Wagner in Africa

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 International and Strategic 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.

I wanted to talk to him about the anti-Western mood swirling around Francophone Africa. ‘I’m a leftist,’ he said. ‘You know what I mean by that as an African? I came out of the internationalist movement. I was trained in Moscow and Romania. I have had two Romanian wives. We had an international dream.’

He said that Westerners were foolish for thinking that the sudden burst of anti-imperialism was the result of Russian propaganda. ‘It goes back further than the Russians probably even know,’ he said. He talked about the Congolese pan-Africanist leader Patrice Lumumba, who was overthrown in a Belgian-orchestrated and CIA-backed plot in 1960, and Thomas Sankara, the anti-imperialist president of Burkina Faso, who was assassinated in 1987, after three years of revolutionary rule in which he refused to take money from the IMF, made the country agriculturally self-sufficient, and attempted to pull the country out of the French orbit. ‘Do people in America know who Thomas Sankara is today? You will have to explain who he is to them. That legacy is more important than what Russia does now, because the West did this to themselves. You had people who wanted to develop Africa for us, in our own way, and then they were killed. We pay attention to this sort of thing. This is why there is Wagner.’

Central Africans never seemed to share the same difficulty that Western journalists have in describing the Wagner Group. They generally took for granted that it was acting in the interests of the Russian state. Until the death of its three most senior leaders in a plane crash last year, both Wagner and Russia worked to maintain the impression that the group operated independently. This was true, up to a point – Wagner had its own revenue streams and operated outside the formal structures of the Russian military and intelligence apparatus. In Africa, especially, the group seems to have been self-funding. But it was never a freelance geopolitical actor. The group received financial support from the state, and worked closely with Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU. From its role in Eastern Ukraine, where it got its start in 2014, through Libya, Sudan, Syria and now Mali, the group offered Russia a way of conducting foreign operations while minimizing official military casualties and creating confusion among Western observers about what Russia was really up to. But after Wagner’s mutiny last spring, Moscow appears to have decided that the group was too independent. Putin publicly acknowledged that the group had received billions in state funding, and Russian intelligence began to take direct control of Wagner’s revenue streams and political networks.

Wagner has been in CAR since 2018. Their support has allowed President Touadéra and his allies to rule in an increasingly draconian manner, but many people in the country seem happy to accept mercenaries in exchange for stability. I asked Touabona whether he thought that inviting Wagner in had been worthwhile.

He was done talking politics for the day. ‘I don’t think it does anything anymore,’ he said. ‘There are no ideologies now, only interests.’


A cloak-and-dagger story was emerging in real time. In September, a man named Michael Stock had flown to Bangui to meet with members of Touadéra’s inner circle. Stock is the founder of an American security consultancy called Bancroft Global Development. According to his company bio, he ‘is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University and a fifth-generation descendant of [. . .] investment bankers’. He came to negotiate a security cooperation accord, though all that the company spokesperson would call it was ‘a framework to discuss possible future activities with the government of CAR’. Accompanying him, reportedly, was another Bancroft employee, Richard Rouget. Rouget is well known in French security circles: he once went by the name Colonel Sanders when he worked for the notorious French mercenary Bob Denard, who instigated four coups in the Comoro Islands. Denard was a living expression of the Françafrique system, organizing soldiers of fortune to fight in small wars across Africa from the early sixties to the late nineties, always with French political interests in mind. Rouget himself led a detachment of foreign fighters during the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire that began in 2002. He was the first person to be convicted under a South African law that barred the recruitment of mercenaries in the country. He received a five-year suspended sentence. ‘Tell the people there’s no money in the mercenary business,’ he said at his sentencing hearing.

But there is money in Bancroft’s business. The company has been active for over a decade in Somalia, where it has constructed a base near the airport in Mogadishu. It is a major player in the country, responsible for forming anti-terror units in the long-running war against the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab. The US State Department provided the funds for this work. For the last few years the company has declared revenues in the neighborhood of $20 million a year.

When news of Rouget and Stock’s meeting in Bangui emerged, people concluded that the American government was using the company to make a push into the country. The meeting was first reported by Africa Intelligence – an outlet that charges nearly one thousand dollars a year for a subscription and was started under a different name by the French journalist and historian of Françafrique Antoine Glaser, the true archetype of a certain kind of throwback French journalist in Africa – the person who knows everyone, hears every rumor, has lived everywhere. It is a fount of deeply insider info, often sourced secondhand, and its reporting on Bancroft went largely unnoticed in the English-speaking world.

