A multitude of activities relating to recent Russian mining and security services in the Central African Republic have been identified using press reports, official state releases, and academic journals, as part of the TRACAR team's larger project of tracking Russian activity across Central Africa.
This report documents the increasing political and economic activity of the Russian mining company Lobaye Invest (Lobaye Invest Sarlu) acting on behalf of Russian state actors in the Central African Republic. Additionally, this report will analyze the related activities of Russian private military contractors and their role in providing security to the both efforts of Lobaye Invest and Central African leaders to further Russian policy goals in the region. Both sources of activity provide insight into the growing Russian influence effort across Africa.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has been marred with violent power struggles since gaining independence from France in 1960. The current political crisis can be traced back to when the Séléka, a Muslim rebel group, seized power of the predominately Christian CAR in 2012. After the takeover, the Séléka coalition splintered and fighting continued between "Anti-Balaka" (Christian) groups and ex-Séléka groups. Often characterized as a sectarian conflict, the current crisis falls along deep historical ethno-regional tensions. In 2013, the UN Security Council approved the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to help improve the situation in CAR . However, violence largely continued in CAR, despite the UN intervention, with over fourteen armed groups vying for control of territory . In 2016, a presidential election was conducted and Faustin-Archange Touadéra, an established politician in the country, became president. After his inauguration, Touadéra was quickly courted by a new party to the conflict - Russia.
In October of 2017, Touadéra and his close associates met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi, Russia. Firmin Ngrébada, Chief of Staff and Prime Minister, who has had connections with Russian diplomats since 2013, helped organize multiple meetings between Touadéra and Russian investors in late 2017. An agreement was reached between Touadéra and his Russian counterparts and the Russian incursion into CAR began shortly after.
The Central African Republic is rich in multiple valuable minerals which Russia is after, including gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, and oil. Much of CAR has not yet even been explored but is thought to hold promising reserves of many of these minerals. Many mining operations in the country have been halted or seized by armed groups due to the political turmoil of the past few decades, resulting in the mining sector of CAR being quite underdeveloped, or prohibited from selling legally to foreing markets. Most legitimate mining in the country is done almost entirely by foreign companies .
In late 2017, Russia appealed to the UN Security Council to grant an exception to the arms embargo placed on CAR since 2013 . The request was a brilliant stroke for the Russians, as it allowed for legal, legitimate intervention in CAR, but did not behold Russia to the supervision or control of the UNSC. Russia quickly followed through with their pledge to supply instructors and weapons to the government of CAR, with the first stocks of weapons arriving in early 2018 . Alongside these weapons came "five military and 170 civilian instructors from Russia," sent to CAR free-of-charge.
It is unclear how many of these Russian officials are in CAR officially under the legal guise of the Russian government. Coinciding with the arrival of Russian arms in the country, came the arrival of two Russian-owned companies in CAR. The first is a mining company known as Lobaye Invest Sarlu, and the second is a private military contractor known as Sewa Security Services.
Lobaye Invest is allegedly part of a conglomerate owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch commonly referred to as "Putin’s Chef" . In 2016, Prigozhin found international infamy after his “Internet Research Agency” was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for attempting to interfere in American elections . Prigozhin has had a warrant out for his arrest in the United States since 2018, and in October 2020, Prigozhin was sanctioned by the European Union for his financial links to Wagner Group operations in Libya .
Prigozhin’s connections to the infamous Wagner Group do not end in Libya. The Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC) that has gained renown for its engagement in Syria and eastern Ukraine, often follows Prigozhin's operations abroad. In CAR, the group "Sewa Security Services" has appeared alongside Lobaye Invest. While it is unclear if Sewa Security Services is Wagner operating under a different name or independent of the group, they serve an identical purpose and operate synonymously with Lobaye Invest’s activities in the region. Russian use of PMCs in Africa is not a new phenomenon, as despite their illegal status in Russia they have been active in Africa for over twenty years . It is likely that most of the "civilian" contingent sent to CAR by Russia for the training of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) is largely made of these private security personnel. Sewa personnel have also been employed within the presidential guard of Touadéra, and have been seen guarding high-ranking officials in CAR .
The Russian mission in the Central African Republic has the goal of fostering closer relations between the two states. This is done by trading Russian-advised security for the ruling regime in CAR in exchange for Russian access to and control of valuable natural resources in the country under the stewardship of Prigozhin. Though there are some instances of public cooperation between Moscow and Bangui, Russian operations in the region maintain a low profile, often relying on private military contractors rather than official actors to pursue the Kremlin's interests. Since the Russian intervention began in the region, increased activity at previously rebel-held mines has become intertwined with a larger Russian security presence, denoting early successes in the Russian campaign thus far. It is important to monitor these inconspicuous tactics, as if the Russian low-cost and low-risk model proves itself in the Central African Republic, it could be employed elsewhere in Moscow's engagement with Africa.
