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Russian mercenaries leave trail of destruction in the Central African Republic



When the tattooed Russian fighters arrived in Alindao, a town in the southern Central African Republic (CAR), the rebels fled — and the people rejoiced.

“They were white. They were very big,” said Fatima, 32. “They looked so strange, they had tattoos everywhere — snakes, skulls, human heads . . .[but] they were going to help.”

But soon stories began circulating from nearby villages — of looting and torture, killings and rape. Then one day last month they took Fatima’s brother from their home. The next, they took her to a nearby military camp, where she says three of them raped her until she lost consciousness.

“They were very scary — we were all so scared,” she said. “We thought they came here to restore peace to our country. Now I wish they’d never come.”

The mercenaries who attacked Alindao belong to a Kremlin-linked network of companies known as the Wagner Group that has helped president Faustin-Archange Touadéra beat back rebels and saved his government, according to security, humanitarian, diplomatic and opposition sources in the CAR.

The US accuses Evgeny Prigozhin, a caterer known as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “chef,” of bankrolling Wagner — accusations he has long denied. Sources say the group has up to 3,000 armed fighters in the country. Russia says it has some 1,100 unarmed military trainers in the CAR, part of a deal Moscow inked with Bangui in 2018.

The deployment has given Russia a foothold in the region, seizing on widespread resentment at former colonial power France and using it as a template for its expansion into other troubled neighbouring countries such as Mali. But it has also prompted allegations of human rights abuses at the UN security council. The unofficial links to Wagner have given Moscow plausible deniability, analysts say.

With a long history of instability, coups and armed insurrection, the CAR is for Wagner, as one diplomat in Bangui put it, “a perfect laboratory”. Here, said the diplomat, they could “show what they can do in order to sell it to other countries” eager to put down their own insurrections.

Wagner’s involvement also allows Moscow to regain some of the cold war-era influence it has lost in Africa in recent decades, while antagonising the west at low political and monetary cost, according to experts who study the group.

Along the way, the mercenaries have taken over gold and diamond mining areas, targeted Muslim and Fulani ethnic minorities, and had multiple altercations with members of the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, Minusca.

“They have completely changed the equation on the ground,” said a security source in Bangui. “The operating environment is just ideal for them, there is no real state and you have quite a toothless government that was really looking for a way out and found it in these mercenaries.”

In written answers to questions the Financial Times sent to Prigozhin’s catering company about Wagner’s operations in the CAR, Alexander Ivanov, head of the Officers’ Union for International Security, said that there were not “large numbers of Russian mercenaries” in the CAR and the Russian instructors — which the Kremlin says it sent — were not involved in any fighting or commercial activity.

Activist Gervais Lakasso near the national stadium in the capital city of Bangui
Much as he is angry at Russian abuses, activist Gervais Lakasso says he is glad French influence has decreased © Clément Di Roma/FT

Turning away from France

Wagner has already found willing customers for its services across Africa, including Mozambique, Madagascar, Sudan — and Libya, where the UN accused them of allegedly committing possible war crimes.

Its next client may be Mali, an ex-French colony where the ruling military junta has suggested hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries after Paris announced it would halve its 5,000-troop presence fighting the jihadist insurgency roiling the Sahel.

The Malian junta fears that a French withdrawal or downsizing could make insecurity worse, and is seeking “other partners”. There are echoes here of the CAR’s experience. Bangui turned to Russia when France pulled troops out after a three-year mission that failed to quell a bloody civil war.

France’s reputation in the CAR — and in other former colonies including Mali — is so low that even those who condemn the Russian presence see some small silver lining. “I’m very happy that the French influence has shrunk and is getting smaller,” said Gervais Lakasso, an artist and activist in Bangui. “[It is] one of the biggest things that makes Touadéra popular.”

A Russian armoured personnel carrier driving in a street in Bangui
A Russian armoured personnel carrier is seen during the delivery of armoured vehicles in 2020 © Camille Laffont/AFP via Getty Images

‘They can’t control them’

The Russian presence is visible in Bangui, where armed fighters dressed in fatigues ride around in bulletproof military trucks. Russian fighters help guard the president, whose national security adviser had long been Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence officer.

Yet prime minister Henri-Marie Dondra denied the presence of Russian mercenaries. “We have not signed a contract with private companies, we have a contract with Russia,” he told the FT. “We have a bilateral co-operation agreement which is very clear.”

He added that to his knowledge “there are no other forces that are present” beyond Russian, UN or Rwandan troops also in the country on a bilateral agreement.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow’s instructors were operating in the country legally and had helped “the CAR’s army significantly increase its fighting capacity, as a result of which its units have inflicted significant casualties on fighters of various illegal armed groups”.

But Sorcha MacLeod, member of the UN human rights council’s working group on mercenaries, said Russians and affiliated foreigners “are involved in human rights violations, they are potentially involved in war crimes”.

Dondra insisted that “whenever there have been abuses, as soon as the government is informed, we immediately start an investigation,” noting that the majority are committed by armed groups.

