Central African Republic: Castel beer, point of tension in the Franco-Russian war of influence

On the night of March 5-6 in Bangui, surveillance cameras filmed four masked men in outfits similar to those of Wagner's Russian mercenaries, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Mocaf brasserie of French alcohol giant Castel

Central African Republic: Castel beer, point of tension in the Franco-Russian war of influence

On the night of March 5-6 in Bangui, surveillance cameras filmed four masked men in outfits similar to those of Wagner's Russian mercenaries, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Mocaf brasserie of French alcohol giant Castel.

And this, three months after a parcel bomb injured in the capital the Russian "cultural adviser" Dmitri Syty, "one of the pillars of the Wagner system in the Central African Republic" according to the international investigative collective All Eyes on Wagner. Attack of which the head of this private security company, Evgueni Prigojine, very close to Vladimir Putin, accuses France. Who denies and speaks of "propaganda".

The war of Franco-Russian influence in this Central African country, among the poorest in the world and in civil war for almost ten years, was until then limited to massive trolls on social networks. She is moving on dangerous ground. Especially since Bangui, with its most execrable relations with the former colonial power, is multiplying gestures of appeasement, including a meeting in early March between the two presidents Emmanuel Macron and Faustin Archange Touadéra.

"The Russians are worried about a possible rapprochement between Touadera and Westerners and are going as far as possible to prevent a reconciliation", analyzes for AFP Roland Marchal, researcher at Sciences Po Paris and specialist in Africa.

Castel, an ideal target

The campaigns of reciprocal accusations between Paris and Moscow in the Central African Republic have been raging since 2018, so much so that Facebook removed in December 2020 troll factories and other "infox" media administered by the Prigojine galaxy but also, according to her, some accounts "linked" to the French military. Whose last soldiers left the country on December 15, 2022, after sixty-two years of presence after independence.

The video of the attack on the brewery, viral on social networks and authenticated by Mocaf for AFP, is a new vector. And Castel is an ideal target, the subject of a preliminary investigation by the French anti-terrorism justice for "complicity in war crimes": an alleged "financial arrangement" with rebels for the security of the installations of another subsidiary, Sucaf.

Since the end of January, Mocaf, inaugurated in 1953 and one of the largest employers in the country, has been the target of smear campaigns and threats, in the streets and on the Web. "Castel is death", "If you buy Castel, you pay for your murder", read the placards of about twenty demonstrators in front of the brewery in mid-January. “Castel = Terrorist,” placards elsewhere proclaimed.

"The fire was the high point, but there was an attempted intrusion before," an anonymous executive from Castel in France told AFP: "On January 30, during the curfew, three white men exit an unmarked vehicle and approach with a ladder before being chased away by security. The same evening, a drone flies over the brewery.

The investigation still yielded nothing.

The arson, "it was a sponsored action, a lightning attack", "five minutes in total", observes Ben Wilson Ngassan, communication consultant for Mocaf who counted the jet "about thirty Molotov cocktails" . The fatigues, familiar in Bangui, the Kalashnikov in the back, the attitudes, the silhouettes and "quite athletic builds"... Even if their faces do not appear, a European source close to the file has made a religion with the video: they are Wagners.

But, the next day, social networks and pro-Russian media speak of Central Africans or "mercenaries", disguised to blame Wagner. "Paid for" by France. The Ndjoni Sango news site, which regularly praises the Russian presence, even announces – supporting photos of the “suspects” – the arrest of seven “presumed perpetrators”, on a “commanded mission”, “in order to stick the responsibility to a scapegoat". "Fulani", adds the site, in reference to the majority ethnic group in the rebel group incriminated in the investigation on Sucaf... "False information", immediately commented for AFP an official of the Central African security services.

Then, on March 9, police rounded up eight foreigners, including four French, at the Relais des Chasses, a famous French hotel-restaurant in Bangui, "as part of the investigation into the Mocaf fire", in search of, according to them, of an incendiary liquid used for Molotov cocktails. They will all be released a few hours later, without questioning. A new way to intimidate Western economic operators, loose a diplomat, who fears an escalation.

Especially since the investigation into the fire has still yielded nothing. "We use all the documents before making arrests," Bangui prosecutor Benoît Narcisse Foukpio told AFP on Tuesday, eight days after the fire.

The UN, EU, NGOs and Western capitals, primarily Paris, regularly accuse the Wagners – but also the rebels – of crimes against civilians. And France accuses Mr. Touadéra of having, in exchange for their military support against the rebellion, bartered the wealth of his country, gold and diamonds in particular, to a whole galaxy of companies linked, according to the UN and Paris, to Wagner.

Gold, diamonds, wood… but not only. Beer war too. At the beginning of January, coinciding with the anti-Castel campaign, a new beer, Africa Ti L'Or, flooded the bars of the capital, marketed by the First Industrial Company. Which is headed by Dmitri Syty, according to a survey by Jeune Afrique magazine. It is not uncommon to see Russian paramilitaries delivering crates of them to town. "The Russians seek to oust all foreign companies from the Central African Republic in a strategy of economic predation", accuses the European source.