The Russians have developed a two-tiered approach in the Central African Republic. The first is employing the diplomatic weight of the Russian Federation to bring international legitimacy to the Russian mission in CAR. Public events such as the opulent Russia-Africa summit are a key part of this approach, as they propagate the more positive and amicable message that Moscow wants the world to see. The second tier is employing small, private forces with a shield of plausible deniability to accomplish in-country economic, political, and security goals. This second approach is handled primarily by Prigozhin's associates in conjunction with official Russian state actors.
Alongside instances such as the lifting the UN arms embargo in 2017, Russian diplomatic efforts have also sought to ease economic restrictions concerning Russian mineral interests in CAR. In 2019, the Russian Federation served as Vice-Chair of the Kimberley Process, and now, in 2021, has ascended to chair the organization . The Kimberley Process is an international organization of diamond exporting nations which seeks to "remove conflict diamonds from the global supply chain." Russia has argued before the forum to reduce restrictions on the export of diamonds from the Central African Republic, citing that the economic situation in CAR will improve if more mining operations are legally recognized. The government of CAR has been pursuing this goal since 2013, when the country was blacklisted. This embargo has been lifted partially, allowing export only from government-run "green zones." In November of 2019, the participants of the Kimberley Process granted the CAR government the right to "issue certificates for the export of rough diamonds from the green zones,"" whereas previously international observers had to approve the exportation . While Russian lobbying thus far has not achieved the consensus necessary to end the diamond embargo of CAR, the initiative has reduced international oversight of the process, and has left some to question the legitimacy and principle of the organization.
Coinciding with the diplomatic push by Russia into CAR came the granting of several mining permits to Prigozhin’s “Lobaye Invest” mining company. The permits were granted by the Ministry of Mines and Geology throughout 2018, and allow for the mining of gold and diamonds at all of the sites. They provide a set of longitude and latitude coordinates of the authorized mining areas, as well as commercial agreements such as minimum investment amounts. Interestingly, the permits do not show the official price in which these permits were purchased for. The permits also indicate that Eugeny Khodotov, a long-time associate of Prigozhin, is the named director of Lobaye Invest .
The TRACAR team has identified seven different mining permits granted to Lobaye Invest throughout 2018. Many of the mines located in the East of CAR (A,B, and C) are located in rebel-held territory.
Alongside the granting of mining permits to Lobaye Invest came the discrete deployment of private military contractors linked to Prigozhin. The expedition of private military contractors to CAR is consistent with many tenets of Russian PMC policy thus far. The deployment of these private contractors provides a layer of plausible deniability to any operations in the region, as PMCs are technically and legally private organizations. The use of PMCs also provides a reduced visual presence, as deployments to isolated areas like CAR are not widely reported in the mainstream Russian media, and thus casualties or other consequences of these deployments are largely unknown or easily downplayed. Lastly, the use of PMCs results in a lower international political profile, compared to larger diplomatic events like the aforementioned Russia-Africa Summit. While Russia has stated that only 5 of the 175 specialists sent to CAR are for military purposes, the contingent is thought to be largely made up of Wagner personnel, often clad in camouflage and brandishing Russian weapons .
Sewa Security Personnel guarding President Touadéra, at an independence day celebration in Bangui, August 2018. Photos credit to MINUSCA. Source: Flickr.
The firm "Sewa Security Services" was registered in CAR just twelve days after Lobaye Invest, and seems to be a rebranding of Wagner Personnel . Sewa Security Services have since been officially contracted to serve as a sort of presidential guard for President Touadéra’s government. Thus far in the Central African Republic, PMCs have also primarily been involved in both training the FACA, and providing security for Lobaye Invest and other parties tied to Russian interests on the ground. These interests include delivering valuable military and technological equipment to both the government and rebel groups, as well as securing valuable mining sites, such as the Ndassima gold mine.
Labelled areas of interest discussed throughout the paper.
The activity of Russian PMCs under the name of Sewa Security Services have been reported in many of the areas as the activities of Lobaye Invest. Russian PMCs have also been using the Berengo Estate southwest of Bangui as a site for training FACA forces. The site was the former palace of former ruler Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and was under the control of rebel groups until recently. Multiple photos of the site posted by President Touadéra show what appear to be Russian advisors training FACA soldiers in the area, and satellite imagery reveals new rows of tents set up on the property . Reportedly this has been done without the consent of the family. The palace is also located next to a two kilometer-long paved airstrip, which could be employed for transit to other airfields around the country.
