Brewery attack in Bangui
An advertisement for Africa Ti L’Or, a beer company with links to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Photographer: Simon Marks/Bloomberg

What Wagner’s Mutiny Means for Its Sprawling Business Empire

The Russian mercenary group’s commercial network in the Central African Republic is set to come under pressure.

The two men, rifles strapped to their backs, huddle together in the grass. Bright flashes appear in their hands — Molotov cocktails, which they hurl high over a barbed wire fence toward stacked red crates of beer. Plumes of smoke fill the air.

Assailants throw Molotov cocktails over the wall surrounding the brewery. Source: Mocaf brewery

The fire that ensued destroyed some 50,000 beer bottles at a brewery owned by French alcohol giant Castel in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Officials from two Western governments that have reviewed the closed-circuit footage, obtained by Bloomberg News, believe that the perpetrators belong to the Wagner Group, according to people familiar with the situation.

The notorious Russian paramilitary organization — whose founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had close ties to the Kremlin until last weekend, when he mounted a mutiny against President Vladimir Putin — has committed a wide range of alleged human rights abuses, from grisly murders of civilians in Ukraine, where it has played a key role, to the rape and execution of villagers in CAR and Mali. For more than half a decade, it has been the leading actor in the Kremlin’s efforts to grow its sphere of influence on the continent, gaining friends — along with security-services contracts and lucrative mining licenses — in half a dozen African countries.

Why would Wagner attack a brewery? A different set of images, from 12 miles away, offers an explanation. There, with the help of the Paris-based investigative group All Eyes on Wagner, Bloomberg has identified a brand new brewery. A year ago the land was all open-air and dirt, satellite images show. The warehouse and large metal vats that sit there now produce a new beer called Africa Ti L’Or, which belongs to a company run by a top Wagner official.

Brewery development outside Bangui
The brewery outside Bangui in June 2022. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies
Brewery development outside Bangui
The brewery outside Bangui in April 2023. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies

The brewery is part of a business empire that Wagner has established in CAR with Russia’s backing. It extends into nearly every sector of the nation’s economy, according to trade data, satellite imagery and interviews with people familiar with the situation. Wagner controls CAR’s biggest gold mine — capable of producing as much as $290 million of gold annually — and a timber concession twice the size of New York City. Its beer business is coupled with one that produces cheap vodka.

By the end of the weekend, Prigozhin had agreed to call off his insurrection and go into exile in Belarus. His rupture with the Kremlin raises questions about the fate of Wagner’s operations in Libya, Mali and Sudan. But nowhere in Africa is likely to be more affected than CAR, one of the world’s poorest countries, which has acted as a laboratory for Russia’s strategy on the continent and where 2,000 Wagner fighters have propped up the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera since deploying to the country under a bilateral security agreement with Moscow in 2018.

Wagner Presence in Africa and the Middle East

“If the relationship between the Russian government and Wagner is broken, it means that their relationship in CAR and Mali is also broken,” said Kessy Martin Ekomo Soignet, who heads Peace and Development Watch, a Bangui-based think tank. “What is happening is destroying the narrative” that the CAR government is being supported by Moscow, and instead shows that “CAR’s president is officially a hostage of Wagner.”

Fidele Gouandjika, an adviser to CAR’s president, insisted that this weekend’s uprising won’t impact CAR. “These events leave us neither hot nor cold because we have a defense agreement with the Russian federation,” he said. Even if Wagner is disbanded, “Russia will send us something,” he said, meaning troops and arms.

In an audio release on his Telegram channel on Monday, Prigozhin said his intention was not to overthrow the government and that Wagner had always performed "a huge number of tasks in the interests of the Russian Federation" in Africa and in Arab countries around the world.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with RT that CAR and Mali had asked Wagner to help “ensure the safety of their leadership” after French forces withdrew. He said Russian military instructors will continue to operate in both countries.

A spokesperson for Concord Group, a St. Petersburg-based company controlled by Prigozhin, declined Bloomberg’s request to interview the Wagner leader and did not respond to questions about the group’s presence in CAR.

Wagner and Russia built this presence by capturing CAR’s state institutions, elbowing aside ex-colonial power France, according to diplomats and UN officials in the country and analysts who follow it closely. Wagner forces lead the army on patrols against a rebel insurgency that has plagued the government for over a decade. Out in the bush in a vast country bigger than Ukraine, its soldiers run checkpoints that dictate the movements of UN workers and foreign NGOs. They also provide personal security for top CAR officials. Western diplomats are scared to show up at events with the president, to avoid being photographed near a Wagner soldier.

A reverse camera angle catches the assailants throwing Molotov cocktails from up close. Source: Mocaf brewery

Indeed, when CAR’s prime minister arrived to inspect the Castel brewery fire the morning after, he brought along six Wagner fighters acting as his security detail, said Alain Heraibi, the chief executive of Castel’s operations in Bangui. The frightened brewery managers let the Russians in despite believing they were part of the same group that had launched the attack, Heraibi said. Similarly, when Touadera inspected the aftermath of a fire at the French embassy in early 2021, a retinue of Wagner mercenaries — who French officials suspected had set the fire in the first place — came with him.

