Paramilitary fighters from the Russia-linked Wagner group star in a new film singing their praises for interventions against rebels in the Central African Republic and elsewhere on the continent.
A screening of the film drew several hundred people to a sports stadium in the capital Bangui on Saturday (29 January).
The Central African Republic (CAR), one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries, has been ravaged by civil war since 2013.
When it turned to Russia as armed groups threatened to topple President Faustin Archange Touadera in late 2020, Moscow’s already strong influence was entering a new phase.
In addition to the presence of hundreds of paramilitaries from Moscow and growing control over the country’s gold and diamond resources by Russian companies, the CAR has seen a bourgeoning cultural offensive.
The new film, “Granit”, comes a few months after “Tourist”, which chronicles the recapture of rebel-held territory by CAR forces and their Russian allies.
Après "Touriste" qui met en scène les forces armées centrafricaines et leurs alliés russes, la milice de mercenaires Wagner présente un nouveau film, "Granit", tourné aussi dans le pays. La première avait lieu samedi soir au stade de Bangui. #Centrafrique #Cinéma pic.twitter.com/7EaSaVAULS
— Le journal Afrique TV5MONDE (@JTAtv5monde) January 30, 2022
The United States and the European Union have stepped up pressure against the Wagner group, which has been accused of abuses in the CAR and Libya and has reportedly discussed a major contract with Mali.
“Granit”, though filmed in the CAR, is set in Mozambique, where Wagner group “instructors” helped the Mozambican army in its fight against Islamist insurgents in 2019.
The jihadist attacks in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region, which is rich in natural gas and other resources, had begun two years earlier.
The parallels with their own country were not lost on the moviegoers late Saturday.
“It pains me to see how these rebels slit innocent people’s throats with knives,” high school student Junior Lenguendja told AFP, watching a scene in which insurgents were killing villagers and torching their homes.
Patrick Kodawe, a sociology student at Bangui University, said: “I wish our forces were as good as the Russians at defending our country.”
“Granit” was produced by Aurum, a company whose majority stakeholder is Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is suspected of running the Wagner Group.
Nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because his company has catered for the Kremlin, Prigozhin was sanctioned by the European Union in October 2020 on grounds of undermining peace in Libya by supporting the Wagner private military company.
The action is in French, Sango — one of the CAR’s national languages — and Arabic.
As in “Tourist”, the film extols Russia’s actions in Africa.
“This film presents the achievements of the Russians on various fronts,” said another viewer, Titus Konga. “They save people in distress and come to the rescue of our forces when they are ambushed. They present themselves as the saviours of our country.”
A friend who declined to give his name added: “The enemies of the Central African Republic demonise the Russians but we really appreciate what our partners are doing to liberate the country from the yoke of the rebels.”
The paramilitaries helped CAR government forces recapture from rebels much of the two-thirds of the country they once controlled.
Rebel attacks remain frequent nevertheless in the former French colony.
Officially, Russia recognises the presence of 1,135 “unarmed instructors”, but aid groups on the ground as well as France and the United Nations say some of them work for Wagner, which Russia denies.
In 2021, a group of UN experts warned of human rights abuses against civilians by Central African soldiers and Wagner paramilitaries.
The UN recorded 526 violations and abuses of human rights over a year, which UN experts said caused at least 1,221 deaths, including 144 civilians.
In early October, the government in Bangui acknowledged some of the abuses, but insisted that most of the blame lay with rebel fighters.