FACA soldiers demonstrate their new training at a ceremony at Berengo Palace on March 31, 2018. Russian advisors can be seen observing in the background. Source: Facebook.
According to a UN report, at least three training sessions have been conducted at Berengo Palace in 2018 . These sessions concluded on March 31, 2018; May 30, 2018; and a third began on May 30 2018 as well. Pictures posted by the Central African Presidency show many caucasian Russian instructors in military attire both training and observing FACA recruits at the March 31 session. The amount of Russian military advisors at this event alone proves that there are far more than the specified number of five military advisors in-country. Other Russian figures can be seen in the background of the photos, dressed in civilian attire, including Valery Zakharov, a Russian national and former intelligence official who has been appointed the National Security advisor to Touadéra.
Valery Zakharov, National Security Advisor to President Touadéra, at a ceremony on March 31, 2018. Source: Facebook.
Russian-made Ural-4320 military trucks are also visible in the photos of the training ceremony at Berengo Palace. Identical Ural-4320 Trucks have been documented crossing from the CAR-Sudan border in May of 2018, some time after the ceremony at Berengo Palace. The trucks bear no flags or markings indicating their service to the Russian or Central African governments, but were driven by numerous Russian speakers.
A UNSC report confirms that Russian instructors were present in escorting a convoy from Sudan to the Central African towns of Birao, Nedele, Kaga Bandoro, Bria, and Bangui between 7th and 26th of May. The report claims that the convoy was involved in “transporting materials for the construction of hospitals,” and indicates no military hardware onboard the convoy . However, third party media of the convoy indicates otherwise. In a documentary made by France24, footage shows the same convoy being stopped by rebel groups in the city of Ndele on 11 May 2018. While the video depicts the Russian paramilitaries delivering the medical supplies for the field hospital to the FPRC rebels in Ndele, it also reveals that the convoy was indeed carrying weapons. Crates opened during the video show drones and radios among the medical supplies. After a brief sit down between the convoy leader and the FPRC commanders, the cameras stop recording, and the convoy continues on to Bangui. The man negotiating for the Russians was identified as a Kyrgyz citizen with military experience who has been reported to have been working on contracts in Russia, linking him to the Wagner Group and its associates .
Multiple screenshots from France 24’s “The way of the warlord” video show armed Russian PMCs clad with camouflage negotiating with FPRC rebels. Despite their unmistakable accents, telnyashka shirts, and gorka suits, the PMCs have no insignia denoting their service to the Central African or Russian government. The rear of one of the Ural trucks can been seen in the background of the first photo. Source: YouTube.
Another video uploaded to YouTube by French-speaking African filmmakers known as “film car 2”,, shows the journey of the convoy through CAR. At one point in the video, a Russian identified as Kirill Romanovskiy, who has been documented as working for Prigozhin’s “Federal News Agency,” and is one of many Prigozhin associates sanctioned by the United States, can be seen interacting with locals on the convoy’s journey 
Even Ural-4320s in the convoy can be linked back to Prigozhin. Multiple companies in Prigozhin’s sphere handled multiple transactions in early 2018 to purchase Ural-4320 model trucks . This same model of Ural was seen in CAR a few months later, both at training ceremonies in Berengo and in convoys throughout the country. These Ural-4320s have continued to be seen throughout the country since their arrival in 2018.
There has also been reported Wagner use of “airfields” in Birao, Ndele, and Ouadda, all areas in which Lobaye Invest has shown interest in potential mining operations. For more public deliveries of equipment, Russian actors have used CAR’s primary airport, Bangui M’Poko International. The term “airfield” used in many media sources is a slight exaggeration, as all of the locations appear to be single airstripse approximately two kilometers in length and unpaved. PMCs active in the area have been photographed by locals using privately-owned propeller-driven Cessna 182T aircraft . The aircraft was adorned with the tail number RA-67717, which has been recorded as property of M-Invest, another one of Prighozhin’s business fronts . An incident involving the plane occurred on April 28, 2018, after personnel aboard the plane had come to Kaga-Bandoro in northern CAR to hold discussion with rebel leaders. The incident involved a mob of Central Africans surrounding the plane, prohibiting its takeoff, requiring UN police and military personnel to protect the plane.
A photo reportedly from the incident on April 28. The Prigozhin-associated tail number, RA-67717, can be seen on the rear of the aircraft. Source: Corbeaunews Centrafrique.
