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Central African Republic: Averting Further Fragmentation of the Armed Forces
Central African Republic: Averting Further Fragmentation of the Armed Forces
Central African Armed Forces (FACA) soldiers stand on attention on the road between Boali and Bangui on January 10, 2021. FLORENT VERGNES / AFP
Commentary / Africa

Central African Republic: Averting Further Fragmentation of the Armed Forces

Disbanded in 2013, today the Central African army is present throughout the country. But structural problems could weaken it once again. To avoid a downward spiral, Bangui and its international partners should apply the principles laid out in the 2017 National Defence Plan.

Nine years after a coup that plunged the country into chaos and led to the Central African Armed Forces’ (FACA, or Forces armées centrafricaines) dissolution, the military has re-established a presence in every major urban centre of the Central African Republic. The benefits of this redeployment could however be compromised by the army’s opaque recruitment procedures, multiple chains of command, lack of training and poor budget management. The country is at a turning point in its stabilisation process after the electoral crisis of December 2020. If these issues are not addressed quickly, they could undermine soldiers’ loyalty to the state and push them to rise up or join a new rebellion. To avoid such scenarios, the Central African government, with the support of its international partners, including Russia, should ensure that its armed forces are representative of the population and financially sustainable as it responds to new security challenges.  

A History of Failed Reforms

Ethnic polarisation in the rank and file and nepotism on the part of heads of state in Bangui have long hindered the creation of an army capable of securing the country. Successive governments have nonetheless undertaken numerous reforms since the mutinies of the 1990s. President Ange-Félix Patassé (1993-2003) downsized the number of FACA troops from 4,000 to 3,000 and reduced to 40 per cent the proportion of Yakoma among them – the latter being the ethnic group of his predecessor, André Kolingba (1986-1993). Under President François Bozizé (2003-2013), troop numbers rose to 7,000, with Gbaya soldiers (Bozizé’s community of origin and a third of the population) predominating. In March 2013, the Séléka, a Muslim-majority rebel coalition from the north east, seized power, plunging the country into its worst security crisis in recent history. The FACA disbanded and many soldiers joined the predominantly Christian anti-balaka self-defence militias. At the same time, the UN placed the Central African Republic under embargo, preventing the supply, sale or transfer of arms and military equipment to the country.

In 2017, after a turbulent transition and a return to constitutional order, the Central African Republic adopted a National Defence Plan with the support of MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country. The FACA were to be restructured into a garrison army and soldiers assigned to permanent bases with their families. The Plan also involved increasing troop numbers to 9,800, in line with the strategic priorities of defending the country’s territorial integrity and protecting the population. New recruitment processes were to include background checks (“vetting”, in UN jargon) and a training program supported by the European Union Training Mission (EUTM).

In 2018, after the Central African government submitted a request for an exception to the embargo, the UN Sanctions Committee authorised not only the delivery of armaments from Moscow, but also the deployment of Russian instructors to train FACA troops and accompany them in the hinterland. Despite an easing of the arms embargo and gradual redeployments in several towns, however, the army’s presence in the hinterland remained weak until 2020.

The situation changed dramatically in December 2020, when the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) threatened to seize the capital, Bangui. A new rebel movement comprising both ex-Séléka and anti-balaka elements and led by François Bozizé, the CPC saw the presidential and legislative elections in progress at the time as illegitimate. The FACA, along with Russian and Rwandan allied forces sent at President Faustin Archange Touadéra’s request, then launched a counteroffensive. Between January and March 2021, their military operations significantly reduced armed groups’ control over the hinterland. Some defeated rebel fighters chose exile in Chad, alongside Bozizé, or in neighbouring Sudan. Others turned to banditry. While the counteroffensive helped rapidly redeploy troops to the country’s main urban centres, it did so at a high price in human lives, and Central African authorities have yet to take appropriate measures to sanction those responsible for major human rights violations. These operations also led the government away from the National Defence Plan’s initial objectives.

A statue at Bangui’s university honouring the Central African army and their Russian allies for fighting against the rebellion throughout the country, March 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Enrica Picco

Parallel Recruitment and Accelerated Training

Five years after the launch of the National Defence Plan, the army seems once again to be falling into politicisation. The number of new troops has greatly surpassed the Plan’s projected increase and background checks of new recruits are no longer taking place. In 2020, the UN Panel of Experts reported several hundred soldiers from the Mbaka-Mandja ethnic group, President Touadéra’s own community, were irregularly integrated into the Presidential Guard. This parallel recruitment process has since become the norm. Between October and December 2021, approximately 3,500 new troops joined the FACA’s ranks, without going through the legal recruitment procedure. In March 2022, the government again announced the recruitment of 1,311 additional soldiers outside the regular process. Meanwhile, around 130 soldiers of Gbaya origin, including eight senior officers, were discharged from the army in 2021 without clear justification.

