ABUJA, Nigeria—When Lamido Souleymane Daouda, mayor and sultan of the northwestern Central African Republic (CAR) town of Koui, was told by locals that they had seen a cache of weapons gathered by rebels in a nearby community early in June, he quickly reported it to security agencies. The highly respected Sultan Mayor, as Daouda is commonly referred to as, had expected officials to rush to the community and seize the weapons.
But that’s not what happened.
Rather, a group of Russian mercenaries allegedly stormed his home on June 12 and insisted he accompanied them to where the arms were kept, according to family eyewitnesses who spoke with The Daily Beast. The family members said that just before noon, Daouda, his assistant and bodyguard, left with the mercenaries and headed to the community, which was west of Koui. But when the Russians returned four hours later, none of the three men were with them. The mercenaries allegedly told Daouda's family that the three men were killed in a landmine explosion not far from the Sultan Mayor’s house, and that the rest of them were lucky to escape death.
“We could tell that they [the Russian mercenaries] were lying,” Abdoulaye, Daouda's relative, told The Daily Beast. “The family then insisted that their bodies be produced so we could confirm for ourselves whether they were truly dead and the actual cause of their death.”
The Russian mercenaries initially rejected the family's request and instead “threatened to deal with those who were demanding to see the dead bodies,” according to Salif, another one of Sultan Mayor's relatives. “When they saw that no one was moved by their threats and everyone kept insisting [on seeing the dead bodies], they succumbed and finally produced the corpses.”
The Daily Beast has changed the names of witnesses in the story to protect them from possible retribution.
What indicated that the Sultan Mayor and his two aides were not killed in an explosion but were rather murdered was the live bullets family members said they found in their bodies. The victims were said to have been shot multiple times and there were no traces of injuries from explosives on them. A UN report later confirmed that Daouda had been assassinated by “security personnel,” but did not specify whether Russian mercenaries were behind the attack.
“The Russians came to Koui to kill the Sultan Mayor,” said Salif. “They had no intention of seizing the weapons stored in that community by rebels.”
The late Sultan Mayor had been a huge critic of CAR’s armed forces, commonly referred to as FACA, and Russian mercenaries, both of whom have worked together in perpetrating human rights abuses against civilians.
Russian aggression in CAR has continued since the 2018 killings of three Russian journalists who were investigating the local activities of Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit tied to a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner mercenaries who are scattered around CAR—often guarding lucrative gold and diamond mines—have been linked to Putin’s close associate Yevgeny Prigozhin. Often called “Putin’s Chef” because of the rich contracts handed out to his catering company, Prigozhin has denied backing Wagner Group. The organization hires many of its mercenaries from the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, but a number of local and Western officials believe that Prigozhin is the mastermind behind both Wagner and Russia’s involvement in CAR.
Since December, when Wagner mercenaries joined forces with FACA to fight rebel groups advancing towards the capital of Bangui, reports of human rights abuses have skyrocketed.
The Russians fired on a truck for failing to stop at a checkpoint in the town of Bambari in late December, injuring the driver and killing three passengers. Then on March 14, in a village near Bambari, they shot and killed a chief, whom they had accused of having a soft spot for the rebels, according to a CNN report. Before then, the report explained, FACA and Wagner mercenaries had burned down homes in a village close to the town of Bossangoa towards the end of February. The Russians also abducted four community leaders from the town of Bria in April and flew them to an undisclosed location.
“Most of the people the Russians target are Muslims, whom they accuse of supporting the predominantly Muslim Séléka rebel group,” said Salif. “If you dare to condemn their actions, like the Sultan Mayor often did, you become their enemy.”
A violent civil war has raged in CAR, one of the world’s poorest countries, since 2013 when a mainly Muslim rebel coalition called Séléka took control of Bangui and toppled the government. In response to rebel uprisings and looting, Christian vigilantes began a bloody ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim minority. The UN imposed an arms embargo on CAR in December 2013 and established a peacekeeping mission in response to widespread human-rights abuses, but much of the fragile nation remains controlled by rebel fighters (who now call themselves ex-Séléka) and Christian militants, who battle each other for control of territory and rich natural resources.
In 2016, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who previously served as prime minister, was elected president of the war-torn nation, but not long after he was sworn into office, the former colonial power France—which had sent troops to the country in late 2013 in an effort to prevent violence between the religious militias—ended its military mission in the troubled country. Touadéra then turned to Russia for help in strengthening his country’s military and overturning the UN arms embargo. The Kremlin accepted the request, but not without the African nation agreeing to allow Russia to explore its natural resources. (The UN approved a Russian training mission to CAR in 2017.)
Valery Zakharov, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was then installed as the national security adviser to Touadéra, and Moscow began sending weapons and hundreds of military advisers and mercenaries, who, more than anything else, have been harassing citizens and silencing opponents as an extension of Touadéra’s government.
Since mid-last year, Wagner mercenaries have turned their attention to suppressing critics, especially Muslims, who've spoken out against their human rights abuses across CAR.
In December, The Daily Beast revealed how a number of citizens and journalists in CAR were intimidated and threatened by Wagner mercenaries, who accused locals of siding with Muslim rebel groups and warned them about speaking out, particularly in connection to activities around the Ndassima gold mine near the southern town of Bambari.
“If the Russians find you anywhere near the Ndassima gold mine and then find out you’re Muslim, they quickly accuse you of being a Séléka rebel,” Hilaire, a Muslim in Bambari, whose 26-year-old older brother was manhandled by Wagner mercenaries near a gold mine in January, told The Daily Beast. “You are extremely lucky if you return home alive.”
On Feb.15, the Russians, who claimed to be hunting for Séléka rebels, opened fire at the massive al Taqwa mosque in Bambari, killing about 21 people, including children and the elderly, who were in the building at the time. Locals believe the imam of the mosque, who often condemns the human rights abuses carried out by FACA and Russian mercenaries, was the main target. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt in the incident.
“They said they were looking for Séléka fighters but, in reality, no Séléka fighter was in the mosque when they came,” Moussa, who was shot on his left thigh during the incident, told The Daily Beast. “When the Russians talk about Séléka fighters, they are not just talking to foot soldiers, they are also referring to Muslims, especially imams, who are against their atrocities.”
In Koui, after the Sultan Mayor Daouda and two of his close aides were killed, the Russians carried out another attack when they invaded the home of the imam of the Koui central mosque, another critic of the mercenaries, on Aug. 1. The imam hasn’t been seen since then. A number of people who worship at the mosque said the mercenaries had been harassing the imam and had ordered him to shut down his Quranic school which they said he used to incite children against the Russians.
“For months, they [Wagner mercenaries] kept visiting and warning the imam against teaching kids in the school but he ignored them,” Tungay, who worships regularly at Koui central mosque, told The Daily Beast. “When they saw that he wasn’t going to stop, no matter what, they invaded his residence and no one has seen him since then.”
The Daily Beast’s efforts to reach Prigozhin through Concord Management—a company majorly owned by him—for comment on Wagner Group were unsuccessful.
As the atrocities sweep the restive African nation, the CAR government continues to remain silent. And if some of those in Islamic communities—who are threatening to take action should the abuses go on—run out of patience, the country could descend into further chaos.
“We are not rebels but that doesn’t mean we can't fight if pushed to the wall,” said Tungay. “If this madness [by the Russians] continues, we may be forced to take up arms and defend ourselves.”