Central African Republic: Four Priorities for the New President
Central African Republic: Four Priorities for the New President
Russia’s Influence in the Central African Republic
Russia’s Influence in the Central African Republic
Faustin-Archange Touadera looks on at the start of a a live television debate on 12 February 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Faustin-Archange Touadera looks on at the start of a a live television debate on 12 February 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Commentary / Africa

Central African Republic: Four Priorities for the New President

An arduous three-year political transition came to an end in the Central African Republic (CAR) on 30 March with the inauguration of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, winner in the 14 February run-off presidential elections with almost 63 per cent of the vote. But the country’s crisis is far from over.

Overall voters flocked to the polls demonstrating their strong desire to turn a new page.

The new president enjoys strong support among the population but still faces many challenges on CAR’s long road to stability. While violence has abated in some cities including the capital, Bangui, nationals and outsiders alike should not forget about the deeply engrained drivers of conflict. The crisis that erupted at the end of 2012 – the country’s worst since independence – tore apart the social fabric. With the factors that led to it still unaddressed, CAR could backslide. Politicians and rebels are still able to mobilise youth in urban areas, violent crime is a daily reality for rural communities, and armed groups, especially the ex-Seleka (coalition of armed groups from northern CAR who seized power in 2013), still control swathes of territory and could cause more trouble.

At this delicate juncture, the new president has his work cut out. He will have to break with his predecessors and put an end to political patronage, which over the last 30 years has contributed to the erosion of state institutions and the economy. He will have to fight impunity for violent and economic crimes. With the support of international partners, he will also have to revive economic activity to provide unemployed youth alternatives to violence. But as a new political chapter begins, the government and international community should focus their efforts on four critical issues: advancing reconciliation, developing a strategy to help refugees return home, fighting impunity and resolving the thorny question of what to do with the armed groups.

A New Political Chapter Presents Risks and Opportunities

The presidential and legislative elections at the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 raised expectations across the country, as witnessed by Crisis Group in Bangui in March. Though the turnout dropped considerably in the second round legislative and presidential polls (and their chaotic organisation raised concerns for the credibility of the results), overall voters flocked to the polls demonstrating their strong desire to turn a new page. This new political chapter carries several risks, but also presents a long-awaited opportunity for CAR to strengthen its democratic institutions and practices. Parliament, which now comprises many members who stood as independents and who come from minor political parties, could transform from the ruling party’s rubber stamp into a genuinely democratic space. While Touadéra can rely on the parties that backed him in the run-off vote and some independent MPs seem to have rallied around him, he will have to win over more to secure the majority he needs to govern effectively.

Despite his popularity, from the outset Touadéra will have to deal with many grievances. He will have to distance himself from several unsavoury supporters – including allies of former President Bozizé some of whom who played a role in mobilising anti-balaka militias – while still retaining the support of those who had been loyal to Bozizé’s Kwa na Kwa party. The appointment as prime minister of Simplice Sarandji, former secretary general of the University of Bangui and former head of cabinet during Touadéra’s own time as PM, is an encouraging sign. Similarly, the composition of the new government avoided some pitfalls. Touadéra used appointments to thank several people for their support in the second round, including Jean-Serge Bokassa, now minister of the interior, public security and territorial administration, and Charles Amel Doubane, now foreign minister. He brought in several of Bozizé’s former ministers, appointing one his vice president, while excluding leaders of armed groups and their supporters – a move quickly criticised by ex-Seleka barons. The appointment of advisors will be his next big test. Though under considerable pressure, he should stick to his principles and, to avoid repeating his predecessors’ mistakes, refrain from co-opting rebels.

Map of the Central African Republic

National Reconciliation: CAR’s “Rubik’s Cube”

The crisis revealed strong communal tensions, some of which have deep historical roots. Today, national reconciliation and social cohesion have become much-repeated slogans. Even some armed groups have expressed a desire to be involved, albeit with some cynicism. Reconciliation, however, will take a long time. Questions of national identity and citizenship, which came violently to the fore during the crisis, are still unresolved. And intercommunal violence continues, as seen in March and April both in Bambari in the centre of the country and between herders and farmers in the north west.

