The Wagner Group is using violence and extortion to tap into the lucrative diamond industry in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to an investigative report published this month.
Individuals linked to Wagner, a shadowy Russian private military company (PMC) notorious for its brutal tactics in Ukraine and other conflict zones, have set up a shell company in the CAR to secure and sell diamonds, the report said.
Such operations are in direct violation of the Kimberley Process, an international initiative that seeks to prevent so-called "blood diamonds" originating in conflict zones from entering the market, it added.
Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group is notorious for furthering Russian President Vladimir Putin's objectives around the world under the guise of plausible deniability.
Wagner fighters are accused of war crimes, abuses and meddling in conflicts not just in the CAR but across Africa -- including in Mali, Libya, Chad, Sudan and Mozambique -- as well as in Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine.
Wagner fighters have been accused of involvement in armed activities in the CAR, exploiting the country's gold and diamond resources, and recruiting prisoners in the CAR and sending them to fight in Donbas, Ukraine.
Men incarcerated for crimes including rape and murder are being released en masse to join Wagner's forces, The Daily Beast reported in late November, citing local CAR military officials.
"Since October, they [Wagner paramilitaries] have been walking into military and police cells and releasing rebels, including those held for attacking Bokolobo village [in southern CAR] in May and for raping women and girls," an officer serving at the military headquarters in the CAR capital Bangui told The Daily Beast.
"Nobody can stop them because the government has given them so much power to act the way they want."
The latest report on Wagner's activities in the CAR is a joint investigation by the European Investigative Collaborations, a network of news organisations; the London-based Dossier Centre, funded by exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky; and the France-based All Eyes On Wagner (AEOW) project.
The investigation was conducted between July and November and relies on open source research, first-hand eyewitness accounts and documentary evidence.
Coveting Africa's riches
Wagner effectively took control of CAR's diamond sector by forcing local traders to sell directly to its shell company, Diamville, or risk violent reprisals, the joint investigation revealed.
"Wherever there are mines and diggers, these people [linked to Wagner] are there, armed," the report said, citing industry insiders in the CAR. "When someone [a gold or diamond miner] comes across something good, they go to that person."
"There have even been assassinations like that, to take other people's merchandise," it said.
Diamville has been registered in the CAR since March 28, 2019, AEOW reported. Its declared activity is the purchase and import-export of diamonds and gold.
In October 2019, the company became an authorised gold and diamond export office per a governmental decree.
"Like other companies linked to Wagner, its manager is officially a Central African national: Bienvenu Patrick Setem Bonguende, according to the CAR trade register," the report said.
But according to telephone records analysed and shared by the Dossier Centre and confirmed by another source, Bonguende is actually the driver of Dimitri Sytyi, a notorious Russian figure in Bangui, who also is a sanctioned key executive of the Wagner Group.
Sytyi was a long-time assistant of Valery Zakharov, Wagner's first boss in the CAR, according to The Africa Report.
He is described as "a young man with wavy brown hair who has been living in Bangui for four years", and he serves as Wagner's "master propagandist and political bridgehead".
"Sytyi is now Wagner's 'civilian' number one in Bangui," it said.
The mercenary group also has companies involved in the forestry sector and others and active in the food industry, according to the report. It is insinuating its way into the sugar business and coffee industry and has agreements with CAR's livestock minister.
So how does Wagner benefit from all these riches?
Simply put, Wagner has taken over the company responsible for handling the transit of goods and containers through the Port of Douala in neighbouring Cameroon, where most of CAR's exports pass.
The company is called International Global Logistic (IGL) and was founded by CAR national Anour Madjido.
At first Wagner was simply a client of IGL, but now the company is managed by a man called "Nikolai", who works closely with Wagnerites in other sections of the value chain, while Madjido deals with the administrative formalities, The Africa Report said.
Expansion in Africa
Russian mercenaries have gained a foothold in 18 African countries, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They have suspected or proven operations in as many as 30 countries across four continents.
In many places, Wagner was called in to fight Islamist insurgencies, guard important sites or to "restore peace", the Washington Post reported in December, "but it has been largely motivated by the chance to enrich itself by securing lucrative natural resources, according to senior US military officials."
Not content to ravage the CAR, Mali, Libya, Chad, Sudan and Mozambique, the Wagner Group may have moved into yet another African country.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo on Wednesday (December 14) accused his country's neighbour Burkina Faso of inviting in Wagner mercenaries, AFP reported.
"Burkina Faso has now entered into an arrangement to go along with Mali in employing the Wagner forces there," Akufo-Addo said.
"I believe a [mineral] mine in southern Burkina has been allocated to them as a form of payment for their services," he said during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
"To have them operating on our northern border is particularly distressing for us in Ghana," Akufo-Addo said.
Burkina Faso on Friday called in Ghana's ambassador to protest Akufo-Addo's allegations, the foreign ministry said.
Blinken, asked about the accusations by Ghana on Burkina Faso, repeated the strong US objections to the Wagner Group.
"Wherever we've seen Wagner deployed, countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure and less independent. That's the common denominator," Blinken told a news conference as he closed a three-day Africa summit in Washington.
"What I heard in conversations this week, as I've heard in the past, is our partners in Africa tell us that they do not want their resources exploited, they don't want the human rights of their people abused, they don't want their governance undermined, and ultimately, as a result, they really don't want Wagner."