshenyov, a veteran of the Syrian conflict, included a Russian bank card, Russian ID, printed Russian Orthodox icons, Syrian currency and a photo of a medal awarded by the Russian government for service in Syria. Evidence suggested the mercenary was a former marine in Russia’s Pacific Fleet (Defense Post, September 26; Facebook.com, September 25; Facebook.com, September 25; Citeam.org, September 27).

Russian Medal for Syrian Service on Bekshenyov’s Phone (Citeam.org)

The covert nature of the Wagner Group’s Libyan operations is reflected in the fact that neither the PMC nor the Russian government notified families of combat deaths or returned to them the bodies and decorations of deceased fighters (the usual practice) (Meduza, October 2). So far, Russian mercenary assistance has been unable to move the frontline in southern Tripoli. Russian failure in this campaign would be a blemish on Russian arms, so the Kremlin will be certain to continue to deny all knowledge of private Russian troops in Libya while keeping other political options open—however unpalatable.

This article first appeared in the October 8, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

Less noticed but no less important than the reported arrival of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela has been the influx of Russia Wagner Group “private military contractors” (PMC) in Khartoum to help local security forces shore up the embattled regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The leader of this northeast African state is clinging to power in the face of nation-wide protests against his rule.

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

The demonstrations started on December 19, 2018, over a three-fold increase in bread prices after a shortage of foreign currency forced the government to cancel foreign wheat purchases. Accusations are rampant that some of the hundreds of arrested protesters have been tortured and compelled to confess membership in terrorist groups (Middle East Monitor, January 14; Sudan Tribune, February 3).

Over forty protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, with the president blaming the deaths on “infiltrators” from the Sudan Liberation Movement of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW), a Darfur rebel movement active since 2003. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) chief General Salah ‘Abdallah Gosh accused Israel of recruiting the Darfuris to disrupt the Sudanese state (Sudan Tribune, January 21).

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his repression of the revolt in Darfur. Russia was a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC but never ratified the agreement. In November 2016, Russia withdrew its signature, ending its involvement with the court (TASS, November 16, 2016). Ignoring the ICC travel ban on al-Bashir, Russia has hosted the Sudanese head of state twice: once in November 2017 and again in July 2018. When al-Bashir made an unannounced visit to Damascus last December, he travelled by a Russian military aircraft (RT—Arabic service, December 18, 2018). Russia is interested in the oil, mineral and financial sectors of the Sudanese economy and the establishment of a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

In January 2019, The Times published photos of men alleged to be Russian mercenaries being transported through Khartoum in a Ural-4320 utility truck, widely used by the Russian military and Russian PMCs. The report also cited witnesses who claimed Russians forcibly dispersed protesters (The Times, Newsru.com, January 10). Local sources state that the Russian contractors are training the special operations forces of the NISS, Sudan’s powerful secret police organization (Sudan Tribune, January 8).

Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), claimed that his agency had obtained the travel documents and passport data of 149 Wagner Group personnel who “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.” The SSU alleged that Wagner mercenaries had been transported to Sudan on Tu-154M airliners belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense (Unian.info, Gordonua.com, January 28). The deployment was arranged by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s M Invest LLC, which obtained gold mining concessions in Sudan during al-Bashir’s 2017 visit to Sochi (Government.ru, November 24, 2017; The National, December 17, 2018).

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Khartoum declared that the Russian “experts from non-government structures” were not involved in suppressing the protests, adding that reports to the contrary in Western media were “outright fakes seeking to demonize our country and its foreign policies” (Reuters, January 15).

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, on January 23, that Russian military contractors “who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies” were operating in Sudan. According to the foreign ministry, their work was confined to “training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan” (Reuters, January 23). The statement contradicted an earlier one by Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman, who described reports of Russian mercenaries in Khartoum as “completely false… a mere fabrication intended to offend the government” (Middle East Monitor, January 14).

In late July 2018, there were reports of a group of 500 Russian mercenaries operating in a camp some 15 kilometers south of the Darfur town of Um Dafug, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) (Radio Dabanga, July 31, 2018). Russian mercenaries were reported to have spent five months in the area training both Muslim Séléka rebels from the CAR and Sudanese troops. The bulk of these forces were said to have departed from the region in late July 2018 (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2018).

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the veteran leader of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW, expressed his concern with the Donald Trump administration’s “decoupling” of human rights issues from foreign policy and the opening this is providing to Russia in Sudan at the expense of the United States:

What is most astonishing in the context of the Kremlin’s hostile action against the U.S. and deliberate sabotage of your electoral process… is the soft pedaling towards al-Bashir’s overtures to Moscow… When Russian mercenaries fresh from Syria and Ukraine now have a foothold in both Darfur and the Central African Republic, with a mission agenda entirely contrary to that of U.S. Africa Command… your ill-considered policy towards Sudan is self-evidently not serving you well (Sudanjem.com, December 19, 2018).

Major General Al-Hadi Adam Musa, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, said that a draft military agreement made with Russia in early January “will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12; Sudan Tribune, January 13). The general noted that Russian naval visits could provide the sailors of Sudan’s tiny navy of Iranian and Yugoslavian-built patrol boats with training and “first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment…” The agreement will allow for shore leave by unarmed naval personnel, but it forbids visits by ships carrying nuclear fuel, radioactive substances, toxic material, drugs, biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction (Sputnik, January 12).

Since its 1971 show trial of German mercenary Rolf Steiner, Sudan has maintained strong opposition to the presence of European mercenaries in Africa. While al-Bashir appears to have reversed Sudan’s position, it seems unlikely that the regime would squander what is left of its political capital by deploying white mercenaries against unarmed Sudanese on the streets of Khartoum. Such direct intervention could set back Moscow’s growing role in Africa, though Russia will likely do all it can behind the scenes to preserve a regime that has proved highly accommodating to Russian interests.

This article was first published in the February 6, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.