Wagner sends Beijing a brutal message in the CAR

Central African republic

A member of the close protection unit for Central African Republic's president, composed of Russian private security company operatives, is seen in Berengo on August 4, 2018.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Diplomatic channels have been reporting that Wagner operatives were ‘definitely involved’, an assessment that Xi is certain to have also seen from his own diplomats in the CAR.
  • Immediately following Xi’s comments, China's foreign ministry called on its nationals to “leave high-risk areas as quickly as possible”.

At 5am on March 19, the day before Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, a group of masked armed men attacked the newly-opened Chimbolo gold mine in the Central African Republic (CAR), killing nine Chinese citizens and injuring two more.

The mayor of the nearby town of Bambari, located about 60km south of the mine, Abel Matchipata, was quoted as saying that the attackers were “rebels” and that the victims were “executed with a bullet to the head”.

Ndassima gold mine car

Gold miners in Ndassima gold mine, Eastern Central African Republic (CAR). 

Photo credit: Thierry Bresilion | Anadolu Agency

The mine being worked by Chinese had been open less than a week and is “very close” to Ndassima mine, a similar largescale open-cast gold extraction operation being worked by Kremlin-backed Russian paramilitary company Wagner Group.

This is according to security sources with on-the-ground knowledge of the terrain, and of the history of conflict in this gold-rich part of a country, whose central authority has been unable to halt ongoing contention over control of its own natural resources.

The victims of the brazen shootings at the Chinese mine were subsequently taken 380km to the CAR capital Bangui, according to some reports, by the same Wagner operatives, or those carrying out their orders, who are believed to have carried out the early-morning assault on the Chimbolo gold mine’s personnel compound.

No further details were offered by the CAR authorities regarding the attack in a part of that country that has seen prior fierce fighting between ‘rebels’ opposed to the government, and Wagner Group operatives, sent to the CAR with the explicit permission of President Putin.

Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks to China's President Xi Jinping (R). 

Photo credit: AFP

So shocking was the attack for Beijing authorities that President Xi took the extraordinary step of speaking, literally minutes before his departure for Moscow, to what otherwise may have been expected to be an issue covered by a Chinese foreign ministry official.

A clearly angered Xi said the incident was unacceptable and that the perpetrators had to be “severely punished”.

Diplomatic channels have been reporting that Wagner operatives were ‘definitely involved’, an assessment that Xi is certain to have also seen from his own diplomats in the CAR.

Immediately following Xi’s comments, China's foreign ministry called on its nationals to “leave high-risk areas as quickly as possible”.

“The entire Central African Republic, with the exception of its capital Bangui, is rated red in terms of security risks,” said a foreign ministry official in Beijing.

At least four other Chinese mining operations are known to have been under way prior to the attack, and the activities’ continuation is now in doubt, as a result.

Given the timing, and the strange facts of the incident – nine shot execution-style in the head at close range, but two victims not killed outright, seemingly purposefully so in order to have witnesses left alive – Western and some African diplomatic sources are of the view that there was an overt message being sent to the Chinese leadership in the attack, allegedly made by Wagner operatives, who mine gold in that part of the CAR and who have imposed a degree of order to the area around their operations.

That message was, in effect: “China get out”.

No Wagner spokesperson has yet commented on the incident or the allegation that its operatives were behind it.

Following the incident, Voice of America reported that nearly 200 people demonstrated in support of both Russia and China on the streets of the capital, with CAR officials insisting that “rebels” were to blame, but without offering any evidence.

Matchipata went further in blaming one particular rebel grouping, the CPC, who he said had “attacked the Chinese who had come to exploit the mine”.

“They looted the Chinese machines and their homes," Matchipata is reported to have said.

But the CPC has rejected the allegation and blamed instead the Wagner Group for what it called a “cowardly and barbaric” attack.