Today, national reconciliation and social cohesion have become much-repeated slogans.

More than anything reconciliation needs a strong political push at the national level. In this regard, much can be learned from the Pope’s visit to Bangui in November 2015. Hundreds of citizens of all denominations followed the Pope on his walk from the central mosque to the stadium, demonstrating that it is possible to remake connections with the population by going out to meet them. In March 2016, the new president’s visits to Obo in the far south east and to north-eastern Vakaga region, places where locals have long been cut off from the rest of the country and divorced from central authority, certainly send a positive message of national cohesion.

But much more will be needed to rebuild trust between the capital and the periphery. The government could make powerful symbolic gestures like holding the 1 December national celebration in the north east, from where many ex-Seleka combatants come. It could recognise Muslim celebrations as public holidays, satisfying a longstanding demand of the Muslim community, or create programs to integrate citizens from different regions into senior positions in the civil service. Changing the relationship between Bangui where power is concentrated and the provinces is crucial. Touadéra’s proposed decentralisation policy is in line with the recommendations of the May 2015 Bangui forum on national reconciliation, but the state is still too weak and too poor to implement it.

Nevertheless, the state must invest time and energy in territory outside the capital. It could increase the time members of parliament spend in their constituencies, establish resident-ministers (who live in the provinces they represent), or fund local reconstruction committees which could bring together local authorities, economic actors and civil society.

Young people in CAR are less educated than their parents, making them more vulnerable to mobilisation by armed groups and manipulation by politicians.

To avoid further violent outbreaks, Touadéra should invest in education, a sector which, as former rector of the University of Bangui, he knows well and one that could be a powerful driver of stronger cohesion in society. To ensure CAR remains stable, he should make rebuilding the education sector, including in neglected regions, a national priority. The president and prime minister’s former university positions will certainly be assets in this regard. The education sector has been in decline for a long time. Young people in CAR are less educated than their parents, making them more vulnerable to mobilisation by armed groups and manipulation by politicians. Even before the crisis, the education budget was dismal. In 2008, it accounted for only 15 per cent of expenditure (excluding debt servicing), compared to 28 per cent in 1996. Teachers were poorly qualified and badly paid and many failed to show up for work. Classes were often taught by parents on a voluntary basis. The crisis that began in 2012 dealt an additional blow to the sector, forcing many schools throughout the country to close.

As the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral financing mechanism for primary and secondary education, prepares a review of the education sector, international partners and the education ministry should focus on long-term goals. They should develop a ten-year sector-wide plan which includes rebuilding destroyed schools, creating training centres for teachers, increasing their salaries and capacity building programs for government departments responsible for the education system. The government should also review the curriculum, and focus on post-conflict education by including courses on intercommunal tolerance and reconciliation. Psychosocial services should also be offered out of school to children who have experienced trauma. Finally, alternative education and training pathways should be developed for young people who have never been to school, including those who joined armed groups.

A Strategy to Help Refugees Return Home

During his first official visits to neighbouring countries, the new president spoke several times about CAR’s refugee problem – an essential piece of the national reconciliation puzzle. Today, there are some 466,000 refugees from CAR who have found safety in Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and some 421,000 internally displaced people – together about one fifth of the population. The permanent relocation of Muslims fleeing attacks in the west by the anti-balaka (created as self-defence groups, many of the anti-balaka attacked Muslim communities while some others turned into banditry) to cities like Bambari, Bria or Ndélé in the east where ex-Seleka hold sway has in some cases changed the demographic balance in those places. The crisis has also created ethnic or religious borders within some cities and transformed formerly mixed neighbourhoods into religiously-homogeneous ones, such as the ones on the edge of PK5 district in Bangui. The refugee situation is even more problematic. There is still no overall strategy for accompanying and supporting refugees who want to return, which could cause tensions in the future.

