In July 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered in the Central African Republic (CAR). Alexander Rastorgnev, Kirill Radchenko and Orkan Dzhemal had gone to Bangui, the capital city, to shoot a documentary on a mercenary outfit – the Wagner Group PMC, which is operated by a Russian mogul.
Although the deaths were reported by the international press, the killings attracted little attention in the largely state-controlled Russian media. The Wagner Group employees made sure there was as much cover-up as possible on the deaths, even as they engaged in massive disinformation, a strategy that has been perfected by Russia since the days when it was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The lingering question since then has been what prompted the Russian journalists to travel all the way to CAR to shoot the film. And why was it important that they document the mercenaries’ covert military expedition in the central African country?
In January, 2019, Prof. Mark Swilling of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, penned an article titled “The Zuma Power Elite is Alive, Kicking and Preparing to Replace Ramaphosa”. The article was published in the Daily Maverick, a South African online publication. In the article, Swilling said, “[Vladimir] Putin signed a decree in 2007 that provided for the integration and consolidation of all nuclear capabilities built up during the Cold War into a new civilian nuclear industry with global ambitions. Since then, Russians have been building nuclear power plants that are a hybrid between an embassy and a military base, often financed off a state guarantee that effectively gives Russia massive leverage over the host country.”
To this extent, pointed out Swilling, “the contract that [President Jacob] Zuma and Putin signed in 2014 was about Russia building a South African nuclear fleet. This, of course, was to be funded from loans generated from a state guarantee that both [Pravin] Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene refused to sign, which cost them their jobs. If either had signed, South Africa would have become another Russian-controlled failed state held together by violence and fear.” (Gordhan and Nene were both finance ministers under Zuma, the former between 2015 and 2017 and the latter in 2018.)
Three Russian journalists killed in a poor, war-ravaged African country, a South African academic’s opinion write-up on Russia’s manoeuvres to force a nuclear deal with South Africa, an African economic and military powerhouse…what is the connection? Does this signal the presence of Russian interests in continental Africa, interests that are so covert that not many Africans know about them?
‘We lost Africa’
Since the turn of the 21st century, Africans have tended to only know about the Chinese presence, which has come through massive infrastructure projects of mainly roads and railways. But unbeknownst to many, the Russians have been subtly working their way into the continent, always looking for easy entry opportunities where they do not have to compete with the Chinese and where they can also easily corrupt and buy the political leadership.
Several Russian journalists working for independent journals and online publications, all located in Russia (many of whom requested that I do not reveal their names), told me that Putin’s Russia was nostalgic for the Cold War days when the USSR could hold sway in Africa by influencing its governments.
“We lost the world…we lost Africa,” Vladimir Putin has repeatedly told the Kremlin. Africa was the world to the Russians prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The journalists said that Putin views himself as a global leader and has been steadily working to build an image of himself as such. He would like to “reclaim” Africa.
During the Cold War, USSR, USA, UK, France, and to a lesser extent China, all competed to have a piece of the African pie. Today, China, with its stealthy tactics, has surpassed all of these countries to be the number one country influencing decisions in many African capitals through its so-called non-interference foreign policy. Now Russia has decided to use similar tactics.
“We lost the world…we lost Africa,” Putin has repeatedly told the Kremlin. Africa was the world to the Russians prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union…Putin views himself as a global leader and has been steadily working to build an image of himself as such. He would like to “reclaim” Africa.
To enter and penetrate Africa, Putin’s Russia has allegedly hired the services of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a 58-year-old former Russian criminal (he left prison as USSR was collapsing in 1989) who wormed his way into Putin’s heart by acting as his “envoy” on foreign projects that Putin could not directly involve state organs in. Prigozhin runs his myriad operations from the Russian city of St Petersburg. Officially, Putin and the Russian state have denied they know anything about Prigozhin, much less that they have anything to do with him. They claim, therefore, that he does not act on behalf of Russia locally or abroad.
Russia’s denial of Prigozhin’s Wagner Group notwithstanding, the group has been undertaking many of Putin’s interests in Africa – and elsewhere. “Prigozhin is Wagner and Wagner is Prigozhin…and whenever and wherever you hear of Wagner Group, know that it is Prigozhin’s project, which has been signed off by Putin,” Roman Badanin, the Russian editor-in-chief of www.proekt.media told me.
