Battle for Influence Rages in Heart of Wagner’s Operations in Africa

In palmier times, the leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, appeared at a Russian cultural center in the capital of the Central African Republic, sitting with schoolchildren and promising them free laptops.

But Mr. Prigozhin’s death in August has rattled the mercenary group’s once-cozy relations with the Central African Republic, which is now weighing offers from Russia and Western countries, including the United States, to replace Wagner as its primary security guarantor.

The outcome of this struggle could be a bellwether for the group’s future on the continent, where the Central African Republic is perhaps the most deeply enmeshed among the handful of African nations partnering with Wagner.

The Russian Defense Ministry has sought to absorb some of Wagner’s activities, while preserving its influence and maintaining its wealth of knowledge about the continent. But a senior Western diplomat said that the uncertainty around Wagner in the Central African Republic provided a “window of opportunity” for the United States and France to counter Russian influence.

The Biden administration has offered security assistance in exchange for easing Wagner out, said three Central African officials briefed on the discussions. Recently, representatives of the American private security firm Bancroft met with Central African officials in the country’s capital, a person familiar with the meeting confirmed.

Fidèle Gouandjika, the security adviser to the country’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, said that his administration had until next month to tell U.S. officials whether it was willing to partner with them.

A State Department spokesman said in a statement that the United States was encouraging Central African officials to “gain their independence from the Wagner Group” but declined to comment further. The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Touadéra has also had discussions with President Emmanuel Macron of France, the former colonial power whose involvement in the Central African Republic has waned in recent years. French and Central African officials are now working on a road map for renewed cooperation in civilian affairs.

It remains unclear, however, whether Western countries can offer the same level of security as the mercenary group and whether hard-pressed Central African officials will dare face rebel groups and other security threats without Wagner’s familiar embrace. France, which is downsizing its security presence in former colonies amid growing hostility over its lingering influence, has made it clear that it will not provide troops.

For years, the Wagner group has protected the leadership of the Central African Republic with bare-knuckle security enforcement, weaponry and propaganda campaigns. In return, it has gained lucrative mining concessions for gold, diamonds and timber, while also committing egregious human rights abuses against civilians and in clashes with rebel groups.

But in interviews with more than a dozen officials and diplomats, as well as analysts and human rights defenders, over several weeks, a new narrative seems to be emerging. Wagner, many say, has been a difficult partner that many officials would like to bid good riddance.

“They sold us a win-win partnership, but that relationship hasn’t given us so much,” one of the Central African government officials said about Wagner, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss relations with the group.

Vladislav Ilin, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in the capital, Bangui, said that Russia was “determined to come back on the African continent” and continue its security partnership with the Central African Republic.

When asked what Mr. Prigozhin’s death meant for Russia’s involvement in Africa, Mr. Ilin said, “No change.”

Some experts agree with that assessment, harboring doubts that Mr. Touadéra would dare jettison the security Wagner provides.

“Touadéra is like a disabled man walking with a cane, and that cane is Wagner,” said Sergei Eledinov, a retired Russian military officer and independent analyst on security issues in Africa.

At the same time, he added: “Russia doesn’t know how to do business in Africa. Wagner does.”

Russian military instructors were first invited to the Central African Republic in 2017, as its poorly trained and underfunded army struggled to contain rebel groups that had waged an insurgency since 2012.

It was a quick fix for both parties: Russia saw an opening to regain influence on a continent where it had lost its clout since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Central African government could enjoy the support of a major power without meeting the human rights and transparency standards demanded by Western partners. Even now, with its grip in the Central African Republic apparently weakened, Wagner remains a major presence. As the shadowy fight over its future plays out, more than 1,000 Wagner mercenaries and some of the group’s top operatives remain in the country.

They still control the largest gold mine in the Central African Republic, and Russians still escort Mr. Touadéra as he moves across the country.

National soldiers trained by Russian instructors and wearing the Wagner skull logo on their uniforms still guard government buildings and patrol the president’s neighborhood.