In some cities like Bossangoa the hostility of Christians and animists toward Muslims makes their return impossible for now.

Refugees are reluctant to return primarily because they feel it would be too dangerous – justifiably so – and because they have lost property and land. Some have started coming back: traders who fled to Chad are returning to Bangui and, more cautiously, to the west, and some Fulani herders are going back to Boali, about 100km north of Bangui. But in some cities like Bossangoa the hostility of Christians and animists toward Muslims makes their return impossible for now. In the west several houses belonging to Muslims have been occupied or destroyed. Buying houses and land in the provinces is often informal, validated only by neighbourhood chiefs and sometimes the mayor, without official documentation or registration. The partiality of some neighbourhood chiefs and communal pressures on them could make it more difficult for the original owners to reclaim their properties. In Bangui, while many Muslim traders have gone back to work in PK5, in other markets, such as those in the “combatant” neighbourhood, young residents have taken over the trading areas formerly held by Muslims and returning Muslims have had difficulty getting back their business permits.

With the help of NGOs and UN agencies, the authorities should propose a pilot program to protect Muslim properties in select cities in the west, security permitting. They should also find out where refugees in Cameroon or Chad wish to return to and then engage with local authorities to determine where and under what conditions this would be possible. On this basis, the government, with donor support, should propose a plan to provide socio-economic support to returning refugees wishing to resettle and pick up their lives. Mending the communal rift requires reactivating the economic exchanges that existed before the crisis, which were the foundation of social relations between communities.

Fighting Impunity

In his inaugural speech the president underlined that the fight against impunity was a central concern. Citizens demand justice, as numerous testimonies collected in consultations before the Bangui forum made clear. While essential, it will be hard to achieve. In twenty years of successive crises, deadly rebellions and violent uprisings by the presidential guard, only a handful of individuals have been brought to justice and armed groups remain strong. This near-total impunity is the result of a longstanding political practice that has rewarded violence and favoured political over judicial processes, and of a judicial system now in ruins.

Before the crisis, CAR, a country of almost five million people, had only 129 magistrates and the judiciary’s budget was meagre. The situation has further deteriorated as many courts and police stations were destroyed during the violence. Prisons, police stations and detention centres are severely underequipped and the entire penal system needs rebuilding. Donors (including the European Union and the UN Development Programme) have helped repair the justice sector and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has arrested some criminals in temporary emergency measures. As further evidence of the challenges ahead, however, arrested militia members have sometimes been released for lack of evidence. Today, out of the three appeals courts in CAR empowered to try serious crimes (in Bangui, Bambari and Bouar), two have almost stopped functioning. In Bambari part of the justice system is still run by armed groups, whose members loiter just outside the court. In Bouar, as in most of the 24 provincial courts, magistrates are rarely present: “magistrates prefer to stay in Bangui either out of comfort or fear of retaliation”, an expert explained.

Countering impunity must go beyond violent crime and address economic and financial crimes and state predation.

Some attempts have been made to put right the judicial system’s flaws. In September 2014, the office of the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into crimes committed since 2012, but has so far issued no arrest warrant. After almost one year since former interim President Catherine Samba Panza signed into law a bill to create a special criminal court comprising national and international judges, the court is still not operational, partly due to insufficient funding.

Countering impunity must go beyond violent crime and address economic and financial crimes and state predation, which played a major role in precipitating the crisis (see Crisis Group’s report, The Central African Crisis: From Predation to Stabilisation). In the past few years, only three or four high-level civil servants have been sanctioned for embezzling state funds, mostly money from international partners. Some of them have been given positions in other departments. To break with this system that contributed to the gradual collapse of the state, the new authorities should sanction harshly the architects of corruption and the judiciary should take responsibility for future cases.

