Dozens of fighters from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group have arrived in the Central African Republic ahead of a constitutional referendum on July 30 that could see the president seek another term in 2025.
Hundreds of Wagner Group fighters departed CAR days after a short-lived mutiny in Russia in June, led by the group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, raising questions about the future of Wagner’s military and commercial operations in countries including CAR.
The government had said previously that the fighters’ movement was part of a rotation of forces rather than a withdrawal.
“Every year there is a rotation. Some go and others arrive with logistics, and they do this regularly at all levels, on the military and administrative assistance,” presidential spokesperson Albert Yaloke Mokpem told the Reuters news agency on Monday about the new arrivals.
“They are also here to secure the constitutional referendum,” the spokesperson said, declining to say how many fighters had arrived.
However, he acknowledged that photos seen on social media showing dozens on the tarmac were the newly arrived mercenaries.
A senior CAR military official in the capital separately told Reuters that hundreds of fighters had arrived.
Instability in the nation
The country of 5.5 million people is rich in gold, diamonds and timber. It has struggled to find stability since independence in 1960.
The country was thrown into deeper chaos in 2013 when then-President Francois Bozize was ousted by a rebellion, sparking another round of fighting between a patchwork of armed groups that control swathes of territory.
The current president, Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was first elected in 2016 and won re-election in 2020, turned to Russia for help to tackle the rebel groups. He is on the campaign trail for the constitutional referendum which, if passed, could remove a two-term presidential limit and enable him run again.
His allies proposed the rule change in May last year, arguing that presidential term limits were uncommon in many neighbouring countries. Critics and opposition parties held protests last year because the reform would allow Touadera to run in 2025 for a third term.
Russia first sent security contractors to CAR in 2018 and stepped up its support with more than 1,500 fighters, including instructors and soldiers fighting alongside the country’s army. Some of the soldiers are part of Touadera’s security detail and are regularly seen with him.
The president is scheduled to attend the second Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg in July before the referendum.