The FACA’s size and composition are not precisely known.

The FACA’s size and composition are not precisely known. Nonetheless, international and independent national sources estimate that the army numbers between 14,000 and 15,000 troops, who are divided into fourteen territorial infantry battalions, instead of the nine outlined in the National Defence Plan. Precise figures concerning the representation of women and different ethnic groups within the FACA are not available. In addition, according to several sources, each battalion is part of a different chain of command, answering either to the general army staff, the defence ministry or even the presidency. A case in point is the Special Republican Protection Group, a personal protection service for the head of state, not provided for in the Plan but established as a constituent part of the army by a March 2022 decree.

The government explains these recruitments as a necessary response to the December 2020 rebellion, which it claims forced it to expand the FACA. While this explanation is certainly plausible, the expansion’s execution raises several questions about adequate ethnic and gender representation within the armed forces. Opaque procedures could compromise some minority groups’ inclusion and the population’s trust in the army. In November 2021, the defence ministry authorised the integration into the army of 80 youths from Birao, in the country’s north east. Only twenty of them appeared on the national lists and had passed the screening and verification process aimed at eliminating candidates suspected of having committed crimes. In addition, Crisis Group has gathered testimonies that describe an irregular recruitment network in the capital: in order to improve their social position, some young people are seemingly ready to pay officers between 50,000 and 100,000 CFA francs (€77 - €154) to get onto recruitment lists.

Rehearsal of the Central African security forces parade for the 1 December National Day parade, November 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Julie David de Lossy

More concerning still, some new recruits are not subjected to any form of vetting. In several cases, according to sources close to armed groups interviewed by Crisis Group, former rebels who join the Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration program created by the February 2019 peace agreement and facilitated by MINUSCA are integrated directly into the FACA. This phenomenon is most evident in the centre of the country, where divisions within one of the main rebel groups, the Union of Patriots for Change, led to the defection of around 400 combatants. The latter were trained on the spot and swapped uniforms to join the army.

The quality of training offered to new recruits is also a source of concern. According to information obtained by Crisis Group, recruits receive between three and five weeks of military training from Russian forces at Camp Kasaï in Bangui or in Bouar, in the north west. Training was at first entrusted to the EUTM and included six months of military exercises, as well as courses on respecting human rights and international humanitarian law. But the European Union suspended this mission in December 2021 following interference by the Russian private security Wagner group in the FACA command. The training provided by Russian instructors since 2018 initially lasted three months but was reduced in 2021 to a few weeks to speed up deployments.

Worrying Consequences on the Ground

This lack of military preparation affects troops’ performance on the battlefield when facing armed groups. The Central African government has never released official figures concerning fallen soldiers, but the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project estimates than at least 90 FACA soldiers lost their lives in the course of 47 attacks carried out between December 2020 and April 2022. Meanwhile, according to testimonies gathered by Crisis Group, the number of bodies brought back to the capital and uncertainty about the fate of personnel deployed in the hinterland worry FACA soldiers’ families in Bangui. The same questions arise when it comes to desertion, as several sources report that many soldiers have abandoned their posts in the hinterland to avoid fighting the rebels.

The unchecked increase in FACA personnel also makes it difficult to track arms and ammunition. As few storage sites are available, weapons are often left with off-duty soldiers. The lack of tracking has two important consequences. First, it means that soldiers keep their lethal equipment after their tours of duty and return home with their weapons, both in the capital and in towns and villages in the hinterland. Secondly, it prevents the military from keeping count of the ammunition used in authorised operations and, therefore, from ensuring that lethal weapons are not used against civilians. This situation is aggravated by the absence in rural areas of senior officers charged with verifying procedural compliance and initiating disciplinary sanctions as appropriate. In reality, most senior officers never leave Bangui or, at best, the prefectures’ capitals.

A Lack of Financial Resources

The Central African state does not have the financial resources necessary to maintain its current personnel. The 2022 Finance Law cut the defence budget by 21 per cent, for a total of just over 24 billion CFA francs (€37 million). Moreover, these figures do not faithfully reflect the state’s actual expenditure. For instance, the official budget does not indicate how the state remunerates Wagner’s Russian mercenaries deployed in the country.

To make up for this shortage of funds, soldiers prey on the local population.