The Thorny Question of Armed Groups

Touadéra took the reins of the country in a security context undoubtedly less explosive than when Samba Panza took control in 2014, but the situation remains worrying. The problem of armed groups is far from resolved. While their capacity is diminished, many have now branched out into rural banditry, multiplying criminal rackets in local markets. Ex-Seleka factions maintain a hold on large areas and disarmament is lagging; only a small minority of rebels have handed in their weapons in a pre-disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program. Given this situation, the withdrawal of French Sangaris forces in 2016 (a smaller military force of 300 soldiers should remain) is concerning for several reasons. Of all the peacekeeping operations deployed in the country in recent years, the Sangaris mission, seen as a safety net for the capital, has undoubtedly been the best deterrent against violence. MINUSCA is unlikely to be able to compensate for the Sangaris’ absence and may find it harder to exert vital military pressure on armed groups.

The new authorities should break with the recent practice of legitimising armed groups. Although these groups never transformed into political parties, they are undeniably influential actors on the political scene. During the transition, international partners and the authorities opted for the usual compromise: negotiate and give armed groups political space. Several anti-balaka and Seleka leaders were included in the political process; Djono, Hissene, Wenezaoui, Leopold Bara and others were ministers even under the presidency of Samba Panza. At the July 2014 Brazzaville summit, the international community even demanded that these groups be more rigorously structured so that they become reliable interlocutors (though they never were). And international partners, including the UN, promised armed group leaders in 2013 that their combatants would be integrated into the army. These measures accentuated the very problems they sought to resolve by raising armed groups’ legitimacy and expectations.

The solutions must come from within the country and have strong national ownership.

Today, many militia leaders see DDR as a large-scale army recruitment operation, rather than an economic reintegration scheme for combatants. “DDR is a medical visit”, a well-known anti-balaka leader told us in Bangui, “those who are able-bodied join the army, and the minority left behind are offered another job”. One former Seleka leader who left the armed movement said “armed groups fantasise about DDR; many will be disappointed”. While Touadéra has already begun talks with these groups, he should tell them honestly that it is impossible to integrate their troops into the army. The international community should support this approach. Otherwise there is a risk of turning the army, which already includes some former rebels, into a medley of militia forces.

As highlighted in Crisis Group’s September 2015 report Central African Republic: The Roots of Violence, a strategy centred on DDR programs should be left behind in favour of a disarmament policy formulated around the wider fight against trafficking and major development projects to reduce the appeal of the war economy. As the latest clashes in April near Bouar demonstrated, control over resources, specifically precious minerals, is at the heart of the problem. MINUSCA should deploy international forces in the main diamond and gold mining sites to allow CAR’s public servants to take up positions in the provinces and eventually help to revive the Kimberly process certification mechanisms, even in the east.

Ending the crisis in CAR will likely be long and challenging. The solutions must come from within the country and have strong national ownership. While the government needs to set out the roadmap, the international community – avoiding the mistake of confusing elections with the end of the crisis – should commit to providing constant and long-term support.

Russian and Rwandan security forces take measures around the site during election meeting in Bangui, Central African Republic on December 25, 2020. Nacer Talel / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP
Commentary / Africa

Russia’s Influence in the Central African Republic

Russia has become the Central African Republic’s preferred ally in its battle with insurgents. But the government’s use of Russian mercenaries as it goes on the offensive is causing domestic divisions and alienating other external partners. Concerns about rights abuses and misinformation campaigns are mounting.  

Russia has rapidly expanded its influence in the Central African Republic (CAR) in the last few years, using military support to become President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s closest ally. Prone to coups, rebellions and communal strife, CAR has been engulfed in conflict for over twenty years. While the government wields authority in the capital Bangui, it is largely absent from the provinces, where an array of rebels and other armed groups exercise their own form of predatory rule. Disappointed by the inability of UN peacekeepers to extend the state’s writ, Touadéra turned to Russia in 2017, securing weapons and military instructors to bolster CAR’s shambolic army after the UN Security Council approved an exemption to the arms embargo on the country. Today, Russian advisers have the government’s ear in not just military but also political and economic matters.