While I was in Bangui, the New York Times published another piece on the meeting, with the headline battle for influence rages in heart of wagner’s operations in africa. The New York Times’ correspondent Elian Peltier confirmed the story about Bancroft meeting government officials, and cited unnamed sources that said the Biden Administration had offered a deal: ‘security assistance in exchange for easing Wagner out’. Peltier reported, somewhat cryptically, that Touadéra’s special counselor Fidèle Gouandjika had said there was a deadline for this deal – by December the CAR government had to decide whether to stick with Wagner or to ‘partner’ again with the West.

I didn’t know how fraught the situation was before the New York Times article dropped. I took the short walk from the hotel to look at the Maison Russe, the Russian cultural center that has become the symbol of the Wagner Group’s presence in the country. In a conscious imitation of an Alliance Française outpost it offers language classes, film screenings and concerts. It features a carousel and playground. When I saw it, it was lit up with Christmas lights. The center is officially headed by a young and slightly effeminate man named Dmitry Syty, a former employee of the online troll farm used by Wagner in its overseas propaganda operations. Syty, whose wife is a French citizen and who himself has lived on and off in France, is the most visible Russian figure in the country, and a partner in Midas Resources, the company that has taken over much of the gold mining in the country. Midas Resources is one of a handful of Wagner-linked companies operating in CAR, which together generate as much as $1 billion a year from the country, according to a leaked American cable – an astonishing estimate given that the country’s official GDP is only $2.3 billion a year. These companies rely on the logistical and financial network that Wagner has developed across Africa, from Madagascar to Cameroon to Sudan, evading US sanctions and moving goods in and out of the country. The money helps to fund both Wagner’s operations around Africa and its outfit in Ukraine. Syty is also the owner of Africa Ti L’Or, the so-called bière Russe advertised on billboards all around Bangui. Rumors have it that he had something to do with two attempted fire bombings of the French-owned Castel brewery. His hand, in turn, was nearly blown off by a package bomb in December 2022, an attack he blamed on French intelligence. Young pro-Russia men responded by burning down the local DHL office and rioting outside the French embassy and the offices of the European Commission.

I was on the far side of the road as I passed the place, and I looked down for a moment to send a text. When I looked back up two young Black guards in camo were whistling and waving at me. They thought I’d been taking pictures. They told me to cross the street and come over to them, which I refused to do. They ran into the street, stopping traffic. One coolly raised his rifle, and the other walked up and pushed his chest against my shoulder. They ordered me to unlock my phone and went through my photos. ‘What were you doing? This is a military base,’ they kept repeating. ‘It’s a military base.’


Russian involvement in CAR first began in 2017, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov helped the Touadéra government get a waiver for the UN arms embargo that was put in place during the civil war. It proposed a donation of small arms – sniper rifles, grenade launchers and AK-47s – for CAR’s small and poorly trained military. France, in an effort to maintain its influence, responded by offering a shipment of assault rifles seized from armed groups in Somalia. CAR decided to accept the Russian arms. ‘The West is not very much loved by many countries. And many see Russia as the country that will oppose the West,’ Russian historian Dmitri Bondarenko gloated at the time.

It was early days in the populist turn in French-speaking Africa, which Russia tried to encourage. In 2018, the Kremlin invited Kémi Séba, a young, charismatic activist who had been involved in the radical Afrocentrist movement for many years, to visit Moscow. Séba is a major figure in the new pan-Africanist movement that was then gaining steam. Its watchwords were ‘sovereignty’, ‘self-determination’, and ‘dignity’, and it was an essentially revolutionary movement, calling for mass mobilization against a corrupt, French-aligned political class. Much of this anger was natural. But the anti-Western rhetoric fitted neatly with Russia’s desire to preserve a semblance of autonomy in the global economy. Russia financed social media campaigns blaming France for poverty and insecurity in Africa, with varying degrees of success, from Madagascar to Mali. In CAR they backed a national radio station called Radio Lengo Songo, and organized anti-French and anti-UN demonstrations.

When Wagner mercenaries first appeared in the country they were officially known as ‘civilian advisors’. But by 2020 their mission became clear, when former president Bozizé led a coalition of former Séléka fighters in an assault that made it all the way to the outskirts of Bangui. An uneasy coalition of Wagner troops, UN soldiers, and Rwandan regulars drove the rebels back. The rebels, now known as the CPC, took to the bush and continued fighting.

