Wagner in Africa | James Pogue | Granta

Wagner in Africa

James Pogue

I was always confused about where people left their guns. Most of my days in the Central African Republic were spent on the riverside terrace of the Hôtel Oubangui, and although this was not by choice, it did turn out to be a convenient place to sense the atmosphere of intrigue that was settling over Bangui. It was the kind of mood that excites journalists. ‘Rarely has such a fragrance of Cold War wafted over the banks of the Oubangui,’ wrote the pan-African current affairs magazine Jeune Afrique. ‘The truth is that a front in the war launched two years ago in Ukraine has opened in the heart of the Central African capital.’ The hotel terrace was full of people who must have stowed weapons somewhere – weary peacekeepers in uniform, grim and silent local Wagner Group recruits, Rwandan soldiers, bodyguards for businessmen of all nationalities and descriptions. A combination of these came every afternoon to drink fruit juice or whiskey and look at the river, which was then miles wide, flooded and raging. Some of them may have had sidearms concealed on them, but as far as I could tell they all observed the no-guns policy marked at the hotel door, where a sticker showed a stencil of an M16, circled and crossed-out in the manner of the international ‘no smoking’ symbol. Even men in body armor with thirty-round magazines stuck into the front of their plate-carriers would walk unarmed through the lobby and loiter on the terrace for hours. I wondered about this because I had very little else to do, and because in America we have a complex about leaving firearms in vehicles where they might be stolen. But I had been warned not to get caught reporting, so I never asked anyone where they left their guns.

I hadn’t known about the rumors flying around before I got to CAR, as everyone calls it in English, pronouncing the acronym phonetically. ‘ANNOUNCEMENT’, Fidèle Gouandjika, the special counselor of CAR’s president, and one of the most powerful people in the country, posted on Facebook on 10 November 2023. ‘Heightened vigilance. The CIA is planning to visit CAR. I am always at the service of the sovereign people.’

On Russian Telegram channels they were more specific. They thought America was launching a shadow war: ‘A CIA task force is due to arrive in Bangui in November,’ one message read. ‘The goal of this visit is to reinforce the American security sphere, and to collect information on the Wagner Group, because the United States is still unable to develop an efficient counter-strategy.’

The Americans were supposedly sending in a scouting party just as I arrived.

The Russians really were everywhere in Bangui. There was a Wagner base not far from my hotel, and convoys of men in Wagner uniforms passed at all hours, usually in groups of four or five Land Cruiser 79 pickups, the 4×4 of choice for rebel groups and mercenaries the world over. These usually carried five men wearing camo, face masks and short-brim caps, all sitting down with automatic rifles, while a gunner stood at a swivel-mounted DShK heavy machine gun. The first time I saw one of these convoys I locked eyes with a young guy in a skull mask. After a moment he raised his hand and gave me a slight wave.

The fixer I’d hired, a local TV correspondent named Leger-Serge Kokpakpa, laughed when I told him I’d ended up hiding the camo jacket I’d been wearing before he picked me up at M’Poko Airport. But a French journalist said I was giving off an aspect militaire, and I didn’t want to draw attention. There were two Russian women on my flight, and the man who came to pick them up reappeared half an hour later, standing listlessly in the dingy baggage claim area while I waited in line to apply for a visa. ‘People watch white people here,’ Leger-Serge said, when he noticed me glancing at the man. ‘It’s natural. Even white people watch white people.’ But I was still edgy. Since at least the summer the airport had been ‘entirely under the control of the Russians’, according to sources within the 16,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the country. It was the logistics hub for Wagner Group operations across Africa. ‘The Russians know all the Americans who come into the country,’ I was told. ‘The customs people tell them. They just keep tabs.’

The customs agents took my passport and told me I would have to go to the national immigration office the next day to collect my visa. Leger-Serge pulled the ancient little Peugeot he’d borrowed away from the airport and into the mile-long row of tin shacks and cinderblock restaurants of Bangui’s grand market. It seemed that every other car was a white pickup with the logo of an aid organization or ‘UN’ painted on its side. Then a new UAZ SUV with police lights flashing cut us off, forcing us to swerve to let them by. ‘Those are the Russians, the Wagners,’ Leger-Serge said. Central Africans use the terms interchangeably. ‘They come and go, you never know when. They fly at all hours. They do what they want.’