Touadéra’s government also brought in the Wagner Group, a Russia-based military contractor that is active in Libya and Sudan, and which Mali’s transitional government has signalled an interest in hiring to fight jihadists. Moscow claims that it has no ties to Wagner, saying it is a private company that is free to sell its services to other sovereign governments as it sees fit. But Wagner is widely believed to be managed and financed by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to the Kremlin and under U.S. sanctions for attempted meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on companies and people working on Prigozhin’s behalf “to advance Russia’s influence in the Central African Republic”. Prigozhin has denied any links to Wagner. For his part, Touadéra has repeatedly said he has not signed a contract with the group. Wagner has no office or spokesperson in CAR. Yet its presence – estimated at between 1,200 and 2,000 personnel – is barely a secret in Bangui, where men in camouflage gear can be seen riding around in unmarked military-style vehicles. Rather than eradicating armed groups, the contractors are perpetrating abuses that increasingly drive violence in the provinces and fuel guerrilla warfare against government troops by rebels scattered in the bush.

At first, Central Africans greeted Moscow’s support warmly, … [now] their enthusiasm seems to be dimming.

At first, Central Africans greeted Moscow’s support warmly, hopeful that Russia would succeed in tamping down the country’s conflict where other foreign powers had successively failed (Libya under former leader Muammar Qadhafi, South Africa and France have all been involved in CAR in the past). Their enthusiasm seems to be dimming, however, due to Touadéra’s outsized reliance on Russian advisers, his government’s growing tendency to stifle dissent and allegations of human rights abuses in the counter-insurgent campaign. Moreover, the government’s opaque dealings with Russia and the lack of transparency surrounding Wagner’s involvement have driven a wedge between it and its traditional donors, in particular France, which sees Moscow as encroaching on its interests in the region. CAR is now in the tricky position of having to balance the benefits of Russia’s military and political support with the prerogative of securing the Western financial support on which it will continue to depend. Touadéra’s determination to achieve military victory is understandable, given the repeated failure of peace deals, but his close alliance with Wagner has antagonised Western partners to the point where CAR’s financial lifeline may be at risk.  

Poster praising the former close military relationship between the Central African Republic and France. Bangui, October 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Pauline Bax

A Country Plagued by Insurgency and Hardship

Russia’s role has drawn more attention amid the political crisis that has gripped CAR since shortly before December 2020 presidential and legislative elections. In the run-up to those polls, the country’s top court rejected the candidacy of former President Francois Bozizé, who had been ousted by the Seleka rebel coalition in 2013 after a decade in power. His successor, Michel Djotodia, ruled for barely a year before other Central African leaders forced him to resign amid mounting clashes between Seleka loyalists and so-called anti-balaka groups that had formed to fight them. The appointment of a transitional leader and the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, then paved the way for 2016 elections, which Touadéra won. In 2019, with Moscow’s encouragement, the government signed the African Union-sponsored Khartoum agreement with fourteen armed groups controlling most of the provinces, a deal that still serves as the country’s roadmap to peace today. Following Bozizé’s exclusion from the 2020 polls, however, a loose alliance of armed groups known as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), made up of six signatories to the Khartoum agreement, declared its intention to disrupt the elections. Bozizé later confirmed in a statement that he headed the CPC. Rwanda swiftly sent 300 “force protection troops” to help safeguard the elections. After Touadéra won a second five-year term, the insurgents advanced on Bangui in January aiming to topple the government. A combination of UN peacekeepers, Wagner personnel and Rwandan soldiers repelled the attack.

As Touadéra ordered a counteroffensive in the countryside, his government began closing political space in the capital. It barred several opposition politicians from leaving the country and arrested civilians and military officers seen as close to Bozizé. In the following weeks, troops led by Wagner contractors ended a rebel blockade on CAR’s supply channel from Cameroon and wrenched control of more than twenty towns and villages away from various rebel groups. A day before Touadéra’s swearing-in ceremony on 30 March, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko warned that Bozizé and other rebel leaders would be “absolutely eliminated in military operations” if they continued to wage war against the government. By April, government troops had reached most rebel strongholds. In a country that has been plagued by insurgency for the past twenty years, it was a momentous achievement that boosted Touadéra’s popular support. Many Central Africans hailed the Russian mercenaries as liberators.   