Wagner waged a war of annihilation against them, following a sardonic directive to ‘leave no trace’. It’s hard to know how many Wagner fighters were actually in the country, but estimates suggest a peak of around 2,500, before they were drawn down to around 900 after the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner also recruited around 5,000 local fighters. ‘We call them Black Russians,’ an embassy employee in Bangui told me. ‘They’re honestly the scariest.’

Many of the rebel fighters are Muslim, and Wagner seems to have singled out the traditionally semi-nomadic Peul ethnic group, according to a recent report by the watchdog group The Sentry. They destroyed herding camps, razed villages, and looted gold and cattle to sell in Cameroon. They ordered the Central African Armed Forces soldiers fighting with them to gang-rape women and disobedient comrades-in-arms. ‘They blame the Peul for everything,’ I was told by Alain Nzilo, the founder of Corbeau News Centrafrique (CNC), a news site that has been banned in CAR since 2021. ‘There’s no journalists, no media out there,’ he said. ‘Just now at Bocaranga – they got there two weeks ago – they killed two people, raped a girl. In the bush, Wagner are kings.’

As they pacified the countryside, Wagner seized mines that were held by armed groups. Dormant mines began production again. Wagner took control of the country’s only industrial gold mine at Ndassima. It was originally owned by the Canadian company AXMIN Inc., which shut down operations during the violence in 2013. In 2020, the government transferred Axmin’s permit to Midas Resources. The Ndassima concession sits on a vast site – 138 square miles. To start industrial production Wagner had to take it over from a Christian militia of former anti-Balaka fighters. They hired 300 workers, gave them ID cards with personalized QR codes, and engaged in a ‘cleansing’ campaign, driving out local miners they accused of digging illegally. ‘They forbade anyone to go digging in Ndassima,’ a witness from a village seventeen miles from the site said. ‘They killed four collectors who had over 200 million CFA and 50 kilograms of gold. They stole everything. Then they put the fuel on the people who were tied up and they set fire.’

Ndassima is now estimated to be producing nearly $300 million worth of gold every year. Gold is easy to transport and offload into international markets, and the Russian state is likely to be profiting directly from the billions of dollars a year Wagner earns from gold sourced from countries like CAR and Sudan. Very little of this was disrupted after Wagner launched its mutiny in Russia. Fidèle Gouandjika appeared for TV cameras the day after Prigozhin’s death, wearing a T-shirt reading je suis wagner. A Russian intelligence operative named Denis Pavlov moved into the country, part of an effort to bring Wagner’s networks under direct state control. But the Wagner name did not go away, and Russian forces in Africa continue to use the group’s death’s-head insignia

The Russians did bring peace here,’ a clothing-shop owner named Sonia Pona told me. She had to flee the country for Cameroon during the fighting in the 2010s. ‘But now it’s peaceful. I can have my business. We were a French colony and now we’re a Russian colony. Maybe next we’ll be an American colony. It’s good to have options.’ She was just one of the many people I spoke with who had mixed feelings about the presence of the Wagner Group in the country.

‘We know about their practices, we know about the women and girls they take to their trucks,’ the Cardinal of Bangui told the New York Times. ‘They’re no angels, and they behave savagely,’ he said. ‘They’re still a lesser evil.’

Lewis Mudge, the Human Rights Watch Central Africa head, told me that Washington realized too late how desperate Central Africans were for the kind of security that Wagner brought. ‘I’ve watched millions and millions of dollars being spent on peacekeeping groups,’ he said. ‘At least Wagner’s having some success at pushing the armed groups to the periphery of the country.’

Soft power and development aid have proved less meaningful than the simple fact of providing security. ‘The Americans are late to the game,’ Mudge said when I brought up Bancroft. ‘I know for a fact that they wanted the Rwandans to be a viable solution. They wanted the Rwandans to take the weight.’ He said he didn’t think an American private military company moving in would necessarily be all bad. ‘If Bancroft can not abuse the local population and they can perform the security aspects that Wagner’s performing, then that would objectively be a good thing.’


Leger-Serge and I were arrested when we went to pick up my visa. The US State Department later informed me that I was not technically arrested, and had only been ‘detained’. But they hadn’t been there when men with guns ordered us into the back of a Hilux and drove us to the headquarters of the Directorate de la Surveillance du Territoire. This was a repurposed shipping warehouse on the riverfront that everyone called ‘the port’. It was on the same stretch of riverside road as my hotel.