Brewery grounds
A watch tower at the brewery’s perimeter. Photographer: Simon Marks/Bloomberg

In return for protection, Wagner operatives are given free rein to conduct business. Cushy tax breaks allow them to import millions of dollars in equipment duty free. Through a customs contract, Wagner controls the movement of — and gets a cut of — the goods flowing in and out of neighboring Cameroon, according to four people familiar with the situation. Wagner forces also use a dedicated runway at the airport in Bangui, where open source flight trackers have repeatedly spotted Russian planes linked to Prigozhin.

“The president is in the process of giving everything to the Russians in order to conserve, preserve and secure his power,” said Rodrigue Mayté, an influential Central African political commentator who lives in Paris. “The country is under occupation.” Patrick Bida Kouyagbele, a senior adviser to Touadera, said that Russia simply offers much more than France or the United Nations. “They are much more efficient and much more generous,” he said. He added that Russia has donated to the government several fighter jets and 14 helicopters, as well as AK-47 rifles.

Five years of Western sanctions against dozens of shell companies and individuals associated with Wagner have done little to undermine the group’s expansion in Africa. As soon as the US, EU or UK have imposed sanctions on one Wagner company, new Wagner-affiliated companies have popped up often using local representatives, turning the West’s bid to crack down on the mercenary group into a game of whack-a-mole.

Russian House in Central African Republic
Russian House, a state-run cultural centre in Bangui. Photographer: Simon Marks/Bloomberg

In CAR, Russia has already woven its way into the fabric of society. The Russian cultural center hosts language classes, while Wagner sponsors radio stations and beauty pageants. The Russian church paid for the local orthodox church to get a facelift. Russian companies have also begun producing fruit juice and have invested in a 200,000 hectare project to grow tropical wheat, said Kouyagbele, the CAR official. In 2021, thousands of Central Africans flocked to the national stadium in Bangui for the premiere of Touriste, an action movie that Wagner-affiliated companies filmed in CAR to glorify the group's exploits there.

Wagner’s fighters stick out among the 18,000 UN peacekeeping troops stationed in the country. Clad in dirty unmarked military fatigues, a bandana often covering their mouths and noses, they are ubiquitous around in Bangui, a low-slung city nestled on the northern bank of the Ubangi River across from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s common to run into mercenaries paying for groceries in local stores, drinking at bars or haggling for goods by the side of the road. Roadside stalls stock Africa Ti L’Or’s beer and its vodka, Wa Na Wa, which is sold in plastic sachets usually used for ketchup.

Gold Rush

Surrounded by thick forest about 260 miles northeast of Bangui, the Ndassima gold mine was until two years ago a small-scale artisanal operation where gold was dug by hand. Wagner operatives are turning it into a major industrial site using heavy equipment.

Satellite pictures of the mine, run by a company Wagner controls, illustrate the rapid expansion of its operations over the past two years. The images show Ndassima can produce roughly 150,000 ounces (4.2 tonnes) of gold annually — worth roughly $290 million at current prices — according to four veteran mining experts who are familiar with the site and examined the images provided to Bloomberg by Maxar Technologies.

Satellite image of gold mine
The Katsia open pit mine in October 2020. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies
Satellite image of gold mine
The operational production camp in May 2023, connecting Katsia and French Camp open pits to refining equipment. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies

“Around four tons a year seems plausible for this type of mine,” said Hélène Helbig de Balzac, an analyst specializing in mining and trafficking networks in conflict-affected and high-risk areas, citing an amount around the 150,000-ounce mark.

In a satellite image taken of the concession on May 8, dump trucks are scattered around the site near what appears to be a dozen buildings, likely offices or accommodation for workers. There is also a Russian-made combat truck, the same type that Russia used in Libya and Syria — where Wagner has also been deployed in recent years — as well as a Soviet-designed military helicopter.

Trees have been cleared to make way for ochre-hued roads that snake their way through the forest connecting the Katsia and French Camp open pits to a refining site. There, mining engineers have installed two rock crushing and milling circuits connected by conveyors powered by half a dozen diesel generators. A third larger circuit is being built nearby. A dozen tanks, used to leach the gold from ore, dot the site, according to the mining experts.

It’s impossible to know the height of the tanks from satellite imagery, making it difficult to evaluate precisely how much gold could be produced, the mining experts said. The gold from this site would need to be further refined elsewhere to remove traces of silver, copper and other metals.

Production Camp

Annotation based on analysis by two veteran mining experts who are familiar with the site. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies Detail of operational production camp, May 8, 2023.

The estimated output is roughly what the Canadian mining company Axmin Inc. planned to produce when it began developing the site in 2006. In 2019, the CAR government cancelled the Canadian company’s licenses and the following year handed them to Madagascar-registered MIDAS Ressources, which works closely with CAR-based Lobaye Invest SARLU, which is controlled by Wagner, according to the US Treasury. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Midas for its ties to Wagner. Axmin has said it has hired a law firm as it attempts to recover damages for the lost license through international arbitration after failing to reach a deal through mediation earlier this year.