But the intense fighting took a heavy toll. In March, the UN Working Group on mercenaries first sounded the alarm over Wagner’s activities, saying it had received reports of serious rights abuses, including summary executions, torture and forced disappearances. In June, a UN expert panel accused Russian instructors and CAR soldiers of large-scale looting, use of excessive force and indiscriminate killing. It also stated that Syrian and Libyan mercenaries were engaged in combat alongside Russian instructors. Russia angrily denied the charges. Two months later, MINUSCA and the UN human rights office voiced concern about mounting abuses by all belligerents, holding the army and Russian paramilitaries responsible for nearly half the documented incidents. There are reports in domestic and international media – corroborated by UN and humanitarian agency workers – that Wagner mercenaries and soldiers carried out summary executions of members of Bozizé’s ethnic Gbaya group. There are also reports of massacres committed by both the government and rebel sides.

Wagner mercenaries in the provinces tend to conflate all Muslims ... with insurgents.

Also worrying is that observers say Wagner mercenaries in the provinces tend to conflate all Muslims, particularly the ethnic Fulani, with insurgents, putting Fulani youth at risk of abuse. (The two most active rebel groups – Retour, reclamation et réhabilitation and Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique – are mainly Fulani, but others are not.) The targeting of Fulani could spur support for rebel groups and eventually trigger another dangerous cycle of violence. An independent investigative commission named by Touadéra confirmed in October that Russian instructors had committed abuses, but the full report has not been made public. 

Most of the combat in recent months has occurred in the central Ouaka prefecture and in the west, where Fulani rebels control significant parts of the Nana-Mambéré and Ouham-Pendé prefectures. Despite the military’s unprecedented push into the provinces, its hold on recaptured territory is proving tenuous. Having retreated to the bush, insurgents have stepped up attacks with improvised explosive devices and staged ambushes on army outposts that are left exposed when Wagner mercenaries draw back to their bases. Security sources told Crisis Group that the army, which largely collapsed during the 2013 war that drove Bozizé from power, lacks vehicles and ammunition and is poorly trained. Defections to the rebels are common. Because the army has not really secured the towns it has retaken from rebels, state services remain absent, while the proliferation of combatants hinders delivery of humanitarian aid. On 15 October, Touadéra declared a unilateral ceasefire to allow civilians access to aid, yet military operations continue.        

Central Africans have suffered severe hardship for decades and things may well get worse. CAR has a handful of tarmac roads, few basic services and the lowest life expectancy in the world. Although the army has stabilised Bangui with Wagner’s help, the resurgent violence has aggravated an already dire humanitarian situation in the provinces. The number of internally displaced people has risen to a record 722,000, while an additional 733,000 live abroad as refugees. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that over 60 per cent of the population, or 3.1 million of 5 million people, the highest proportion in five years, needs urgent relief. In parts of the north west, people face famine-like conditions. Chances that aid workers can quickly reach those most in need appear slim, given that troops often block humanitarian convoys from heading into war zones, citing security reasons.

View of Bangui, Central African Republic. October 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Pauline Bax

“Caught in a Battle of Giants”

Russia’s influence in CAR has meanwhile poisoned relations between the government and its main donors, notably the European Union, the U.S. and France. Among diplomats and aid workers, frustrations run high with what they perceive as duplicitous messaging by the president and his allies, who continue to refer to Wagner mercenaries as “instructors”, despite overwhelming evidence that many contractors are shooting at rebels. Indeed, some Touadéra allies reportedly have close ties to Wagner. One is Alexander Ivanov, a Russian who heads the Officers Union for International Security, which purports to be an independent “peace advocacy” group. Russia told a UN expert panel that its defence ministry had recruited all the instructors serving in CAR through the Union. Ivanov runs a Twitter account from Bangui under the Union’s banner.  