A soldier took us up a flight of concrete stairs and sat us on a wooden bench in a narrow hallway to wait. We were questioned for a while by a Colonel named Yvon Mgara, who had a husky voice and an accent so thick that I kept having to ask him to repeat himself. He was very annoyed by the time he sent us in to General Dénis Mbaïgume, who was in charge of the country’s internal security services. Mbaïgume was a tall man wearing a burgundy suit. He was sitting at a big wooden desk with almost nothing on it but his nameplate – his secretary outside had the only computer I saw in the whole building. He asked me what it was I did. Leger-Serge protested that I had my proper press accreditation, but the General didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

Leger-Serge was very nervous, and kept saying that he did not want to have to flee or leave his children behind, like he had during the civil war.

‘You know what problems we have had in this country,’ Mbaïgume said to him. He switched to Sango, the national language, and though I couldn’t understand what they said, the phrase La Crise kept bobbing up. Mbaïgume switched back to French. ‘I want to know what you were thinking,’ he said, ‘bringing such a person here? How could you be so stupid?’

He told us to wait outside, and Colonel Mgara took over again. He chatted a while with Leger-Serge in Sango.

‘It’s going to be fine,’ Leger-Serge said to me when he turned away. ‘We’re speaking Sango. Here, that means there’s no problem.’

It didn’t work out that way. The Colonel took each of us separately for interrogation. He wrote out my answers with a ballpoint pen in tiny neat rows of cursive on sheets of printer paper. He kept me for two hours, and filled at least twenty pages. I could not believe his hand didn’t cramp. He wanted details about my life. ‘How is it that you don’t have children?’ he asked at one point. ‘Why are you coming here to do this and you don’t even have children? It’s a strange decision.’ I answered questions about where I went to elementary school and how much money I had in the bank.

‘What is it you want to know about the country?’ he asked me. ‘If you just wanted to know things why can’t you call? Do you not have WhatsApp?’

It was difficult to explain to him that I wanted to write a long and somewhat personal piece for a British literary magazine.

‘Did they think you were a spy?’ Lewis Mudge asked me later. I told him about trying to explain I was writing for Granta.

‘Oh yeah,’ he laughed. ‘You were fucked.’

The General came in and spoke to the Colonel about another American who’d been detained at the airport, ostensibly for trying to enter without a visa – even though Americans have for years been able to apply for visas upon arrival. His name was Alex, and he’d come to CAR as part of an online community called Every Passport Stamp – a group ‘for serious travelers’, as their page puts it, ‘chasing every country in the world’. He was a half-Asian tech worker from San Francisco, and he’d just married a woman he’d met in Colombia.

He was taken along with the head of a local tourist company, Honoré, the 34-year-old son of a well-connected Bangui family. Honoré had CAR, French and American citizenship, and left his wife and kids behind him in Dallas to return to the country, where he’d started a car-rental and tourist-guide business. He was big and had a slightly authoritative manner, and never seemed to go anywhere without an entourage of male henchmen and female secretaries, several of whom were waiting outside.

The two of them were making calls. Honoré contacted the Minister of Culture, who came in person to visit them. She couldn’t do anything. The DST was under the control of the Minister of the Interior – an intimidating figure named Michel Nicaise Nassin, who was close with President Touadéra, and had previously been in charge of a secretive intelligence bureau that worked with high-placed Russians in Bangui and furnished intelligence directly to the president.

Alex called the US Embassy. A few hours later a team from the US State Department arrived. Two local employees – burly young guys from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the federal law enforcement arm of the State Department – arrived with a slim, silver-haired embassy attaché named Pedro Campo-Boué, who greeted us and went to talk to the General. One of the agents asked me for my sweatshirt, so he could hide his gun before accompanying Pedro in.

‘This is not a violation,’ Pedro told me later. ‘You did nothing wrong. I cannot say exactly what I think is going on, but you’re a journalist and I think you can surmise.’ The Colonel ordered Leger-Serge, Honoré, Alex and me to the holding cell downstairs. There was wire over the windows, and an armed guard watched us. One of the Diplomatic Security agents, a muscular young white guy from Albuquerque named Jared, brought us water and protein bars. ‘I just looked at the cell where they say you’re going to sleep,’ he said. ‘To put it simply, you do not want to sleep there.’

