The US private security company Bancroft Global Development says it is in talks with the government of Central African Republic over “future activities”, in a move that could see Russia’s Wagner influence challenged in the conflict-riven country.
Military analysts say Western countries are eyeing new windows of opportunity as Russian authorities seek to re-organise mercenary group Wagner following the mutiny of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in June and his subsequent death in a plane crash two months later.
Responding to a question from AFP, the US company denied having deployed in the CAR capital Bangui, but said contacts with President Faustin Archange Touadera’s government were underway.
“Beginning in July, Bancroft agreed on a framework to discuss possible future activities with the government of CAR. That is all,” a spokeswoman said in a written statement on Tuesday.
Last week, Radio Ndeke Luka broadcast a recording in which Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, spokesman for the presidency, said that his country was carrying out “work to diversify its relations”.
He said CAR had called on countries including Russia to help train soldiers.
“The United States is also offering the Central African Republic to train its soldiers, both on Central African soil and on American soil,” he added.
Asked by AFP whether Bancroft was already present in CAR, Mokpeme said he could not comment. “The training of our army remains our priority”, he said.
“I’m not in a position to talk about the substance of the matter,” he added.
Bancroft’s talks with CAR authorities come as Russia seeks to maintain and expand its influence in Africa following the death of Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s biggest mercenary group Wagner.
In 2013, France sent troops to CAR to help stem a civil war flaring along sectarian lines. The operation ended in 2016.
In 2018, Touadera officially brought in Wagner to help train his armed forces, and two years later hired more Russian operatives as rebel groups advanced on the capital.
The last of French troops were pulled out in December, 2022.
Wagner established itself as one of the CAR government’s main security partners in exchange for lucrative contracts in the country.
A European security source told AFP that Touadera intended to “take advantage of Wagner’s reorganisation to weaken his dependence on the Russians”.
According to French daily Le Monde, at the end of 2022 Washington offered CAR a security agreement in exchange for distancing itself from Wagner. Neither Washington nor Bangui have confirmed the report.
According to Bancroft’s website, the largest single funder of the Washington-based firm’s activities is the US State Department.
The company however sought to distance itself from US authorities when speaking to AFP. “There are articles conflating Bancroft and policies of the United States government in CAR,” said the spokeswoman, calling them “false.”
Colin Clarke of the Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank focused on security, said that any links between American private security companies and the US government were “unofficial” at best.
“But because many of the personnel will have been former US military, there are personal relationships and tactical contacts that could serve as back channels,” he said.
Clarke added that rivalry between powers in the region was set to intensify in the coming year.
“The Biden administration is hopefully waking up to the fact that the US needs to be more forward leaning in the Sahel and other parts of Africa, given the deteriorating nature of the security situation.”
Lucas Webber, co-founder of specialised website Militant Wire, struck a similar note.
“The United States is looking to contest Russia’s recently expanded influence on the African continent,” he told AFP.
“Bancroft has emerged as an important private security force and is viewed as a reliable partner for this purpose.”