“Unnamed sources” told French broadcaster RFI that police, security officers and Wagner operatives went to the scene of the attack, before the bodies were transferred to a hospital. But this account, like most relating to this incident, has also been contradicted, with another version stating that it was the Wagner operatives themselves, or their collaborators, who had supposedly delivered the bodies of those they had killed, or had had killed, to the authorities in Bangui.

The issue did not immediately come into public view in the same way that it affected the international diplomatic corps, seemingly indicating a growing rift on the ground between ‘friends forever’ China and Russia over African resources, but the New York Times featured a story on the incident, even as the Russian and Chinese leaders were holding their summit.

Several attacks against Chinese have taken place in CAR, the most recent being the abduction of three people on March 13 near a village in the west of the country, also near a mining operation there. 

According to the US think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker (GCT), the China-Russia ‘contending interests in Africa’ incident has a long history of conflict and instability.

Since gaining independence in 1960, says the GCT in its latest assessment, the CAR has experienced decades of violence and instability. 

“An insurgency led by the Seleka (meaning ‘alliance’) — a coalition of armed, primarily Muslim groups — has resulted in the severe deterioration of the country’s security infrastructure and heightened ethnic tensions. 

“Seleka fighters launched an offensive against the CAR government in December 2012, and both seized Bangui and staged a coup in March 2013. 

“In response to brutality by Seleka forces, ‘anti-balaka’ (meaning ‘invincible’) coalitions of Christian fighters formed to carry out reprisal violence against Seleka fighters, adding an element of religious animosity to the violence that had previously been absent. 

“In September 2013, anti-balaka forces began committing widespread revenge attacks against mostly Muslims civilians, displacing tens of thousands of people to Seleka-controlled areas in the north. 

“Seleka forces were disbanded by the government shortly after revenge attacks began, but many ex-Seleka members started committing counterattacks, plunging the CAR into a chaotic state of violence and an ensuing humanitarian crisis.” 

Since the outbreak of renewed conflict in 2013, thousands have been killed and nearly 575,000 have been displaced, the majority of whom fled to neighbouring Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, adds the GCT’s analysis.

“Despite optimism after the election of President Faustin Archange Touadera in the spring of 2016, the crisis only intensified,” it continues. 

“A de facto territorial partition led to a pause in Muslim-Christian fighting, but fighting between factions of the ex-Seleka has grown. 

“Though the government maintains control of Bangui, most armed groups have boycotted President Touadera’s attempts to calm the region through disarmament, leaving the government powerless outside the capital. 

“Lawlessness in the rest of the country has allowed armed groups to thrive and fighting has increased in the central, western, and eastern provinces. The conflict has also wreaked havoc on the economy, crippling the private sector and leaving nearly 75 per cent of the country’s population in poverty,” says the GCT.

The non-aligned but somewhat conservative think-tank assessment asserts that “human rights groups and UN agencies suggest that crimes committed by both ex-Seleka forces and anti-balaka groups amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”. 

“Due to the scale of the crisis, the UN Security Council established a peacekeeping force in April 2014 that incorporated African Union and French forces that had been deployed to the CAR previously.” 

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca) was thus established, with a mandate to protect civilians and disarm militia groups, and currently has nearly 15,000 thousand peacekeepers operating inside the CAR. 

Minusca peacekeepers have faced “significant challenges” in fulfilling the mandate to protect civilians and dismantle armed groups, primarily due to lack of infrastructure and reluctance to use military force.

“Numerous attacks have also been carried out against UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers; 15 peacekeepers were killed in the CAR in 2017 and six peacekeepers were killed in attacks by various armed groups in 2018”, with other attacks happening since, concludes the GCT analysis.

That there might be a link between Wagner and the gold mine in question, is supported by another recent report, from Swissaid international aid agency, on gold mining in Africa, which traces in depth both Chinese and Russian (Wagner) gold interests on the continent.