A little while later we were called back up to see the General, who ordered us to hand over our phones and to tell him our passcodes, which he wrote down on a clean sheet of printer paper. I initially refused and tried to hand mine off to Jared. ‘I can’t tell you to give up your phone here,’ Jared said. ‘But I will advise you very strongly to please do what he says.’

I wish I could say that all this was exciting, but it was just confusing and tiring and boring. Everyone knew that whatever was happening was not really about visas. No one even mentioned the visa issue until they brought Alex and Honoré from the airport. ‘There are a lot of internal dynamics at play in the government right now,’ Pedro whispered to me. He spoke formally, and took regular, surreptitious hits from an IQOS vape device. ‘I can tell you that the interior minister is in charge of this, and that can make things complicated.’

Finally the General agreed to release us to the charge of the State Department, though without our passports or phones.

‘Merci, mon général!’ Pedro exclaimed when this was announced, in an exhalation of relief that made me think he had been worried. ‘Merci, merci, mon général.’


I didn’t hear anything from Leger-Serge the next morning. He left for home after the interrogation while Jared drove Alex and me back to the Hôtel Oubangui in an armored Land Cruiser. We went to see Honoré at the Hôtel Ledger, the grand, cream-colored colonial estate where ministers and businessmen and foreigners hang out by the pool or play tennis. We started drinking, and Honoré and I got to talking.

His father was a diplomat under a previous government. Honoré had gone to college in France, moved to Dallas and got American citizenship, and had been living in the US when he met president Touadéra at a gathering for CAR expats at a hotel in New York in 2017. He said that Touadéra told him the country needed young people like him. ‘It’s very powerful,’ he told me later, ‘when a president of your country looks you in the eyes and tells you, “We need you”.’

He was unsure about coming back. His family home was taken over by the Séléka when they came to power, and his uncle was killed by a militiaman who wanted to steal his bicycle. But he decided to return in 2019. ‘I took a leap,’ he said. ‘I made this decision, I’m going to return and give back.’

Like many in the country, he appreciated what the Russians and the Rwandans accomplished. Honoré threw himself into building a large house and a business renting out trucks and private cars, along with a bit of guiding on the side. ‘It was amazing, it was dynamic,’ he said. ‘You had this feeling that things were finally changing.’

‘After 2013, the worst fighting in our history, with the dead bodies in the street and the horrible things that happened,’ he said, ‘people were fed up and said “never again”. So when we saw the peacemaking force that came in?’ I thought at first he was talking about the UN, but he meant the Russians. ‘And after we saw France and the international force before that was just weakness? We said okay.’

‘When they pushed the rebels away we were happy, we were clapping our hands,’ he said. ‘Because we knew the consequences. We are used to the casualties, we are so used in our history to running. And this time, we could say, “We’re not going anywhere – the Russians have secured the capital”.’

I asked him about the anti-Western feeling on the continent. ‘It comes from this history of wondering why we’re so left behind,’ he said. ‘We know that we are rich, that our ground is so rich. People have begun to ask the reason why progress hasn’t happened. The answer to that in everyone’s mouth becomes France.’

The Touadéra government developed this feeling, he thought. ‘Our parents, the generation of people in government, were not pointing the finger at themselves. They were the generation that didn’t stand up. They claimed that if they tried to do anything they’d be killed, or France would block us. There was always a reason not to stand up.’

But now he thought they’d let the Russian situation go too far.

‘You know about the killings outside the capital,’ he said. ‘The rapes. They’ve become very violent over time. It’s like they’re fearless, and here it is this no man’s land where they can do whatever they want.’

He seemed disquieted when I asked what he saw for the future. ‘The game is really simple here,’ he said. ‘To any partner, we have the resources, they have the money. We need the money. But to find a fair strategy? We have a leadership that cannot do it. I don’t know if we will ever do it.’


Wagner has taken over the country in many ways, and it is profiting greatly from the country’s resources. But it has done so with the connivance and willing participation of many people in CAR, who think those resources wouldn’t be exploited at all if they weren’t there.

‘A lot of Central Africans think about gold and diamonds differently from people in the West,’ the journalist John Lechner, who is writing a book about Wagner, told me. He has lived in Bangui, speaks French, Sango and Russian, and has spent years interviewing Wagner fighters. ‘In Central Africa that’s how people make a living. They judge things on the basis of – is there security around the mines so we can go work in them?’ They are less interested in where the minerals go than in stable employment. ‘Wagner is getting the gold and diamonds, but they also provided men to end a civil war.’

