BANGUI, Central African Republic — President Faustin-Archange Touadéra says he called in the Russians because he was stuck.
It was 2016, soon after his election, and rebels had overrun swaths of the resource-rich country, which is among the world’s poorest nations. Former colonial power France announced it would withdraw its soldiers, the backbone of a United Nations force aimed at quelling the country’s civil war.
And Touadéra’s army and militia didn’t have enough weapons to defeat fighters threatening the capital, Bangui, because the Central African Republic was under a U.N. arms embargo put in place after a previous rebel takeover.
So the former mathematics professor turned to Moscow.
While Russia received approval from the U.N. Security Council to deploy military trainers to assist the central African country’s government, Moscow sent in the infamous Wagner Group.
“I couldn’t sit idly by. I asked all my friends, including in the United States, including France,” Touadéra, 66, said during an exclusive interview with NBC News last week.
“I need to protect the population. I need to protect the institutions of the republic. I asked everyone for help, and was I supposed to refuse the help from those who wanted to help us?” he added.
But Wagner’s help isn’t free.
In exchange for its work, the group has gained direct access to the Central African Republic’s natural resources, according to Sorcha MacLeod, a member of the U.N. working group on the use of mercenaries.
“We received information in Central African Republic that the Wagner group was being paid in mining concessions,” she said.
Trading in natural resources gives Wagner, and Russia, a way to evade sanctions put in place since the start of the war in Ukraine last February.
And now, despite Wagner sending tens of thousands of fighters to the war in Ukraine, many of them former prisoners, there’s been no exodus of the group from Africa. Instead there’s been a “doubling-down of Wagner’s presence” and an expansion into other countries, MacLeod said.
The mercenary group is operating in a volatile environment. The Central African Republic has suffered from a series of coups and failed governments since gaining independence from France in 1960. The latest coup in 2013, which saw Christian and Muslim militias pitted against each other, was organized by Séléka, a coalition of rebel groups.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission has not stamped out the violence and, in fact, hundreds of its soldiers have been sent home after reports of sexual abuse.
Mines and mercenaries
Wherever Wagner has gone, accusations of widespread and unchecked human rights abuses have followed, including executions, rapes and torture.
While Touadéra never used the word Wagner, Sewa Security Services and the Officers Union for International Security both operate in the Central African Republic on behalf of the mercenary group, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which has sanctioned them.
Before the interview with Touadéra, an NBC News crew saw two of the top Wagner representatives in the country, Vitaly Perfilev and Dmitry Sytii, escorting a Russian television crew in the president’s offices. Perfilev has been sanctioned by the European Union for being “responsible for serious human rights abuses” while working for Wagner in the country.
NBC News, working with the U.S.-based investigations and advocacy group The Sentry, has looked into Wagner’s role in taking control of the Ndassima gold mine in the center of the nation, and developing the site into a large-scale operation with the potential to net the group hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.
Officially, the Russian “instructors” were on a mission to clear rebels from the area in 2021. However, witnesses and official reports accuse the group of targeting civilians, some of whom had been engaging in small-scale or “artisanal” mining in the area.
According to the Sentry, Wagner violently seized control of Ndassima.
A 25-year-old woman, whose name is being withheld for her protection, said her husband had been working at the mine when he was ordered out by Russian fighters in the fall of 2021.
“When they came, they presented documents saying that it was the government of our country that gave them permission and that this territory now belongs to them,” she said. “They didn’t say with their own mouths that they were Russians, but we knew they were Russians.”
After her husband refused to leave and abandon his work at the mine, she said, he was shot to death along with seven colleagues.
“They came for our wealth, for our gold,” she said. “They’ve already started killing our husbands because of our own country’s wealth.”
NBC News could not independently verify the specific account, and traveling to the areas around the mines can be dangerous. In 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while investigating Wagner, the team’s editor at Investigation Control Centre was quoted by saying. (The news group, backed by leading anti-Putin activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, closed down after the journalists’ deaths.)