Another reason for donors’ annoyance is that they are left guessing who is in charge. “The government has an invisible partner whose face we cannot see”, says one diplomat. While most diplomats contend that relations with their Russian counterparts remain cordial, they have no interlocutors among the Russian advisers who manage two military and economic units that are separate from the embassy and run outside its premises, reportedly by retired Russian officials. CAR relies primarily on Western donors to provide more than half its $496 million state budget. Some donors, worried that funds or equipment could end up in the hands of unaccountable private military actors, have put stringent conditions on future disbursements. MINUSCA stopped supplying the army with fuel after finding evidence that mercenaries had used it for their own vehicles. It is unclear how CAR recompenses Wagner; the state budget does not reflect any payments. 

Vitriolic media campaigns have created further divisions. Ahead of the 2020 elections, Russia and France hurled accusations at each other in a trolling battle related to their role in CAR, prompting Facebook to suspend hundreds of fake accounts linked to Russian and French authorities. In recent months, small street protests targeting the regional bloc Economic Community of Central African States, France and MINUSCA coincided with a swell of online content maligning CAR’s neighbours and other foreign partners, while celebrating Russia’s role in the “liberation” of the country. For example, local broadcaster Radio Lengo Songo has adopted a staunch pro-Russia stance, blaming the UN and France for the country’s crisis. To be sure, much of that content reflects Central Africans’ support for Russia’s political and military involvement. But dissident voices are increasingly suppressed, leading some to ask for UN protection. For its part, France has suspended budget support to the government, citing misinformation as a reason. “We are caught in a battle of giants”, says one senior Central African official. “We need our partners to have a common vision”.

Concerns are growing that Touadéra seeks to rig CAR’s broken economy in favour of Russian business interests.

Furthermore, concerns are growing that Touadéra seeks to rig CAR’s broken economy in favour of Russian business interests. Many observers say the offensive is concentrated in mineral-rich areas, fuelling suspicion that the government is more interested in securing the country’s diamond and gold wealth than protecting civilians. “There is a nefarious backdoor influence that tries to influence public opinion and buy access to natural resources”, says a senior diplomat. In May, the finance ministry unofficially handed responsibility for customs revenue collection to the Russian economic mission that operates outside the embassy’s purview, resulting in what an eyewitness described as inspections of vehicles, including UN trucks, by foreign paramilitaries at CAR’s main border crossing with Cameroon. The ministry cancelled the contract in October after months of intense donor pressure and an outcry from Central African importers. The latter may have been feeling the pinch of more vigorous duty collection, as CAR officials told Crisis Group that the Russian mission had boosted customs income.

Conflict over CAR’s mineral resources could also intensify amid fears that the government may compensate Wagner or associated companies by handing them control of mining zones. Wagner arrived in 2018, around the same time that the government granted gold and diamond mining licences to the Russian-owned company Lobaye Invest SARLU. The UN says the two companies are “interconnected”. Russian media have linked Lobaye directly to Prigozhin.  In 2019, the government cancelled a Canadian company’s licences for the Ndassima gold mine in order to hand them to a Malagasy company that reportedly has links to Russian interests. The International Arbitration Chamber of Paris is mediating the case.

The government is drafting a new mining code, proposing the establishment of a state-owned company that would serve as the country’s principal buyer and exporter of minerals, thereby limiting the number of diamond-buying offices and pushing out the mainly Muslim middlemen, known as “collectors”, who purchase gemstones from artisanal miners on site. The mining ministry says the proposal will make the sector compliant with international standards. Donors have, however, voiced strong objections to the present draft, which they say would deter new foreign investment in the sector. Meanwhile, many Central Africans – including some officials, speaking behind closed doors fear that such policies could eventually backfire on the government. They believe that Touadéra will lose domestic support if he is perceived as handing CAR’s main sources of income to Russian interests. They demand greater transparency in the government’s commercial contracts and foreign relations.

