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Russia’s murky business dealings in the Central African Republic

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Friday, 23 August 2019 15:53

Vladimir Putin and Faustin-Archange Touadéra, in St. Petersburg, on May 23, 2018. Mikhail Klimentyev/AP/SIPA

Gold, diamonds, weapons, money laundering, and all kinds of trafficking... the Russian presence in the Central African Republic gives rise to many fantasies, some wrong, but often correct.

In the distance, the green mountains of the Caucasus. At their feet, the sapphire waters of the Black Sea. The weather is rather cool at the beginning of October 2017, but the six Central Africans – including the President of the Central African Republic (CAR) – in the seaside resort of Sochi do not care.

They are interested only in their meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister.

President of the CAR for less than two years, Faustin-Archange Touadéra has surrounded himself with his most loyal advisors:

  • Firmin Ngrébada, Chief of Staff and Prime Minister.
  • Rameaux-Claude Bireau, his cousin and economic advisor.
  • Noël Bienvenu Selesson, Deputy Advisor for Disarmament (and now a Minister).
  • Thierry Oronfei, Advisor in charge of new technologies
  • Issa Bourma, a diamond dealer formerly with the Lebanese diamond-buying business, Primo..

Ngrébada prepared the visit carefully. He is credited with establishing the rapprochement with Moscow. A significant anecdote: in March 2013, when the Seléka rebels took control of Bangui and ousted former President François Bozizé, Ngrébada, then a member of the presidential cabinet, sought refuge at the Russian Embassy.

Ngrébada spent several days with the then Ambassador Sergei Lobanov, for which, obviously, he was grateful. In September 2017, he organized two successive meetings between Touadéra and Russian investors. The first was in a luxurious hotel in Paris favoured by the president; the second was in Switzerland. The foundations for future agreements were being laid.

Russian mining company

Now, in Sochi, the Chief of Staff, who had attended the meeting between his boss and Lavrov, was not disappointed. In the UN Security Council, Russia had agreed to lift its veto on the delivery of French weapons to the Bangui regime and even proposed to plead for a temporary lifting of the arms embargo. But this diplomatic support is obviously not without conditions.

Included in the agreement, the terms of which were not made public at the time, was the creation of a Russian mining company in the Central African Republic, the Russian operation of an airfield in the Ouadda region, and the training by the Russians of the Central African National Guard and Army.

The terms of agreement were quickly implemented. From 26 January 2018, Russian planes started landing in Bangui, delivering weapons. In June and July, Léopold Mboli Fatran, Minister of Mines, granted mining recognition permits in the Yawa and Pama regions to Lobaye Invest Sarlu, a Russian company. The objective was to identify possible gold and diamond deposits.

Lobaye Invest Sarlu (which became the main sponsor of the Miss Central African Republic competition) is only at the beginning of its conquest. It is now present near the cities of Ndele, Bria, Birao and Alindao. Its director, Evgueny Khodotov, though discreet, is reputedly very influential in Bangui.

“Presidential Advisors”

Khodotov (55), a former St. Petersburg police officer now operating in the extractive industries, works behind the scenes in close collaboration with his compatriot, Valery Zakharov, security advisor to President Touadéra. Zakharov is also a former member of the St. Petersburg police and keeps a low profile.

Despite that, few secrets of Central African politics escape him. He does not hesitate to summon ministers and deputies nor has he any qualms about meeting with the leaders of armed groups, in particular, Noureddine Adam, the head of the Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de Centrafrique (FPRC). He is also said to be in regular contact with Michel Djotodia, the former president in exile.

Berengo, 2018: Employees of the Russian company Sewa Security Services, responsible for the protection of the Central African President. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP

Zakharov is said to have links with the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB), the Russian intelligence services, and to have obtained Central African nationality. He often has lunch at the Russian Embassy with chargé d’affaires Viktor Tokmakov and meets regularly with Mikhail Bogdanov, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Africa and the Middle East.

Khodotov and Zakharov, however, are accountable to another of their compatriots: Evgueni Prigogine, a Putin family member, whom Putin allegedly entrusted with the defence of Russian interests in Zimbabwe, Libya, Sudan, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Prigogine also finances the Wagner Group, which has worked extensively in Syria and the Crimea.

Wagner, a private security company, provides more than a thousand instructors to the Central African Republic, ensures the security of various institutions, and plays a leading role in the training of the Presidential Guard and the army. Like Sewa Security Services, another Russian company operating in the Central African Republic, Wagner is based on the model of the South African company, Executive Outcomes, whose founder and chairman, Eeben Barlow, made a strong impression on Russian military leaders in St. Petersburg in 2004.