The story common in the West, of an all-powerful Russian force come to sow chaos and strip the country of its resources, was much too simple. ‘It’s a story that fits everyone’s priors. You see nefarious Russians and think Heart of Darkness, warlords in Africa. But there are 1,500–2,000 mercenaries in CAR,’ Lechner told me. ‘So obviously they don’t control everything. It’s a country at war – no one controls everything. Obviously they aren’t in total control, because there are lots of people who attack and kill them.’

‘Of course what Wagner does contributes to the conflict,’ he said. ‘But it’s in a structural way. If you told American soldiers in Afghanistan in the 2000s they were creating more Taliban, they’d have been like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” – but, structurally, that’s what happened.’


I hadn’t heard from Leger-Serge because the DST arrested him the night he arrived home. They brought him back to the port for further questioning. He was shaken up when I finally got hold of him. He hadn’t slept in the cell because he was too bothered by the mosquitoes. He had developed malaria, and looked awful. ‘It’s the job,’ he said, and gave me a fist bump. Alex gave him some Malarone.

Honoré, Alex and I were still waiting on an update from the DST or the State Department. We spent a lot of time hanging out on the terrace of the Hôtel Bangui. The country’s national holiday was coming up, and the hotel put out flags and bunting. The river was still miles wide, and moving so fast that it roared like a mountain rapid. Young men went out anyway to fish in long dugout pirogues, spinning the canoes through eddies and away from whirlpools. On some afternoons we were surveilled. A pair of men would calmly stand up and follow me whenever I left the terrace.

Honoré and Leger-Serge were very worried. They both seemed surprised that things still hadn’t been resolved, and whispered to each other in Sango when we met for breakfast. Alex and I were drinking too much, for lack of anything better to do, which gave the uncertainty and frustration of being quasi-detained a physical manifestation of degradation and fatigue. I didn’t notice at first when I began to show symptoms of malaria.

‘I think I’m going to try to cross the river,’ Alex kept saying. He was becoming more frantic by the day. ‘I’ve been to Afghanistan. I’ve been to a lot of places. I’ve read what happens to people in places like this.’ His wife had made him agree to give up adventure travel. My girlfriend, on the other hand, thought it was funny that I’d gone to write about extraction, and now might only get out of CAR if the American special forces sent an extraction team.

The first two nights we went out. We went to a series of bars where the young elite and international crowd hung out. It felt like Atlanta. We ended up drinking with a guy from Houston named Shaq, who knew about our situation. Everyone had heard about it, it seemed. He was in his thirties, and was in Bangui to start a construction business. ‘It’s been good, man, we’re doing it. If you want to make money you have to go places people won’t go. We deal with fucking everybody. I don’t even speak French!’

I said I should come back sometime and start a business. ‘Take my number bro,’ he said. ‘What people don’t do is take fucking risks. Here it’s a lot of risk. So it’s money.’

We went to another bar called Sango, a place with a sort of Dubai-chic decor, which served shisha and Indian food. We couldn’t find a cab when we left. Honoré’s driver had gone home. We walked up to the main road to look for a taxi, and suddenly a truck full of police pulled up. A man with an AK-47 ordered us to get in the back. There were five or six police, all yelling. They took us to a police station, and the Commissaire began to shout at us. He told us it was illegal to go out in the country without a passport. But he hadn’t asked us to show him our passports. So he knew about us too. He wanted money. I had spent almost all my cash at the bar, and only had 5,000 CFA on me – about eight dollars. Alex had $400 US and gave it up. They let us go.


We were confined to the hotel from then on. The pills for my malaria took a couple days to kick in. The disease weakens the muscles in the back of your neck, forcing you to go around with a hunched, hangdog aspect. The way I looked and felt seemed to match everyone’s mood.

Occasionally Pedro came by the hotel to check on us, smoking his IQOS and speaking carefully about the situation. ‘It’s a very opaque structure of government that they have here, and it can be confusing, even for us. Especially for us.’

Jared, the Diplomatic Security officer, accompanied him, and forced MREs, water and more malaria pills on me. He seemed to take pride in making sure that I was going to be okay. ‘Everyone hates the government until they get detained in a foreign country, right?’

