Inside look at Wagner

At the heart of the Wagner system, from Douala to Bangui

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on August 16, 2022 09:38

 Russian and Rwandan security forces during Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s election rally in Bangui on 25 December 2020. © Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Russian and Rwandan security forces during Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s election rally in Bangui on 25 December 2020. © Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency via AFP

Present in the CAR for four years, the Russian mercenary group Wagner has gradually established itself in a number of local and regional economic sectors, which has had ramifications in Cameroon. We take an exclusive look at an organisation that is only too happy to expand.

Bangui’s city centre no longer holds any secrets for them. In their pick-up truck, a grey armoured vehicle with no registration number, Dimitri Sytyi and Vitali Perfilev catch the attention of the most attentive eyes. Although the two men regularly change their means of transport and brand of 4×4, insiders are familiar with their faces. Firstly, Perfilev, a tall blond man, is the operational leader of the Wagner group’s mercenaries in Central Africa. The other, Sytyi, a young man with wavy brown hair who has been living in Bangui for four years, is the group’s master propagandist and political bridgehead.

Sytyi – who for a long time was the assistant of Valery Zakharov, Wagner’s first boss in Central African lands – is at home in the presidential palace. According to our information, he is still unofficially in charge of a communication unit that promotes President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s actions, and cooperation with Russia and undermines French interests as well as those of the staff of the UN mission in the CAR (Minusca). Sytyi is now Wagner’s ‘civilian’ number one in Bangui.

Perfilev, for his part, officially deals with security issues, in liaison with the Central African general staff, Touadéra and his defence minister, Jean-Claude Rameaux-Bireau. He is an advisor to the presidency, just like Zakharov was before him, and has an office close to the palace, even though he prefers to receive guests in his offices located at Camp Roux, where some of Wagner’s equipment is stored. In terms of leisure activities, the commander is a regular at the Casablanca bar-restaurant and its karaoke bar, as well as a red wine lover. Between them, Perfilev and Sytyi control Wagner’s apparatus, which today stretches from Bangui to Douala.

Coffee, sugar and Fulani mercenaries

Since 2018, Wagner’s mercenaries have been active in the mining sector, especially in gold and diamonds, particularly through the company Lobaye Invest, which has mining permits in several of the country’s regions. From this “parent company”, which is financially controlled by a nebulous group of companies linked to the oligarch Evgueni Prigojine, they have gradually moved into other areas of the local economy. This year, Wagner invested in the Central African forestry sector via the company Bois Rouge. According to our information, the group is also working to develop subsidiaries in other sectors.

About a year ago, the mercenary group created the First Industrial Company, which is linked to Lobaye Invest and active in the food industry. Perfilev and his men – in particular a certain Roman, who is in charge of this aspect of the Wagnerian activity – are eyeing local coffee production in the Lobaye prefecture and are especially hoping to enter the sugar business, taking over from Sucaf, a subsidiary of the Somdiaa group and the French company Castel. In some areas of the northern part of the country, Wagner is said to be taking advantage of attacks by former rebels of Ali Darassa’s Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) against the sugar company’s sites to become an alternative’s second term.

According to our information, Wagner has made agreements with the minister of livestock, Hassan Bouba, Darassa’s former right-hand man. Bouba has retained valuable contacts among Fulani fighters and is able to recruit from among those who have recently left the UPC. Since the stalemate in the war in Ukraine and the group’s establishment in Mali, Wagner has hired through him and his right-hand men, Idriss Maloum and Hamadou Tanga, about 300 ex-Ukrainian fighters to replace mercenaries redeployed in the Sahel and in the Ukrainian Donbass. Bouba is one of the figures who benefit the most from protecting Wagner’s Russians in Bangui, even though he is under investigation by the Central African justice system for suspected war crimes. Maloum and Tanga, for their part, frequently accompany Perfilev in the field.

Douala, a hub

How does Wagner manage to collect what is due them from this sprawling business? According to our information, the goods transit through the Douala port. Wagner has taken control of a company called International Global Logistic (IGL). Founded by Central African Anour Madjido, the mercenary group was initially a ‘simple’ client and then took over the group more recently. At present, IGL is unofficially controlled by a man called Nikolai, who works from the Cameroonian economic capital in close contact with Roman and Vitali Perfilev in Bangui. According to our sources, the company handles the transit of goods and containers via the autonomous Douala port, while Madjido deals with the administrative formalities.

Operating exclusively on a cash-based system, which transits via opaque networks between the PK5 market in Bangui and the Congo market in Douala, the Central African intermediary reports to Nikolai. Nikolai heads the organisation on Perfilev’s behalf and organises the supply. Roman and Nikolai supervised the installation of a Central African coffee roasting plant in Cameroon’s economic capital. The processed goods will then be shipped abroad – notably to Russia – via the autonomous Douala port.

The latter also serves as a hub for importing raw materials and equipment. In addition to the machinery needed for timber and mineral exploitation, Wagner buys products such as cheap Nigerian alcohol from Douala. Once it has passed through the First Industrial Company’s hands and been processed, it is then sold as ‘vodka’ in the CAR, especially in the streets of Bangui. In the form of a 200-millilitre sachet, this potentially harmful drink costs 200 CFA francs (0.30€), while a 75-centilitre bottle costs 7,500. This process results in health-conscious consumers unknowingly filling Wagner’s coffers.

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