Badanin, who has been a journalist for more than twenty years, said that Russia has so far interfered in no less than twenty Africa countries – covertly and stealthily. These countries include: Angola, Benin, CAR, Chad, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Russia found that China had already taken most of Africa, so it has been trying to find countries that have not already fallen to China’s charms.
A pariah nation
“Russia is a pariah nation – facing global economic sanctions after it annexed Crimea in Ukraine,” pointed out Badanin. “It therefore needs to prop up its flailing and wobbly economy and where else than to ‘raid’ the African continent, which still presents itself as a free-for-all continent for the world’s imperialist nations’ economic and military expansionist programmes. It is only in Africa that Putin’s Russia hopes to redeem its bad economy.”
Suffice it is to say, it was Prigozhin’s Group that was involved in mercenary activities that led to the fall of Crimea in Ukraine to the Russian state, courtesy of Putin’s sanction. In Syria, Putin has maintained his tight grip on Bashar Assad through the intervention of the Wagner Group.
Badanin explained that through Prigozhin, Putin hoped to penetrate Africa by identifying its ruling party leaders who are sympathetic to Russia and, who, therefore, can be easily corrupted and manipulated. The leaders are bought off with huge amounts of money and are encouraged to sign off economic treaties that favour Russia in their respective countries. “Always, these are secretive economic memoranda that are shadowy and remain undisclosed.”
“Russia’s South Africa deal was an entry point that Putin used to re-enter Africa and penetrate its countries,” said Prof. Swilling.
For South Africa in particular, the Russian connection runs deep. Many of the African National Congress (ANC) cadres were trained in Russia in military intelligence and went to university there. Swilling says that Russians were embedded in the Zuma presidency of “nine wasted years” and that was when the deal was signed. In the article, for example, he talks of “the KwaZulu-Natal youngsters who were sent to Moscow to be trained as assassins continue to be very effective implementers of low-intensity reign of terror.”
“When [Cyril] Ramaphosa took over the presidency, he signaled his uneasiness with the nuclear deal,” said Swilling. “So he sent his foreign minister to Moscow to tell the Russians the deal was off. Putin could hear none of this, in fact, his minister was treated so badly by Putin’s junior officers, it was very embarrassing.” Putin insisted to Ramaphosa that the deal must be implemented to the full – even if not immediately – because a memorandum of understanding (MoU) had already been signed between the two countries.
When Putin and his entourage visited South Africa in July 2018 for the BRICS Summit, one of his state bureaucrats took an MoU to the minister of minerals and forced him to sign it. “The MoU was so badly written, the minster could not sign it,” said Swilling. “The Russians were very furious.” The deal would have bankrupted the South African economy had it been allowed to go through, claimed Swilling. (BRICS consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.)
Apart from warning South Africans and other Africans about Russia’s manouevres on the continent, Swilling article’s central thesis is that there is a deep Russian presence in the ruling ANC party. “The Russians are very much present in the ANC factions – between Zuma and Ramaphosa. And they are hedging their bets on Zuma’s faction, which is, in every possible way, hell-bent on torpedoing Ramaphosa’s (shaky) presidency. To counter the threat of a Russian-backed re-zumafication of the ANC, Ramaphosa needs to rebuild the ANC as a political force.”
When Putin and his entourage visited South Africa in July 2018 for the BRICS Summit, one of his state bureaucrats took an MoU to the minister of minerals and forced him to sign it. “The MoU was so badly written, the minster could not sign it,” said Swilling. “The Russians were very furious.” The deal would have bankrupted the South African economy had it been allowed to go through…
“Russia’s interests in Africa have always existed – many Africans nations’ liberations movements have had long relations with Moscow. Russia provided arms, intelligence and military and security advice to their officers. These movements sent their personnel to study in the former USSR cities of Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg.”