At the end of the month we were finally told that we were being expelled. It was the day before the Fête Nationale, and the streets were uncommonly clean. Flags hung everywhere. Jared picked us up in the armored Land Cruiser. Leger-Serge and Honoré came too, hoping to recover their phones and passports.

When we arrived at the airport, the police commissioner was there, looking solemn and wearing a blue-and-pink floral suit. He started yelling as soon as he saw us.

‘Where are his pants?’ he asked, pointing at Alex, who was wearing shorts. ‘He needs to be wearing pants for this.’ Jared apologized on Alex’s behalf.

We stood around for hours, waiting for someone to bring our phones and passports. The Minister of Culture was apparently on her way to make sure everything went smoothly.

‘There’s a lot of stuff going on with America and Russia as you know,’ Jared said. ‘And so certain people who are close to Russia –’

‘The Interior Minister,’ Honoré cut in.

‘Need to make it clear they’re being hypervigilant. That they’re going above and beyond. And so here we are,’ he said. ‘And the Minister of Interior is –’

‘Everyone is scared of him,’ Honoré cut in.

‘He’s unhinged, basically.’

We were finally taken to a small holding room, where our phones were taken out of a safe and given to another police officer, who also had in hand our Ordre de Conduite à la Frontière.

It was a strangely reflective moment. For Jared it was a job well done, seen through to the end. For Honoré it soured his hopes of coming back to his home country to help build its future. The next time we spoke he was back in Texas. For Alex it was the end of his ‘Every Stamp’ dream.


Back in Paris I was contacted by a reporter named François Mazet, the Central Africa correspondent for RFI. He’d heard about our detainment. We met for a coffee near Place de la République, and I told him I was embarrassed at how little I’d been able to report. He didn’t think I’d have been able to travel outside of Bangui anyway. ‘You wouldn’t have got very far,’ he said. ‘The Black Russians would have stopped you at a checkpoint.’

He was about to publish a story about Washington’s attempts to wedge Wagner out of the country. His sources told him that Bancroft was planning to create its own private military company in CAR, and was intending to move into protecting mines and other assets just like Wagner. He quoted an unnamed French military official who said that the Americans were coming to ‘compete on Wagner’s own ground, and bring an end to Russian hegemony over the country’s institutions’.

‘This deployment would explain the administrative difficulties that many Americans have seen in the past months in Bangui,’ the piece said, when I read it two days later, ‘including a journalist who was expelled despite having papers in order’.

It seemed the game was on. us turns tables on putin in africa pmc powerplay, was the headline in Newsweek. But the State Department denied the story. ‘The Department did not give a green light to Bancroft to begin operations, as some have falsely reported,’ a spokesman told a press briefing. ‘Fake News,’ Pedro texted me.

Either the American government was hiding something, or Bancroft had decided to set up operations in CAR as a freelance actor. While I was in Paris, a representative of president Touadéra confirmed that Bancroft was establishing itself in the country. ‘The Central African Republic is in the process of diversifying its relations. We are in the context of the reconstruction of the national army.’ He listed off a host of countries that had offered trainers to the military. ‘The President of the Republic always tells us: “I have my arms open to work with everyone”.’

‘It’s not a secret anymore. The government itself announced it,’ Alain Nzilo, the founder of CNC, told me. ‘That shocked everyone. People were stunned to think that you could have Americans in the country with Wagner. They think basically that it’s an American game to weaken Wagner’s financial streams. Even the armed groups think that.’

‘Touadéra is a very complicated man,’ Nzilo told me. Touadéra was his math professor in college. ‘He’s a very dangerous man. He could be playing these kinds of games – he’s very capable of saying, “Okay, you accuse me of being bought by the Russians? Look – I’ll play with the Americans.” It’s a thing he would do. But among the population, on the streets, everyone thinks the American government is involved.’


In mid-January, Jeune Afrique published a long feature about the goings-on in Bangui. They reported that for all the talk, Bancroft only had two employees in the country. But they added new layers of intrigue – the Bancroft ex-mercenary Rouget apparently met with CAR officials in Paris, accompanied by a Franco-Moroccan named Alexandre Benalla – a man who was a close intimate and personal bodyguard to French President Emmanuel Macron, until Benalla was charged with assaulting protestors and received a three-year suspended prison sentence.

The Russians and their allies knew something was up. Hassan Bouba, CAR’s minister of Herding and Animal Health – a wily and debonaire former Chadian spy, who is openly associated with Russia – launched a ‘committee of control and investigation on the activities of Americans in CAR’. In early February, Africa Intelligence reported that a Bancroft employee had been arrested in Bangui. The government denied this.