And in Bangui, senior local Wagner figures dine at the same restaurants favored by Western diplomats and United Nations officials. They have even been spotted at private parties organized by humanitarian organizations.

They have trained local priests to join the Russian Orthodox Church and financed a radio station, Radio Lengo Songo, described by its editor in chief, Frédéric Krock, in an interview as “under the influence” of “our Russian partners.”

Through a company under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury, Wagner operatives also make beer, vodka and flavored liquors that Central Africans sip in bars and parks when the sun sets over Bangui in the late afternoon.

“Wagner or not, it feels like the Russians still control everything,” said Abdoulaye Ibrahim, a former Wagner employee who was involved in the group’s propaganda operations.

With such a web of connections to Wagner, many Central Africans have trouble conceiving of a divorce with the group. “The Wagners,” people say, have turned their soldiers into a professional army. They saved Bangui from the rebels and brought order to far-flung regions of the country.

“The West wants us to get rid of Wagner, but without them we’ll have issues within 48 hours,” said Robert Ngoki, the president of the country’s Chamber of Commerce. “Whether we want it or not, they are the ones who keep the hinterland safe.”

But many others say the group’s harsh tactics, including rape, torture and other human rights abuses, as well as economic exploitation, have soured the relationship.

The main road linking Bangui to neighboring Cameroon snakes through lush plains and dense forests and past scattered villages. At times, an unmarked vehicle appears over the horizon, escorting trucks to the capital.

These are Wagner convoys, securing the lifeline of one of the world’s poorest countries and often helping themselves to whatever they want along the way. On the side of the road, where merchants sell snacks along with gasoline in Russian beer bottles, Russian drivers often stop to grab a can of soda, a piece of bush meat or chicken — without paying.

In Yaloké, a small mining town, residents say, armed, masked white men have looted motorcycles, animals and gold. When Russian-speaking men stole two goats in 2021, they told their owner, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jean-Puissance, “It’s on Touadéra’s bill,” he said, referring to the Central African president.

“They’re bandits. They plunder and leave,” he added. “And they’ll come back.”

They also employ beatings and torture as a routine element of their law enforcement efforts, Central Africans and rights groups say.

When a street vendor in the western city of Bouar was detained in March after an acquaintance accused him of stealing a gallon of gasoline, he was taken to a Russian camp at the entrance of the city.

Hours later, the vendor, Guy Moket, was dropped off at the local police station in such critical condition that he was immediately transported to a clinic. He died the same day with wounds on his legs, a swollen pelvis and marks of beatings on his chest, according to four family members who saw Mr. Moket in his last hours.

Mr. Moket’s death fits a pattern of abuses by Wagner mercenaries documented by the United Nations and research organizations that includes torture, indiscriminate killings and sexual violence. Increasingly, local populations, religious leaders and civil society representatives are speaking out.

“We know about their practices, we know about the women and girls they take to their trucks,” said Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the archbishop of Bangui. “They’re no angels, and they behave savagely,” he said, but adding “they’re still a lesser evil” than the rebel groups that controlled large areas of the Central African Republic for years.

Russian instructors have also trained hundreds of Central African soldiers and self-defense groups in torture methods, according to multiple reports.

Three Central African soldiers trained by Wagner confirmed the lessons in torture. One of them, who for security reasons gave only his first name, Ahmadou, said that Wagner’s instructors had them practice techniques like nail pulling, sleep deprivation and electric shocks to the genitals — on actual prisoners.

Perhaps recognizing the growing resentment, Wagner has taken steps recently to soften its image. The Russian cultural center in Bangui, known as the Russian House and run by a senior operative of the Wagner group, offers knitting and language lessons, wedding ceremonies and free snacks. There is even an inflatable pool for children, for which Mr. Prigozhin promised clean water on that final visit to Bangui.

The manager of the center, Anfissa Kiryanova, an amiable woman in her mid-30s, has emerged as one of the new public faces of the group. She said in an interview that she was sad about Mr. Prigozhin’s death and that “we will see what changes over time.”

But one thing remains certain. “Our boss,” she said, meaning the Russian leader, Vladimir V. Putin, “remains the president.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.