Leger-Serge was a tall and somber 46-year-old who lived far out on the outskirts of Bangui. He was poor, and had little connection to the small and intimate networks of the elite. But in CAR, to be a journalist was still to be a part of a somewhat formalized professional caste. He called me his confrère, and told me about a colleague who’d had two of her sons murdered in front of her during the violence between Muslims and Christians in 2014. ‘I get very discouraged all the time,’ he said. ‘My family is always worried about me.’ He told me he’d left for Congo during the worst of the violence. ‘But it’s the job. I’ve fled before, I can always flee again.’

Leger-Serge showed me the colonial red-stone cathedral, and then took me to the monument commemorating the Russians killed while fighting in the country: a squad of soldiers cast in bronze, pointing rifles or looking through binoculars into the distance. He was in love with Bangui – a city of about a million – known affectionately as ‘Bangui La Coquette’.

‘It’s the only city in the country,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows everyone.’

The Hôtel Oubangui was a beige thirteen-story building from the seventies, aging into the kind of decrepit modernist aesthetic that people sometimes call African brutalism. The rooms were grim, but it was surrounded on one side by twisting banyan trees and towering silver-trunked kapoks. It stood on a rocky outcrop that jutted far into the Oubangui River, and there was a walkway you could follow to an abandoned restaurant where locals went to stare toward the Democratic Republic of Congo on the opposite bank. The river was so high that it had flooded the outcrop, sending cascades of water under the sagging plywood flooring of the walkway. Entire small islands of turf floated past, often with trees still standing in the middle of them. Delicate white ibises calmly rested on the branches as the water carried them along.

‘It’s the Bangui Riviera,’ a Zambian army captain joked as I sat at the small hut that served as a bar. ‘This is what they have.’ He had been in CAR for six months with MINUSCA, as the UN force in CAR is known. Peacekeepers, he told me, were still being caught and killed in the bush. ‘Right now in Bangui it is peaceful,’ he said. ‘But there are rebels even in the city, I know that for sure.’ He was drinking Schweppes tonic. The Zambians loved tonic. ‘The bush is harder,’ he said. ‘It’s not like any other country, it’s really jungle. The roads are bad. And they can attack you anywhere.’

In July of 2023, Vladimir Putin hosted the second annual Russia–Africa Summit in St Petersburg. The Russians wanted to ‘pursue avenues that would liberate sovereign states from their colonial heritage’, Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia, said shortly before meeting with Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the math professor who’d been elected president of CAR in 2016.

At the summer summit, Putin announced a goodwill gesture: a delivery of grain to six African countries. CAR was to receive 50,000 tons of wheat. This turned out to be more complicated than anyone expected.

CAR, a country of five million people and the size of France, is landlocked. It has gold and diamonds, timber, some uranium, and even oil. But the country only has one industrial mine, and just 700 miles of paved roads. Its major logistical route is a heavily-guarded road running west from Bangui. The Russian wheat arrived at the port in Douala, Cameroon, ready to be transported to CAR, a country where more than two thirds of the population is dependent on aid, and where 5.6 percent of the population died in 2022 alone – meaning that a person in CAR is 741 percent more likely to die than in the rest of the world. But the grain sat at port. It had never occurred to the Russians that the country had no milling facilities to turn the wheat into flour.

The country was a French colony called Oubangui-Chari until 1960. It was nicknamed la colonie poubelle because it was where the French sent the officers and bureaucrats who scored lowest on exams. The French built very little infrastructure, relying on the chicotte – the hippo-hide whip that became emblematic of colonial labor in Equatorial Africa – and the practice of taking women and children hostage to force men to work as porters and in the cotton fields. After independence, CAR remained a cog in the geopolitical system known as the Françafrique – an unofficial but comprehensive network of French influence over its former colonies, built on intimate social ties with local elites, and a suite of military, financial, monetary and political agreements. French advisors had places in all of CAR’s government ministries, and effectively ran most of them until the 1990s. All but two of CAR’s presidents have been chosen with French involvement.

But France began to pull back in the 1990s, and the last troops left in 1998. Western leaders thought that a new international order of peace, democracy and globalization had opened, and that commerce would bring peace. After the end of the Cold War, they were no longer as interested in enforcing that peace themselves.