I managed to get hold of Fidèle Gouandjika, who told me that Bancroft was indeed operating in the country. But he said that this didn’t mean anything about a new partnership with America. ‘We experimented for more than sixty years with the West,’ he said. ‘The West never did anything in CAR to bring peace, or to bring real democracy.’

‘Of all ten heads of state here, we’ve had two presidents who were ever elected,’ he said. ‘Patassé, who was elected in 1993, who was a great friend of the Americans. And now President Touadéra, who is a great friend of the Russians.’ He said what he wanted was ‘real democracy’, which in this case meant allowing Touadéra to serve indefinitely. A disputed referendum had just overturned the constitutional two-term limit for CAR presidents.

‘The US hasn’t brought democracy to Afghanistan,’ he said, and went through a list of countries that had been failed by the US. It was the sort of thing you hear from anti-colonialists everywhere in Francophone Africa. I began to tune out, but then he started talking about the country’s mineral wealth.

‘Today, with Russia, we have projects,’ he said. ‘But –’ he paused, and seemed to turn thoughtful: ‘they say they’re going to use our uranium to make nuclear power plants. They say they’re going to develop our oil. They say they’re going to make foundries and refineries for our gold. They say they’re going to make a national diamond brokerage. They say they’re going to make solar facilities, because we have sun here.’ The connection was shaky, and I was having trouble making out his tone. At first I thought he believed that all of this was actually going to happen.

‘They think we’re still children,’ he said. ‘Like we were in the years when the French and Americans could fool us. We are a generation that all has degrees – we all have higher degrees. We’re not like our parents’ generation. Russia makes us these promises. But we’re vigilant.’

I asked if he worried that the Russians were just new colonialists. ‘Maybe the Russians want to colonize us,’ he said. ‘And we’re going to accept that colonization, if this colonization can bring us development, if this colonization can allow us to process our minerals here in our own country. Then we’re happy. But if it’s a colonization like the French and the Americans,’ he said, ‘where at the slightest sound of gunfire they run? Then it’s not worth it.’

This was a sentiment I heard over and over in CAR. People reproached the West less for being brutal than for being weak. It was impossible, as an American, not to experience the misadventure of deportation as an indicator of the decline of the power of what is still sometimes called the ‘American Empire’. Russian-allied leaders in CAR, Mali, and Burkina Faso regularly talk about the pullback of the West from the region as liberation. But the future in CAR was still going to be shaped by outside powers wielding armed force. Gouandjika did not criticize the West for sending troops to police the country or for exploiting its resources. He criticized it for being too pusillanimous to allow soldiers to die for the peace they professed to want, and for not trying hard enough to exploit the resources that the country offered. The West had, according to this view, kept the country colonized while trying to avoid the dirty work that came with being a colonizer. Wagner did not have the same reservations, and it had profited. Other powers, in other places, would learn the same lesson.

‘We believed in the United States, you know?’ Gouandjika said. ‘We believed in the power of the Americans. But honestly now we’ve concluded that America’s not . . . a strong state.’

‘I’ll give you an example,’ he said. ‘What did they do when they came here in 2003? They came to fight Joseph Kony in the northeast. They spent five, six years here, didn’t get him, and then they left. Where is their power? Where are their satellites? Where are their all-seeing eyes?’ He repeated, for emphasis, ‘Where is their power?’

‘The Americans only help us with their NGOs and their volunteers and humanitarian aid,’ he said. ‘But can you develop a country with humanitarian aid? We want them to create businesses in our country. We want them to develop our oil! We want them to come and pave roads to get to their sites. Okay, 80 percent of the benefit will go to them. But if the other 20 percent benefits us? That works.’

I thanked him for his time. He told me to call him any time. ‘I am always here,’ he said, ‘to support the independent press.’



The president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, stands on a truck in Bangui surrounded by security made up of CAR troops, Rwandan United Nations soldiers, and Russian paramilitaries, all heavily armed for the parade to celebrate the country’s 64th anniversary of independence. Barbara Debout, 1 December 2022

Feature image courtesy of Barbara Debout.
Fidèle Gouandjika, special counselor to Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, poses at home following the death of the former head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prighozin.


This is the first of two articles of James Pogue’s reporting for Granta.
This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top