Last month, the CAR government released a report acknowledging for the first time that Russian instructors had committed human rights abuses. But Russia’s foreign ministry said it had not been informed: “If the insinuations about their atrocities had any real foundation, and the local population was actively protesting, the CAR’s leadership would hardly have insisted on the further presence of specialists from Russia,” it said.

An aide helps prime minister Henri-Marie Dondra clean his jacket before photoshoot
CAR Prime Minister Henri-Marie Dondra says no private security firms are present in CAR © Clément Di Roma/FT

Foreign officials, opposition figures and civil society members argue that the government is, to one degree or another, captured by Wagner, which it depends on for its security and status in power. “I think [the government] made a deal with someone and now they don’t know how to handle it,” said one foreign official in Bangui. “They can’t control them.”

It is unclear how Russian fighters are being paid for their services. Wagner-linked companies including the US-sanctioned outfits Lobaye Invest and others have made inroads in the CAR’s mining sector. Some opposition figures and foreign officials suggest it is one way the government compensates them.

With international donors, led by the EU and the World Bank, providing roughly half of the country’s $400m annual budget, “we can’t rule out that donor money is going towards paying them”, said a foreign official in Bangui.

“In a way, the [EU] and the World Bank are paying the mercenaries, which is a very awkward position to be in,” another diplomat in Bangui said.

Ivanov said the Russian instructors had “no relation to seizing control of gold and diamond extraction”. Prigozhin’s Patriot media group said Lobaye Invest worked in the CAR legally and said the officials who suggested Russian forces were being paid from western donor funds “should be prosecuted for libel and expelled from the CAR”.

‘No rules’

On May 30, Denise Brown, the number-two UN official in Minusca, travelled to an area near the border with Chad to investigate alleged human rights violations by the national army.

A public UN report notes only that “bilaterally deployed and other security personnel obstructed the access of a United Nations delegation led by” Brown.

But four sources familiar with the incident said that when Brown and her delegation landed in a helicopter, the Russian paramilitaries trained AK-47s on the group — a sign of the impunity with which they operate in the CAR.

“This is a shit show,” said one veteran security official in Bangui. “They have no rules. It’s completely different than anywhere else.”

Ivanov said he was unaware of the incident but suggested that Brown had failed to inform the CAR’s defence ministry of her travel “due to her ignorance” of local regulations and that “her unapproved flight could have been interpreted as a life-or-death threat” by personnel on the ground.

Multiple diplomats and humanitarians in Bangui warned it was only a matter of time before skirmishes between Russians and Minusca erupted into real violence.

An Imam from the town of Bria describes looting and theft by Russian mercenaries
An imam from the town of Bria describes looting and theft by Russian mercenaries © Clément Di Roma/FT

Meanwhile, civilians are bearing the brunt. In PK5, the Muslim enclave of Bangui, victims of Russian brutality are easy to find — more arrive every day.

“We have experienced all sorts of rebellions over the years, from all armed groups, and then the Russians came in and made it even worse,” said a 66-year-old imam from the mining town of Bria. “It’s complete chaos — we had no choice but to flee.”

Mercenaries had stolen his CFA Fr6m ($10,600) savings and were stealing anything they can get their hands on: old clothes, jerry cans, water bottles, the sundry possessions of the poorest people on earth. He wondered: “What do they need with our old trousers?”

“The first time they came, I was very happy, we all were — finally our suffering from the armed groups will end because they’re here to help the government and save us,” he said. “But eventually we realised [what] they were doing . . . and we ran for our lives.”

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Bank of England raises base interest rate to 1.75%



The Bank of England has raised the base interest rate by half a percentage point to 1.75 per cent, the biggest rise since 1995, in an attempt to combat runaway inflation.

The nine-strong monetary policy committee voted eight to one in favour of a 50 basis point rise, defying some market expectations for an increase by 25 basis points.

It is the Bank’s sixth consecutive tightening in monetary policy and follows in the footsteps of the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, which have begun aggressively raising rates by larger increments.

Interest rates are now the highest since 2009 as the Bank attempts to bring down inflation, which is running at a 40-year high of 9.4 per cent and is on course to exceed 11 per cent later this year.

These would be the worst inflation rates in the G7, caused in large part by rising global energy prices driving household bills higher this year. The UK economy is also heading for a slowdown this year as consumer incomes are squeezed more tightly than since the 1950s.

Andrew Bailey, the Bank’s governor, has hinted that it will also announce how it intends to begin unwinding the £850 billion of government debt pumped into the economy since the financial crisis, offloading bonds worth between £50 billion and £100 billion from as early as next month.

The Bank will also deliver its quarterly outlook, with Bailey expected to forecast that inflation will rise beyond 11 per cent and remain in double digits into next year. The Bank’s target is 2 per cent.

Commenting on today’s Bank of England interest rate rise, David Bharier, Head of Research at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “This rise is the clearest signal yet of the Bank of England’s intention to get inflation under control. Spiralling prices are cited by businesses as by far and away the top concern right now.