The experiment with multi-party democracy in CAR, like in many of France’s former colonies, did not yield a strong state or stable governance. CAR instead became a multi-militia state, where rebel groups and enterprising mercenary types launched rebellions that were often little more than cover for banditry. One of these rebellions succeeded in 2013, when a loose grouping of mercenaries and largely Muslim rebels swept into power to overthrow then-president François Bozizé. This alliance, known as the Séléka, was in power for a year, during which they ruled with wanton and almost random cruelty, committing mass killings, seizing civilian houses, extorting and looting at will. A collection of self-defense groups known as the anti-Balaka fought back, triggering a cycle of brutal fratricidal killing that became known as La Crise. At its worst, in December 2013, 1,000 people were murdered in a single weekend in Bangui. Four hundred thousand people fled into the bush, or toward countries like Cameroon. I had a very difficult conversation with a man named Crepin Botto, the head of a victims’ rights organization, who was working as a gas station attendant when he was kidnapped and tortured during the fighting. His life was only saved when a Muslim woman saw what was happening and decided to intervene. ‘I was tortured for no reason, do you understand?’ he told me. ‘I can explain it to you, but when you write it down it means nothing. It’s just another person who was tortured.’

French troops were redeployed to the country at the end of 2013 – and the UN sent in MINUSCA as a longer-term peacekeeping force. The Séléka-backed president was forced to resign. But neither the French nor MINUSCA were able to lead a war in the countryside, where the rebels regrouped. By this point, CAR was dependent on aid and security from the outside world. The country’s elite developed a foreign policy of ‘cunning victimhood’, playing foreign powers and aid groups for funds and backing, as the anthropologist Louisa Lombard describes it. ‘Previously, concessions were primarily granted for resource extraction,’ she wrote, ‘but now, through foreign aid, all government prerogatives have been turned into concessions as well, amounting to the wholesale outsourcing of the country’s sovereignty.’

La Crise was a defining trauma for Central Africans. Peace and security came to trump considerations about democracy or rule of law. Many people in CAR became cynical about the weak, if putatively democratic, states that the West has backed in the region. A wave of resentment swelled through Francophone Africa, and a new generation of leaders soon blamed France and the West for preaching liberal values while keeping their countries poor and dependent. ‘These are the questions my generation is asking,’ Burkina Faso’s young president Ibrahim Traoré told an audience at the last Russia–Africa Summit. ‘We ask how Africa, with so much wealth in our soil . . . how is Africa the poorest continent? Why is Africa a hungry continent? And why is it our leaders must go all over the world begging?’

Despite years of development aid, the countries in the orbit of the Françafrique system still mostly lack the infrastructure and access to capital that would allow them to exploit their own resources. China, which offers barter deals of infrastructure for resource concessions, and currently makes a foreign direct investment to African countries of $5.6 billion a year, has profited from this situation, pushing into stabler countries like Angola. But this model does not work everywhere. As the United States and France pulled back, a contiguous band of low-level war grew up across much of Africa north of the equator. Many of these conflicts have no prospect of ending any time soon. So mining the continent’s resources has increasingly become an armed operation.

Nine Chinese miners were murdered in an attack in the bush a few months before I got to Bangui – the most violent single attack on Chinese nationals in Africa since the Cold War. Western security analysts now predict that China will, like Russia before them, begin deploying private military companies to protect its resource interests on the continent. ‘In the past, the United States and France took the lead in conducting anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations in the region, which helped protect Chinese investments from direct threats,’ one report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it. ‘Gone are the days,’ another report from the Center wrote, when mining companies doing business in Africa ‘could rely on the Western security umbrella’.

Even Rwanda – Equatorial Africa’s chief military superpower has learned that states facing insurrections will gladly accept armed support to protect resource interests. The country has deployed troops to protect gas fields and ruby mines in Mozambique. It sent 2,000 or so troops to CAR under MINUSCA, alongside another 1,200 deployed as part of a bilateral military agreement – more, in total, than the Russians. Rwanda has very few resources of its own, but in CAR they have been given gold, diamond, and timber concessions. Rwandan state-linked companies have also acquired access to substantial tracts of agricultural land – a valuable resource for a small country where much of the arable land is already developed. ‘Everything is a challenge here,’ a Rwandan businessman told reporters, after he hired locals to cut a 40,000-acre cattle ranch out of the bush by machete. ‘There’s no housing, no water, no electricity. When I came it was forest.’

After two days I was still waiting for my visa. At a shop next door to the hotel I had a drink with a man named Eugène Simplice Touabona, a one-time Marxist and parliamentarian who now mostly lives in France. I took him to be in his sixties, but he admonished me when I asked. ‘We have a saying here,’ he said. ‘Il faut pas demander l’âge des grand-frères’ – don’t ask the age of your uncles. ‘Have a whiskey,’ he said, and poured out four fingers of scotch.

James Pogue

James Pogue is the author of Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West, and is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. He is writing a book about rural California. The Pulitzer Center helped fund his reporting for ‘Wagner in Africa’.

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