This lack of funding for defence is visible on two levels. First, the government can no longer allocate deployment bonuses to encourage new recruits to stay in the hinterland. In addition, soldiers deployed in the provinces whose salary is transferred to a bank account in the capital officially receive a cash bonus of around 45,000 CFA francs (€49) per month, to cover on-the-ground expenses. In practice, however, officers often retain a portion of these bonuses before they reach the lower-ranking recipients. To make up for this shortage of funds, soldiers prey on the local population. The army’s rackets – illegal taxation at city gates, extortion and robberies – have rapidly replaced those of armed groups in state-controlled areas.

Furthermore, the lack of resources has led to the militarisation of the country’s capital. Due to salary payment problems, many FACA members choose to stay in Bangui, with one third reportedly residing in the capital. Some provide close protection to prominent figures, who contribute to their salary. The militarisation of the capital generates significant risks in a country where tensions are mounting around President Touadéra’s succession, especially within the ruling party, and certain actors could easily mobilise poorly paid and disgruntled personnel.

At the same time, since mid-2021, the FACA have frequently recruited local militias, mostly former anti-balaka fighters, whom they pay to help track and attack rebels hiding in the bush. This system generates an additional financial burden, while resources are already lacking for soldiers in the regular army. Nicknamed the “Black Russians”, these militiamen recently demonstrated in Bambari, in the country’s centre, to demand payment of their fees. In addition, they are held responsible for several massacres of civilians, especially among the Fulani in the country’s centre and east.

Finally, FACA personnel deployed in the hinterland are facing deteriorating relations with the “Russian bilateral forces”, as the Central African authorities refer to them. This terminology fuels confusion over the actual number of Wagner mercenaries among these forces. These Russian troops have replaced MINUSCA and now provide support for the Central African army across most of the country. As for Rwandan forces, they remain stationed far from combat zones.

Since their deployment in December 2020 to support the army’s counteroffensive, Russian forces have de facto assumed command of the FACA on the battlefield. Several observers described to Crisis Group the troops’ growing discontent with how Wagner mercenaries humiliate and physically abuse Central African officers and soldiers. Some officers were recalled to Bangui following disputes with Russian paramilitaries. In addition, to limit cases of sexual and gender-based violence, most female FACA members were ordered to return to the capital at the end of 2021. Without a firm response from Central African chiefs of staff, growing concern among officers could cause soldiers to rise up or join the rebels, as they have in the past. 

Respecting the Commitments of the National Defence Plan

This worrying trend in the army’s reconstruction poses risks that the advantages of the FACA’s redeployment do not balance out. On one hand, opaque recruitment procedures and the absence of background checks are weakening the military’s composition and blocking the formation of a military ethic respectful of human rights. On the other, multiple chains of command, a lack of adequate military training, a shortage of financial resources and growing dissatisfaction could compromise the loyalty of officers and troops. The Central African Republic is still highly unstable and these elements could inflame an already tense security environment. 

To reduce these risks, President Touadéra and the Central African government should take urgent steps to carry out the security forces’ restructuring, and possible expansion, according exclusively to the principles established in the National Defence Plan and within the state’s available financial resources. Such initiatives could allow Central African authorities to normalise their relationship with MINUSCA’s new leadership after two years of high tensions with the UN and encourage Western partners to resume their recently suspended defence assistance programs.

A MINUSCA soldier from the Rwandan contingent patrolling in Bria, November 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Julie David de Lossy

The first step in this process will be to submit the FACA’s recently integrated personnel to the recruitment and background-check processes that existed before the December 2020 election crisis, even if it means discharging certain soldiers from the army. Crucially, training provided by Russian instructors must also remain within the strict framework authorised by the UN Sanctions Committee in 2018. This training for new recruits must integrate the fundamental principles of civilian protection, which the National Defence Plan highlights as a “priority”.

At the same time, the state leadership could adopt certain measures to prevent the army from disintegrating once again. First, setting up a defence council, with the technical support of partners like the EUTM, could put a stop to bilateral negotiations and rival chains of command within the defence forces by allowing for collective decision-making on the most important issues relating to the army’s future and the country’s stability. Secondly, frequent visits to troops on the ground by army staff and other senior officers based in the capital would help ensure proper tracking of arms and ammunition and prevent discontent with Russian forces from fermenting in the ranks. 

For their part, the Central African government’s partners, notably MINUSCA, should rapidly launch a community violence reduction program, with the aim of disbanding militias recruited in the hinterland and stemming the tide of communal tensions. These programs have often proven effective in injecting money into the local economy and, at least temporarily, stabilising areas that experienced clashes