What Should Be Done

Touadéra faces a difficult choice with Wagner. Its fighters have shielded him from an attempted coup and reset the balance of forces on the ground in the government’s favour for the first time in decades. Touadéra appears understandably sceptical of pursuing talks with rebels who tried to oust him despite the 2019 peace agreement. His decision to use mercenaries is justifiable, from a military point of view, and so far, Wagner has served him well. In the long term, however, the government will have to muster the political will to extend its extremely limited services beyond Bangui if it is to maintain control over the areas its troops have recaptured from rebels. The military intervention force is far too small to push out all the armed groups and keep them out, and its relations with MINUSCA are far too fraught to accomplish much beyond securing mining zones. Despite Wagner’s unprecedented battlefield gains, there is no easy way out for CAR’s government. The offensive may have halted fighting in some areas, but the serious abuses committed by mercenaries and security forces risk leading to more war. Complicated as it may be, Touadéra will have to engage with rebel leaders to ease the suffering of rural dwellers and end the hostilities.  

Touadéra’s first priority should be to ensure that the army and associated foreign troops adhere to the unilateral ceasefire he declared on 15 October. Civilians have borne the brunt of the offensive, as men under arms from all sides roam the provinces, severely limiting freedom of movement and hindering economic activity. The government should enforce the ceasefire, even if temporarily, to facilitate the delivery of much-needed humanitarian relief. It is particularly urgent that aid reach areas where people face famine-like conditions.

The president’s administration ... should expedite preparations for the inclusive national dialogue it has repeatedly pledged to organise

The president’s administration, meanwhile, should expedite preparations for the inclusive national dialogue it has repeatedly pledged to organise. Touadéra remains opposed to including the CPC in these discussions, despite calls from the opposition and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region that he invite the rebels. Touadéra’s antipathy for the CPC is understandable – with the coup attempt, the coalition breached the 2019 peace agreement. But the crisis is sufficiently grave that he should reconsider. On 12 November, Bangui began judicial proceedings against all the main armed group leaders who signed the agreement – even those who did not join the CPC – casting doubt upon not only the proposed dialogue’s inclusiveness but also Touadéra’s sincerity in pursuing it. A backlash is possible.

At the same time, the government should take steps to curb inflammatory content in both social media and local newspapers in order to lighten the tense political atmosphere. Online misinformation about what the UN and France are doing in CAR (they face constant allegations of undermining the government) and street protests have led to serious physical threats against Central African politicians and foreign personnel in the country, in particular MINUSCA staff, restricting their ability to perform their duties. The government should urgently call for moderation among CAR’s social media users to prevent further threats and press local media to refrain from publishing false allegations against regional and foreign partners. While there is no hard evidence that the misinformation campaigns and street protests are orchestrated, their relentless anti-UN and anti-France tone indicates some level of concertation. Given Russia’s experience with online influencing, many suspect that the spread of misinformation is somehow linked to its presence in CAR.

Finally, there is a clear need for a unified policy among all external partners in CAR. It may be hard to fashion one given the acrimony between France and Russia over CAR and Moscow’s refusal to acknowledge links to Wagner. Still, some steps could enhance relations. Russia should strengthen its official representation in the country, first and foremost by filling the ambassador’s post, which has been vacant for months. It should also provide clarity on the role of Russian advisers who operate outside the embassy’s purview. Most partner states and international institutions perceive the government’s use of unaccountable foreign mercenaries as an obstacle to ending the conflict. This perception seems accurate, given the mounting abuses of civilians in the provinces and the widespread fear of foreign mercenaries they have generated. While their departure in the near future is unlikely, given Touadéra’s determination to quash the rebellion, CAR and its partners should urgently find a way to coordinate efforts to stabilise the country. For better or worse, there is no doubt that Touadéra’s political fate increasingly depends on Russia (and Wagner), and there is little prospect of him changing the course he has chosen. Yet his Western partners should continue to press for more transparency in his policies and try to bring Russia on board while doing so.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.