“However, given the extremely precarious state of the economy, this decision is not without risk for businesses and consumers that are exposed to banking or overdraft facilities.

“There are many causes of the current inflation crisis – global supply chain problems, trade barriers, soaring energy costs, increased taxes, and labour market shortages. Interest rate rises alone will do little to address these.

“Worryingly, our research indicates strongly that most small businesses are not investing for growth, and that longer-term confidence is beginning to wane.

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Opinion: OSC appointment fuss is a tempest in a teapot



Jeffrey MacIntosh: The government has the legislated right to have a say in the agency’s course

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Ed Waitzer’s recent op-ed (“The issue at the OSC is integrity, not debate,” July 14, 2022) expresses surprise and disappointment in my recent op-ed (“Conflict at the OSC: Why the regulator needs to make room for dissent,” July 7, 2022). In that op-ed, I argued that lawyer Heather Zordel’s appointment as non-executive chair of the OSC in March of this year should be met with open arms, as it introduces new points of view into what seems to be a rather intellectually closed shop. I don’t suppose it will come as a shock to Ed Waitzer or anyone else that I am surprised and disappointed at his rebuttal.

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To begin with, it contains a number of inaccuracies. It states that Ms. Zordel was denied reappointment to her earlier position (2019-2021) as part-time commissioner. In fact, given her busy legal practice, she took herself out of the running. This puts a rather different complexion on the matter.

And I never stated or implied that Ms. Zordel was not reappointed as part-time commissioner because of two dissenting opinions that she wrote as commissioner. My point was that for Ms. Zordel’s critics the dissents were a factor in opposing her appointment as chair of the board.

The nub of my argument was that the OSC could benefit from greater variety of viewpoints among its brass as to what investor protection and other aspects of the OSC’s mission entail. By contrast, Mr. Waitzer argues: “the importance of debate and dissent is not the point here.” I beg to differ. As I indicated, some prominent accounts of Ms. Zordel’s appointment have put a pejorative cast on her disagreements with her fellow commissioners. That puts the issue of debate and dissent front and centre.

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I certainly agree with Mr. Waitzer that the independence of administrative agencies is a cornerstone of our democracy. But does that mean that every administrative agency should be entirely divorced from any government oversight whatsoever — a little fiefdom unto itself and in no sense answerable to its political masters? Not a whit. It is the government that creates the agency, defines its mandate, gives it the powers that it needs to carry out that mandate and defines its organizational structure. And it is entirely within the purview of the government to enlist its legislative power to re-define that mandate, powers, and organizational structure if it chooses.

We don’t have to look into the distant past to find an example. On the advice of a non-partisan blue ribbon panel — the Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce (“CMMT”) — the Conservative government has recently substantially reorganized the OSC via the Securities Commission Act, 2021 (declared in force in April). That legislation splits the adjudicative function (the “Capital Markets Tribunal”) from the regulatory function. Moreover, where before the reorganization the OSC Chair and CEO were the same person, the two offices are now split. As expressed by the CMMT, “The Board of Directors, led by the Chair, (will) focus on the strategic oversight and corporate governance of the regulator,” while “The CEO (will) be responsible for the overall management of the organization and execution of the OSC’s mandate.” The directors, including the chair, are all government appointees.

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This new structure, recommended by a non-partisan committee, gives the government of the day the power to influence, at the highest level, the strategic direction of the OSC. But why should it not? If the government is dissatisfied with the strategic vision or regulatory philosophy of the regulator or the manner in which it is being implemented, it would be profoundly anti-democratic — and at odds with the rule of law — to forbid the government from seeking to alter the agency’s course.

Indeed, the Ontario Securities Act states “The Commission is an agent of the Crown in right of Ontario.” The key word here is “agent.” It is not “hegemony,” “fiefdom” or “satrapy.” At the end of the day, the OSC is a government creation performing regulatory functions ceded to it by the government.

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Do Ms. Zordel’s conservative connections compromise the independence of the institution of which she is now head? Absolutely not. In the making of such appointments, the twin issues of competence and integrity will take up a lot of shelf space. But why should the government not also consider, if it chooses, whether potential nominees share the government’s regulatory philosophy

The true worry about political interference is that the government might attempt to dictate or influence the result of particular cases. But the new legislation builds in the important protection of ceding no operational powers to the board of directors. Thus, aside from the government’s power to approve or decline proposed rule changes (a longstanding feature of securities regulation), its sole discretionary avenue of influence lies in its power to appoint directors and hence influence high-level strategic direction.

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What is left of the argument that there has been inappropriate political interference over the OSC? Only the assertion that Ms. Zordel and three other part-time commissioners were appointed without the government having consulted the OSC, as has customarily been done. Yes, it would have been better if the government had consulted the OSC. In all likelihood, however, the outcome would have been the same. The OSC might not like not having been consulted but at best this is a foible not a fiasco.

In the end, this tempest easily fits within a standard-issue teapot.

Financial Post

Jeffrey MacIntosh is a professor of law at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, and a director of the Canadian Securities Exchange.



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