Swissaid, an independent body with a substantive history of tracking related matters, said its latest investigation into the gold industry in Africa showed that Wagner had a major operation at Ndassima mine, located in a gold-bearing geological formation lying about two kilometres north-west of the central CAR village of Djoubiss, some 60km north of Bambari. 

The report features an in-depth assessment of each and every gold mining operation in Africa, and says of Ndassima mine’s history: “The Canadian company Axmin Inc had the licence to operate this mine before being dispossessed in favour of Midas Resources. The mine is now controlled by the Wagner Group and the gold is exported to Russia, according to the media outlet Jeune Afrique.”

Ndassima, a highly productive open-cast gold mine, which has caused severe negative ecological downstream impacts for locals, has a complex history of operation and control.

From 2006 until 2012 the mine was owned by Axmin. 

On 22 December 2012, Seleka rebels took control of Ndassima, according to information in the public domain.

In June 2013, heavy rains provoked the collapse of a gold mine in Ndassima, killing 37 miners and injuring many others.

In August of that year, another mine collapse — similar to some preceding at the highly unstable workings — killed at least 25 people.

In 2018 it was reported that (rebel) armed groups shared control over the Ndassima gold mining site.

 In 2019 Axmin Inc’s licence to operate the Ndassima mine came into dispute.

The region remains in a state of conflict, although Wagner forces seem to have imposed some order in the areas of their operations.

In 2020 it was reported that Russian mercenaries (Wagner) were present at Ndassima gold mine and helping rebels manage it, but this is disputed.

 On February 10, 2021, government forces recaptured Ndassima after nine years.

Two days later, UPC rebels launched an attack on Ndassima, which was repelled by army forces with help from Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group).

“We have seen that Russia, in addition to the mining activities of Nordgold, are involved in the African gold sector in particular in the CAR, Sudan, Mali,” Mr Marc Ummel, the head of Unit Raw Materials at Swissaid told Nation.Africa.

“Some contacts (also) told us that they have also seen Russian involvement in gold business in north of Côte d'Ivoire."

The Chinese were “also involve in a lot of African countries like Ghana, Mali, the CAR, DRC, Senegal, Cameroon and Zimbabwe, for example”.

In late December 2020, Russia dispatched 300 military instructors (Wagner Group) to the CAR at Bangui's request “to train the military personnel of the national army” under an existing cooperation agreement.

It had previously deployed 175 military instructors (also Wagner) to the CAR, according to official figures.

“The Kremlin has led a diplomatic and financial offensive in the CAR since 2018 in return for concessions to Russian companies (such as Wagner) to exploit its mineral wealth,” according to the US military's Central Command.

In its coverage of the incident, the New York Times reported that Russian mercenaries had been operating since 2018 in the Central African Republic, “one of the world’s poorest countries despite its vast reserves of gold and diamonds”.

“Although Wagner operatives have helped the country’s military regain control of most of the country, they have done so at the expense of widespread abuses against civilians,” reported that news organisation.

Wagner’s involvement in the CAR has now extended to include many sectors, from beer to gold and timber, and the group has expanded and entrenched its grip on the country’s economy.

Nation.Africa has learnt through diplomatic contacts that the incident in central CAR is being viewed not only in Washington but also in Beijing as a likely forerunner of “more of the same to come”, hence the dire Chinese foreign ministry warning to its citizens in that country.

Said one diplomatic observer: “It is clear that Russia and China are after the same resources in Africa, wherever conditions allow them to take effective control and reap the financial rewards which come from exploiting natural resources, and from which local communities are almost entirely excluded, except for doing the hard labour."

They added: “What is not clear is whether this is a ‘once-off’ incident or not, but the circumstances and timing of it are such that to understand what has happened as Wagner telling the Chinese that, in effect, they are in control in the CAR, is far from unreasonable.

“Indeed, that conclusion is at present the only reasonable one to arrive at, so we are all watching developments to see how these two ‘allies’ work out their differences over who gets Africa’s riches.”