All airstrips existed prior to Russian intervention in the country as they have been used in the past by the U.N. peacekeeping mission. PMCs have thus far have only adopted the use of local airstrips rather than constructing their own. It is probable that outside of the convoys mentioned earlier, PMCs rely on air travel to get across CAR, as roads in the Central African Republic are drastically underserviced and unreliable.
The airstrip at Birao has the most demonstrable UN presence. As of February 2020, a battalion of Zambian peacekeepers are based in and around, with a sizable contingent at the airstrip . The facilities at Birao include barracks for UN forces, roadblocks and other fortifications, as well as many transport vehicles and shipping containers around the site. Media has shown United Nations helicopters and two-engine transport planes landing at the site, illustrating the capabilities of the airfield. Official videos from the MINUSCA youtube channel show an air-based deployment of soldiers as recently as September/October of 2019. The airstrips close proximity to the Sudanese border makes it ideal for transport operations, as Russian PMC convoys frequently cross the border between CAR and Sudan.
Satellite imagery of the airstrip near the town of Birao. The buildings to the south of the airstrip host a MINUSCA battalion responsible for local security of the Birao area.
The airstrip at Ndele has also been used by the MINUSCA for logistical and policing operations. The airstrip has a UNPOL presence, used to protect the town from rebel activity in the area . The strip houses similar compounds to those found at Birao, with three more walled compounds having been built between 2014 and 2018, most likely to house the increased UN presence in the region and displaced persons. While the base lacks hangers for long-term aircraft storage, the walled compounds filled with trailers and trucks demonstrate a sustained UN presence at the airstrip. For this reason, it is unlikely that Russian PMCs use the facilities at Ndele for anything other than transportation and logistical operations.
Satellite imagery of the airstrip near the town of Ndele. Multiple compounds surround the airstrip, and are home to multiple UN Police and Peacekeeping units.
The airstrip of Ouadda sees the least traffic of the three and lacks any United Nations presence. As of early 2019, there are no permanent structures at the airstrip, certifying that PMCs most probably use this strip for temporary logistical operations. However, as of 2020, numerous small structures have been built to the south of the airstrip. While they seem to be residential structures, their construction indicates a growing population in the area surrounding Ouadda.
Satellite imagery of the airstrip near the town of Ouadda. The immediate area around the airstrip lacks any real structures, but as of 2020 new small buildings can be seen to the south.
The Bangui M'Poko International Airport serves as a more public port-of-entry for Russian aid to the Central African Republic. Located just outside of the capital city of Bangui, the airport serves as the primary commercial airport in the country. The airport is thus understandably a hub for international aid to CAR, primarily from the United Nations. Unlike its more remote counterparts, the delivery of aid from the Russian Federation at M’Poko is often highly publicized. Deliveries are often accompanied by photo ops and exchanges between officials from both sides. Numerous public press events have been held just outside of the terminal building at the airport, as evident by the noticeable air traffic control tower.
Satellite imagery analysis of Bangui M’Poko international airport shows the location of military aircraft storage, as well as the site outside of the terminal where many Russian deliveries of aid take place.
Public deliveries at the airport have so far included weapons, personnel, and recently, medical equipment for the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 26 January and 7 February 2018, nine aircraft were recorded to have arrived at M’Poko International Airport in Bangui to deliver weapons and ammunition to CAR on behalf of the Russian Federation. The weapons were transported from the airport to Camp de Roux, a nearby FACA Base, where they were supposed to be inspected by UN officials, although it is unknown if this inspection ever occurred . Following that, in May of 2018 a contingent of roughly 200 Russian specialists arrived at the airport before being dispersed throughout CAR .
The airport is often used as a site of public showings of the growing relationship between Moscow and Bangui. On 5 September 2020, a ceremony took place in tandem with the arrival of COVID-19 aid in the country. President Touadera met with Russian officials, flanked by many Russian and Central African flags, for a photo op and the exchange of the equipment .
Anastasia Smirnova, a Russian diplomatic officer, meets with President Touadéra to deliver COVID-19 aid to CAR on behalf of the Russian Federation. 
On 15 October 2020, a large delivery of armored vehicles and weapons took place. The vehicles, 10 BRDM-2 armored personnel carriers, sported pairs of Russian and Central African flags, as well as large posters with patriotic slogans . In contrast to the mercenary convoy from Sudan, these vehicles were welcomed with much fanfare. Their arrival was accompanied by a large parade through Bangui. Reportedly, the vehicles are to be driven in a convoy to the Berengo Palace. The arrival of these armored vehicles mark an escalation in the quality of equipment being sent to CAR by the Russian Federation.