It is unclear what exactly Wagner’s role is in the Central African Republic. According to their business cards, some of its employees are “Presidential Advisers”.

Interestingly, since April 2018, Russian “instructors” have been residing in Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s former property in Berengo, and set up a training camp. Access to the area is prohibited, particularly to the family of the deceased emperor.

Wagner and Sewa Security Services — which already operate airfields in Ndelé, Birao and Ouadda — have rehabilitated the 2,000m runway built by Bokassa. Tents have even been set up near the former president’s mausoleum. Bokassa’s son, the former Minister of the Interior under Bozizé, Jean-Serge Bokassa, says this has all been done without the permission of the family.

This development is not unrelated to the on-going dispute between Touadéra and Bokassa Jr. The Russians tried to appease the former head of state’s family by offering a painting of the mausoleum, several metres long and decorated with the CAR and Russian flags. Jean-Serge, unable to visit his father’s grave, says he doesn’t know what to make of the cumbersome “work of art”.

Dimitri Mozer, the handyman

The Bangui-Moscow axis, shaped by Ambassador Sergei Lobanov (posted to Bangui in 2011) and, since January 2019, by Vladimir Titorenko, seems as solid as ever. But it relies on another country essential to the Central African Republic: Belgium. Touadéra relies on a strange Russian businessman Dimitri Mozer, the owner of a transport company (Mozer International) who is also a consul of the CAR in Belgium.

The man is very influential. With a strong presence within the leading circles of the European Union and in Belgian ports and diamond business, the company has offices in Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and – surprise – Moscow. One Kirill Makarenko, a former student of the Russian State Institute of International Relations, manages Mozer International’s Moscow office.

“Mozer has been present in the Central African Republic for a long time,” says a former minister. “He was one of Bozizé’s handymen and provided vehicles (motorcycles, cars, buses) to his administration.”

Since then, his power has increased. “His links with the Wagner Group, his origins, the fact that he speaks Russian… all this has helped to strengthen his position,” explains a close friend of the presidency.

When Touadéra went to Brussels, which he considered his European “rear base”, Mozer was in charge of the arrangements. And when the president passes through Paris, Mozer often invites himself along.

“He is a bit like our main ambassador to Europe,” adds another former Bozizé employee. “He organizes forums and meetings where politicians, businessmen, and potential investors meet.”

Close to Daniel Emery Dede, the CAR Ambassador to Belgium, Mozer is also said to have connections to the diamond dealer, Abdoul Karim Dan Azoumi, head of the Minair aviation company and former Seléka financier. Azoumi, who works regularly with China and Russia, resides in Liège, notably in one of the city’s palaces.

Opacity

“There is a lot of talk about Russia, but most of all we should talk about Russian companies,” says a former minister. Moscow appreciates being able to set foot in the French countryside, but seems to favour business networks and has not really taken any diplomatic action.

“In 2017, many thought that the Russians would do what France had not done: clean up the country,” adds another former member of the government. “There was a lot of hope, but for the moment it is disappointment that dominates.”

Two Russians in Bangui: Viktor Tokmakov (left) and Valery Zakharov, in August 2018. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP

An opponent of the current government says, “We are mainly witnessing a return to favouritism. In the gold and diamond sectors, more than 100 permits were granted to the Russians without consultation with the National Assembly, in violation of Article 60 of the Constitution.”

Looking too closely into the workings of the system is not encouraged. In October 2018, Karim Meckassoua, the President of the National Assembly, protested against the lack of opacity in the mining contracts. Zakharov mobilised his Liga men in Parliament and had him evicted.

There are also strong suspicions that three Russian journalists were murdered on the night of 30 to 31 July. War reporter Orkhan Djemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were shot dead by armed men in the north of the country while investigating the activities of the Wagner Group. The truth is still not known, but Prigogine’s shadow remains present.

Laundering

“Central African diamond is highly sought after. In addition, the Russians have secured privileged access to gold deposits,” says a former minister. “These are extremely profitable sectors, provided that the necessary means of transport are available, which is the case for the Russians.”

How much money is being channelled through the Central African Republic is impossible to say, as most transactions seem to be made in cash. But Russian financial circuits have already alerted the West African banking authorities.

“ECOWAS is following these financial structures very closely. We believe that because of the sanctions against the Russian state, there is a temptation to use Africa to launder money,” says a West African banker, quoted in April by the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).

Bottom line: In the Central African Republic, Russian nationals are responsible for securing the hidden interests of some of the people close to the authorities in Moscow. And the government in Bangui is providing a sanctuary for them to operate with impunity.

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