Wood and gold in exchange for Wagner’s military commitment

When soldiers from the Central African Republic (CAR) arrive to expel armed rebels from the town of Boda in early 2021, they will barely need to fire a shot. “They had all already fled,” the mayor told French radio station RFI at the time. The offensive is accompanied by several successes. In a few weeks, the soldiers succeed in recapturing several towns in the southwestern region of Lobaye.

They are not alone in this. The soldiers are aided by mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group, a private military company in which President Faustin-Archange Touadéra has pinned his hopes on ending the war that is tearing his country apart. “Boda has been liberated by us, the army and our Russian brothers,” one soldier cheered on his Facebook on January 25 when they reached the town in this wooded area.

Just two weeks later, the Ministry of Water, Forestry, Hunting and Fisheries awarded a large concession for felling tropical hardwood in the same region to a previously unknown company, Bois Rouge. In total, it concerns 186,000 hectares.

Bois Rouge, which was registered in the local commercial register in March 2019, presents itself as a Central African company. But a three-month study by the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network (incl NRC belongs to), and the French NGO OpenFacto provides strong indications that Bois Rouge does indeed have ties to the controversial Wagner group.

Gold and diamonds

Since the arrival in 2018 of the Wagner mercenaries in the capital Bangui – formally as ‘instructors’ – Russians have penetrated the circles around President Touadéra. Concessions soon followed. For gold mines, for diamonds. And now tropical hardwoods appear to be the next medium of exchange with which the government of the Central African Republic, the world’s second-poorest country, hopes to end the bloody insurgency and, above all, keep itself afloat.

Read also: ‘The trail of lies’ drives Mali into Russia’s arms

Several EU countries import wood from the CAR, including France, Italy and the Netherlands to a limited extent. Given the smokescreen surrounding Bois Rouge, are they also violating sanctions against both Russia and the Wagner group?

Although the Central African authorities deny that the Wagner group operates in the country, their presence is omnipresent. A pattern that repeats itself in more and more African countries, most recently in Mali. Denial is facilitated by a simple fact: formally, the Wagner group, whose owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has close ties to the Kremlin, does not exist at all.

The Russians took the place of former colonizer France

Yet in recent years, Wagnerian mercenaries have emerged in Libya, Sudan and Mozambique, where their participation in covert military operations and security work has repeatedly involved lucrative concessions to Russian companies linked to Prigozhin. According to experts, the elusiveness has one purpose: to mask the fact that Wagner is in fact a tool to increase Moscow’s influence on the African continent.

In CAR, the Russians took over from former colonizer France, whose soldiers left the country in 2016 after a controversial mission. It has not been without consequences for French companies, which in recent decades have benefited from the old colonial ties and from the economic agreements that Paris was able to conclude with Bangui.

Material from Russia

Such as Batalimo Forest Industries (IFB), one of the oldest logging companies in the CAR, to which the concession in the Lobaye region used to belong. The IFB is not without controversy: the NGO Global Witness investigated in 2015 how the company bought rebels to continue operations. In July 2019, the ministry suddenly withdrew the concession. Although a complaint about this is still pending, the ministry has already chosen a new leader: Bois Rouge.

Not only did the newcomer receive much more generous timber commitments than other timber companies, Bois Rouge will pay almost no tax from the Ministry of Finance for the first five years, according to contracts in the hands of the research network EIC and OpenFacto.

Photos, documents and testimonies point to something else: that on paper there is clear Russian involvement behind the Central African company. For example, a few months after its creation in 2019, Bois Rouge participated in an international forum for the wood industry in Shanghai, but presented itself there as a Russian participant, represented by a sales manager with a Russian email address.

Photos taken last November in the affected forests of the Lobaye region show white men as well as local workers as well as trucks and other equipment from Russia. The latter is all the more striking because the contract signed by Bois Rouge states that Central African suppliers must be prioritized.

One of the vendors that Bois Rouge purchased from is Broker Expert LCC, a St. Petersburg company known for supplying materials for Wagner parts. Like Meroe Gold, a gold mining company in Sudan that was sanctioned by the US in 2020 as part of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner empire.

Prigozhin himself is wanted by the Americans as the mastermind behind Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

‘Reliable stable employer’

In a response to the research network EIC, Bois Rouge manager Anastasie Nanette Yakoïma writes that the company is a “reliable and stable employer” in the CAR whose activities “respect all applicable standards and regulations”. She leaves unanswered all substantive questions about, among other things, Bois Rouge’s ties to entities and individuals associated with Wagner. They would “not relate” to Bois Rouge or contain “business sensitive information”.

Also read: Nowhere in Africa is the Russian presence more visible than in the Central African Republic

A spokesman for President Touadéra also leaves specific questions unanswered, saying only that the government “assigns projects and licenses in all its sovereignty to companies that want to establish investments in CAR”. He says he doesn’t want to answer other questions because they don’t ‘match the concerns of’ [zijn] to land [zijn] population” and that they “have nothing to justify or prove”.

For several EU countries that import tropical hardwood from the Central African Republic, there is a risk that sanctions against Russia and the Wagner group will be circumvented via Bois Rouge. For example, in December last year, following the lead of the US, the EU introduced sanctions against people associated with the Wagner group. For example, Dmitri Utkin, the leader of Wagner’s mercenary army, because of the “gross human rights violations” that it would commit in the CAR, among others. In addition, at the beginning of this year followed European sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.

In recent years, the EU has taken several steps to combat imports of illegally felled timber – or timber from controversial parties – including the establishment of a due diligence system to trace the timber’s origin. But in a report from December last year, the EU Commission determined that these mechanisms do not work sufficiently, partly because not all EU countries control equally rigorously.

The Netherlands also imports wood from the CAR, although according to Lex Benden, spokesman for the Dutch Food and Consumer Safety Authority – responsible for the inspections – it is “not good”. For example, in 2019, according to NVWA, 34,000 kilos of wood came in from CAR Holland, in subsequent years this would have remained the same. According to Benden, this is due, among other things, to the fact that it is “very difficult to comply with European regulations” with wood from CAR.

“You must be able to check the documents with revisions. But the situation in CAR makes it difficult.” According to Benden, the Netherlands is “a front runner” in Europe when it comes to compliance with import regulations. But, he also says: “You can never prevent anything 100 percent”.

In cooperation with Justine Brabant

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