U.S. sanctions designation also says Wagner denies access to Central African Republic government officials to visit mining sites controlled by the mercenary group.
But a U.N. report in February states that killings and disappearances continued to be carried out in Ndassima even after the rebels were removed.
No known Wagner entity has acknowledged ownership of the mine, but four senior Western diplomats said the Ndassima mine was wholly controlled by the mercenary group. (The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak openly on the subject.)
Meanwhile, some fighters who carried out attacks on civilians say they were under direct orders to clear the areas in so-called “cleansing operations.”
One former member of a pro-government group working with Wagner told the Sentry that he was initially recruited to go on missions against the Séléka coalition.
But soon they were targeting the civilian population, he said.
“We massacred a lot of civilians,” he said. “That bothers me a lot. The Russians gave the orders, they say it’s mandatory. There were a lot of executions in the mining sites with the Russians, we killed the workers, we recovered the (mining) products.”
Civilian victims say the attacks went far beyond targeting armed rebels, but were aimed at terrorizing the community and looting gold from workers and traders.
“Many young people have been abducted, raped and murdered … even I too was raped by two Russians,” one mine worker told the Sentry.
These allegations, which NBC News has not verified, align with accusations made by U.S. officials, who have classified Wagner a transnational criminal organization for engaging in “serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.”
‘Extractive, brutal, destructive’
Wagner’s influence extends throughout the continent, according to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
“They’re an extractive, brutal, destructive influence” in African countries, said Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a prominent voice on Africa in Congress.
Wagner is often brought in to help African governments with insurgencies, particularly in countries where an elected government has been overthrown in a coup and the U.S. is no longer a security partner, he said.
But the outfit has proven to be “unreliable” and “unsuccessful” in countering terrorism, and more focused on serving its own ends “to extract as much as they can in terms of money and mineral resources,” Coons said.
In the past several years, Wagner has become “a predatory mercenary force” in impoverished, unstable countries in Africa, including the Central African Republic and Mali, he added.
Asked to respond to reports of atrocities carried out by Russian fighters in Ndassima, presidential adviser Fidéle Gouandjika said in an interview at his home in Bangui that Russian soldiers conducted security operations around the mine and sites to clear rebel groups. He denied reports of atrocities.
“They don’t steal, they don’t kill people,” he said.
A 2021 memo from the Central African Republic’s minister of mines to the president, obtained by the Sentry and reviewed by NBC News, announced that a Russian company was taking control of Ndassima, and that Moscow’s contributions to national security should be taken into consideration.
However, there is no official registration for the company in the country.
Satellite imagery of the site shows that since 2021, when the rebels were cleared and the alleged atrocities took place, the mine has been rapidly developed, with expanded mining pits, digging machines and a large processing facility.
A feasibility study commissioned by Axmin, a Canadian company that previously owned the mine, states that the total production of the entire site could produce about 45 tons of gold over eight years, which would be worth more than $2 billion at today’s prices.
Hans Merket, an analyst at International Peace Information Service, an independent research institute in Belgium, said the processing plant is “state of the art” but notes that it is not yet operating nearly at full capacity.
Given the costs of operating in such a difficult environment, the mine could realistically generate more than $100 million a year, he said, adding that this is clearly a long-term investment.
“You wouldn’t set up this sophisticated processing facility to just work in a short term in a small area, this is a plan to do something larger,” Merket said.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin declined to provide more details about the group’s operations in the Central African Republic, including the use of Ndassima.
“I think you’ve received enough information about the activities of PMC “Wagner” in Africa from those you’ve already spoken with,” he said in a voice message sent as an attachment in an email. “As for other questions, we will discuss this topic when you start to present them properly and not ask them in a provocative manner.”
He added: “If by asking these questions, you intended just to run up and spit at me, then I suggest that you come closer. And after that, try and figure out if it’s your throat in my hands, or someone else’s.”