Newly delivered BRDM-2 armored vehicles, adorned with Russian and Central African flags, can be seen here positioned around a Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft at Bangui M’Poko International Airport. Source: Diaspoint.
The activity of Russian actors has also been rumored in areas not officially under the stewardship of Lobaye Invest. For example, at the Ndassima gold mine forty miles north of Bambari. The mine at Ndassima is an open-pit mine, not uncommon for extraction of gold or diamonds in the Central African Republic. Numerous small buildings surround the mining area, indicating a permanent population in the area in and around the site.
The mine was owned by the Canadian “Axmin” mining company, but was overrun by rebels around 2013. Since then, operation of the mine has largely continued under the joint control of Seleka rebel groups, known as the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) and Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic (FPRC) . In mid-July of 2018, it was reported that an agreement had been reached between CAR and Russian officials to allow for Russian exploration of the area . According to multiple local media sources, Russian actors have also displayed interest “[i]n the vicinity of Ndassim, Birao, Bouar, and Bria…” and have been reported to be directly negotiating with rebels in the area to access the natural resources . The rebels have been operating the mine for the past few years, using the labor of local villagers. It is thought that a deal may have been struck between the rebels and Lobaye Invest to fully exploit the mine .
The situation at Ndassima mine as well as the earlier FPRC-PMC encounter illustrates a more pragmatic, self-interested approach than Moscow has publicly boasted. Despite pledging support and material aid to President Touadéra’s government, Russian actors in CAR still engage in private bargaining with rebel groups, who hold vast swathes of mineral-rich territory in the Republic.
Satellite imagery analysis of the immediate area of the Ndassima gold mine, indicating a small population present in the area.
The acquisition of mining permits and operation of mines by Lobaye Invest signals only the beginning of Russian presence in the Central African Republic. Time will tell how profitable these Lobaye Invest ventures may be, as much work must still be done on the ground to survey and secure these mining zones. One can expect that if these early mining ventures yield promising returns, the Russian presence in the country will increase.
Within CAR, Moscow's operations are far more business-like than other notable Russian missions. In the traditional areas of Russian PMC operation, such as Syria or Libya, there is a focus on the use of direct military aid to recapture and hold territory alongside regime forces. In CAR, Russian agents are not afraid to treat with rebel leaders to pursue Russia’s economic interest in CAR, while simultaneously providing security for the government in Bangui. The situation at Ndassima highlights this pragmatic mission, showing the situational Russian focus on the security of Lobaye Invest’s mining ventures over Moscow’s declared "peacekeeping mission."
While the Kremlin happily touts the rebirth of diplomatic relations with CAR, its mining and PMC operations remain quite discrete. The Russian mission in CAR has been growing steadily since 2018, as what began as simple transfers of small arms has evolved into the deployment of hundreds of operatives and the arrival of heavy military equipment. The FACA has a long way to go to even begin the process of retaking much of the rebel-held territory in CAR, but with Russian training, equipment, and manpower, their prospects are certainly improving. Although still in its infancy, the success or failure of Russia’s relatively low-cost venture in the Central African Republic holds many implications for the future of Russia's role in Africa. If Russia is able to bring about stability in CAR, as well as achieve Moscow's own economic goals, there is no doubt that this model of expanding Russia's diplomatic, economic, and military influence could be expanded throughout the continent.
The Tracking Russian Activities in the Central African Region (TRACAR) Project at William & Mary's geoLab specializes in the merging of text and location-based data to identify and geocode Russian activities in Central Africa. TRACAR follows a three-step approach to the collection, geocoding, and imagery acquisition of these activities. First, we scour reputable open-sources of information, not limited to news stories and government documentation, to identify and triangulate instances of Russian diplomatic activities and financial flows. We then catalogue this data, emphasizing the funder(s) and other actors involved, the stated purpose of the activity, dollar amounts, and any interconnections between activities. Each activity location is geocoded, or assigned coordinate data, based on the triangulation of information found in our sources and what is observable using satellite imagery. To the extent possible, we then acquire high-resolution imagery of where activities take place to assess their physical impact. Between each of these three steps are several rounds of quality assurance to enforce inter-coder reliability, data accuracy, and professionalism. To ensure credibility, we keep a downloaded copy of each source cited in case any webpages or entire websites are not available in the future. Through blending human and data-driven methods of data acquisition and analysis, TRACAR pieces together snapshots of Russian engagement in Central Africa and develops holistic narratives tailored to specific country and sector contexts. Explore the data in our dashboard or download it for your own use; the only requirement for use is acknowledgement.