Hans Merket, a researcher with the Belgium-based International Peace Information Service, which tracks the trade of arms and natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa, said images of the operation showed progress in line with what Axmin had originally envisioned.

“They seem to be building something that has the scale of what was studied back then,” he said. “They’re definitely not there yet,” he added, noting the company so far was only mining one open pit.

Just south of the mining site, a new bridge over the Baidou River has replaced a barge that the Canadian company used to bring in equipment before the CAR government squeezed them out. Mining experts said the size of the new bridge likely limited what kind of equipment Russian mining engineers can bring into the remote site, which would explain why two small crushing and milling circuits were built instead of a single larger one.

In September 2020, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Lobaye Invest for being under Prigozhin’s control. The Sentry, an investigative nonprofit, reported on June 27 that Wagner mercenaries have been responsible for murder and rape in the area. It also disclosed customs data showing Wagner-linked companies were shipping equipment through Cameroon.

Gouandjika, the CAR presidential adviser, denied that there was a Russian presence at Ndassima, saying instead that Chinese and South African investors operate the mine. He also denied that Wagner had committed abuses. “Russian soldiers that are called Wagner in our country are never on the offensive. They don’t attack,” he said. “There is a category of Russians who are there, who might be Wagner or not, who have mining concessions.”

Timber Trade

The Lobaye region, in western CAR, is filled with dense forests of precious hardwoods, including sapele, which is used in everything from furniture to musical instruments in the West and Asia.

In February 2021, soon after Wagner forces took control of the area, a company called Bois Rouge SARLU secured licenses from the CAR government to log as much as 186,000 hectares in the region, according to documents first obtained by All Eyes on Wagner and seen by Bloomberg.

Over the past two years, Bois Rouge has been receiving a steady stream of supplies from a St. Petersburg-based company with ties to Prigozhin, according to customs data from ImportGenius and the Free Russia Foundation. In December Bois Rouge changed its name to Wood International Group SARLU, which occupies the same address and holds the same permits, according to CBS News and AEOW.

The nexus of this new line of business is just north of the group’s forest concession, where Bloomberg identified a 27-acre plot of land that has been turned into a large timber yard, according to satellite images from March taken by Maxar. The facility is controlled by Wagner, according to two people familiar with the matter. Stacks of wood planks and heavy trucks fill the site, which is fortified by an earthen berm. At the north end of the plot are two larger buildings and five smaller ones. The satellite images show a large timber processing operation with about 5,000 cubic meters of logs, worth about $1.2 million, and even more on the European market, according to two timber industry experts who examined the images for Bloomberg.

Timber yard
An area near Boda in July 2019. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies
Timber yard
The same area, converted to a timber yard, in March 2023. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies

How much Wagner can make from the operation depends on how efficiently the group can process the logs, says Benoit Jobbe-Duval, director general of the Association Technique Internationale des Bois Tropicaux, which lobbies for sustainable logging practices.

Operating on a typical two to three-month cycle, the firm could be yielding about 5 million euros ($5.4 million) worth of cut timber annually, Jobbe-Duval said. He noted that the cost of transporting the logs could be “considerable,” too.

Wagner entities are exporting the wood from CAR to the port of Douala in Cameroon for shipment onward to Denmark, France, China and Pakistan. Bois Rouge and Wood International exported $270,000 of wood from the port of Doula in Cameroon since April 2022, according to customs data shared with Bloomberg by Earthsight, an NGO that has investigated Wagner’s trade.

Before sending the timber to Cameroon, Wagner transports it to Bangui in order to collect the necessary shipping paperwork, people familiar with the trade said. On a recent visit to Bangui, a Bloomberg reporter witnessed white men in military clothing driving cut timber into Bangui. Timber trucks were also seen parked outside the Russian cultural center.

Piles of wood have also been spotted at Camp Kassai, which for years was the beating heart of a training mission backed by France and the European Union that saw dozens of CAR military units drilled and supplied with equipment.

In 2020, the UN renovated Camp Kassai, created bathrooms and dorms for female soldiers and handed it over to the CAR’s army. Within months, French diplomats began seeing Wagner mercenaries driving into the camp. Today, Wagner occupies it almost entirely, two Western officials who have visited the camp recently said.

With Putin stating that Wagner fighters need to go to Belarus, sign contracts with the Defense Ministry or go home, the fate of their operation in CAR remains unknown. But the group is unlikely to be disbanded overnight — and its African operations are likely to survive in some form, experts said.

“With Wagner, Russia has managed to create a very powerful business machine and tool for influence in Africa,” said Enrica Picco, the Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “So the system will not fail even if there are internal struggles in Russia. The Kremlin will not let the system fail — it's too important for them.”

(Update: Added line on Midas sanction by the Treasury Department)

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