Propping up dictators
In recent times though, “Russia’s heightened interest in the African continent has been in the use of similar tactics that authoritarians use elsewhere – it has been propping up tin-pot dictators as it tries to angle for access to extractive natural resources,” said a Russian journalist. “It has been exporting its anti-opposition strategies to African countries, as we have read in fascinating detail recently after a dossier leaked Russia’s strategy for Sudan and other countries.”
The Russian journalist recapped Omar el Bashir’s recent political woes and how Putin saw an opportunity to penetrate Sudan in the hope of benefiting economically from its extractive resources. “Bashir came to Russia twice in 2017, after his relations with the US became really strained. The US wanted Bashir out – but with a soft landing. Bashir would have none of this – quitting power was not an option for him. So, he headed East, to Moscow, and pleaded with Putin to save him from the Americans.”
No sooner had Bashir seen Putin twice than the Wagner Group found its way to Khartoum, said the Russian journalist. Bashir, hoping to assuage the Sudanese people’s anger about an economic meltdown that had seen them go without food, told them that he had found a solution to curb his country’s economic troubles. “Putin agreed to support Bashir crush the revolution in return for Russia to get extractive minerals such as gold. When the revolutionaries overwhelmed Bashir’s military junta, Prigozhin reported to Putin that Bashir did not heed his [Wagner] group’s advice, hence he was toppled.”
The ouster of Bashir in April has not dimmed Russia’s interest in Sudan: “Putin is still interested in post-Bashir Sudan – he is currently supporting the ruling military council, of course, through the Wagner Group,” observed the journalist. “And it seems the council’s tough stance against its own Sudanese people could be Prigozhin’s uncompromising military advice to the council: it should take no nonsense from the revolutionaries. That is why we have seen demonstrators being killed.”
Prigozhin’s major work in Africa is to identify “hotspots” for Putin to exploit and benefit from. “In August 2017, the first delegation of Russians went to CAR to explore possibilities of economic exploitation, as well as political influence,” said Katya, a Russian journalist. “Prigozhin’s people, including himself, carry a lot of money in bags to bribe political leaders, businessmen and political wheeler-dealers so as to to carry Russian influence among the ruling elite class. He preys on African countries seemingly
The ouster of Bashir in April has not dimmed Russia’s interest in Sudan: “Putin is still interested in post-Bashir Sudan – he is currently supporting the ruling military council, of course, through the Wagner Group,” observed the journalist.
CAR happened to be one of those countries. Torn asunder by fratricidal and factional ethnic wars, Putin saw an opportunity to grab the country’s precious uranium, “more than its diamond or timber for its military industrial complex,” said the journalist. Russia hopes to supplant the French in CAR, said Katya, hence its determination to not leave CAR so much so that Prigozhin’s Wagner Group had sent its mercenaries to the country to cause despondency as it plans on how to mine the uranium. In Libya, the Prigozhin’s group is currently providing military and security advice to one of the powerful militia groups based in Tripoli.
The three Russian journalists were brutally killed because they were on a trail to sniff out Wagner’s mercenary exploits in Africa, claimed the Russian journalists. According to a video smuggled out of CAR by some independent Russian journalists (which was shown to me), their bodies were badly tortured, then fatally shot, and then separately abandoned in three different thickets. “Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is a dangerous outfit – the deaths were meant to be a grisly warning to any Russian journalist prying into Prigozhin’s projects anywhere abroad.”
Russia – which is already infamous for allegedly having interfered with the November 2016 American presidential election, and the UK’s June 2016 Brexit referendum – has an election interfering plan for Africa, claimed a Russian journalist. “In America and Europe, Russia’s plan is to largely create (political) despondency – in Africa, it is to reap economic benefits and gain from its immense extractive resources and shore up its fledging weak economy.”
The three Russian journalists were brutally killed because they were on a trail to sniff out Wagner’s mercenary exploits in Africa…“Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is a dangerous outfit – the deaths were meant to be a grisly warning to any Russian journalist prying into Prigozhin’s projects anywhere abroad.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russia’s interference in the November 2016 US presidential elections was categorical that there was indeed interference from the Russians. “There’s no question Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election and that its attacks on the US deserves the attention of every American,” Mueller said on May 30, 2019. In his book The Road To Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, which was published in 2018