Responding to the Crisis in the Central African Republic
Responding to the Crisis in the Central African Republic
Russia’s Influence in the Central African Republic
Russia’s Influence in the Central African Republic
Speech / Africa

Responding to the Crisis in the Central African Republic

Testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing “Responding to the Humanitarian, Security, and Governance Crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR)”.

I would like to express my appreciation to the Chairman Senator Christopher Coons, Ranking member Senator Jeff Flake, and members of the Africa Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the opportunity to testify for the International Crisis Group this afternoon and for focusing attention on the humanitarian and political disaster in the Central African Republic.

Crisis Group analysts have reported regularly on the Central African Republic identifying the underlying causes of conflict in that country stemming from corrupt governance, discriminatory distribution of public services, plundering of diamond, gold and other mines and abusive and often brutal security forces. Our analyst left Bangui this weekend.

The Situation Today in the Central African Republic

The Central African Republic is a collapsed state today, with more than 613,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), including close to a quarter of the capital city’s population, and another 230,000, who also have fled their homes and now are refugees in neighboring countries, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Virtually none of those displaced are in secure or controlled sanctuaries. Instead they are hiding in the bush or in make-shift quarters with no one fully responsible for their safety. In fact, they are easy targets in the still chaotic security situation in Bangui and many other cities as the French Sangaris rescue operation is just being deployed. Sangaris has yet to be tightly coordinated with the African Union peacekeeping operation MISCA, authorized under Chapter VII by the Security Council, which only comes into being this Thursday (19 December).

Despite the best efforts of senior religious figures such as the Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, the evidence of sectarian atrocities and the potential for further killing demands that we ask what more can be done, how can it be done faster, and who can do it.

While we can thank the French government for quickly deploying a force of 1600 into the CAR, the reality is that the international community was woefully slow to respond to the signs of rising insecurity, growing religious tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities, a stalled political transition and mounting evidence of armed groups under little control. In June, Crisis Group raised concerns of a new dangerous turn toward anarchy following last December’s Seleka military offensive, the March coup by the same Seleka rebel force that deposed former President Bozizé and installed its new government under President Michel Djotodia, and the clear lack of commitment, control and capacity of that transitional government to carry out the emergency measures that were required to restore stability and security. We also criticized the failure of the international community to mount a support effort that might prompt the needed actions by that transitional government.

Instead the last six months have seen a state collapse of historical proportion. Before this coup, a popular joke in CAR was that the state ends at PK12, the last Bangui suburb. Now the state has also vanished in the capital city with ministries, police stations, and courts looted in the city and across the country. Several Ministers recently fled the crisis in Bangui and some of them were fired last Sunday (Finance, Public Security and Livestock Ministers). Schools also remain closed and many have been sacked, homes have been trashed and at least several thousand burned to the ground and hospitals and clinics have come under attack. Atrocities have taken place in many communities. In Bangui, Seleka forces have also gone door-to-door in neighbourhoods such as Boeing, Boy Rabe, and PK12 to seize men over the age of fifteen — often to execute them. A vicious cycle of retaliation has started and civilian Muslims suspected of being close to the Seleka are now targeted and some have been massacred. Residents of Bangui have fled en masse to sites where they hope to find some protection: the airport, the community of Don Bosco, the orphanage Saint Joseph Mukassa in Cattin area, the church St Jean de Gabaladja in Gobongo, the church in the Castor neighbourhood, the monastery of Boy Rabe, the St. Paul parish in Ouango or, for Muslims, the mosque of Ali Baboulo near the neighbourhood of Miskine and the Islamic school, next to PK5 are now sanctuaries for a battered population.

Seleka fighters also have targeted those they suspect of supporting the anti-balaka groups, self defense groups that largely formed in response to the Seleka violence but also were led, in many cases, by former members of the Bozizé security forces. It is clear the objective of the anti-balaka groups coming into Bangui is not self-protection but the ousting of the Seleka fighters and the transitional government. However, recent contacts between a group of anti-balaka and Djotodia indicate that there could be a small room for negotiations. Djotodia said last Sunday that he is willing to release some prisoners and to offer several seats in the government to Gbaya people close to the anti-balaka.

Bangui’s residents have been arming themselves on both sides of the religious divide and every day new revenge killings are committed. In the last few weeks, groups of Peul (Fulani) pastoralists, who are generally Muslim and have been targets for the anti-balaka, have killed Christians in Bangui in retaliation.

Three potential immediate security scenarios

First is a continuation of urban war and religious massacres despite the presence of French forces and a fully deployed MISCA. This scenario would be prompted in part by the belief that the French will change the balance of power by disarming the Seleka fighters and provide an avenue for more anti-balaka to come to the capital and help launch a new offensive against the transitional government, hoping for support from many Bangui residents. Even more religiously based massacres would take place with neither the French nor the MISCA able to contain widespread violence.

Second would be a stalemate in which the anti-balaka forces remain outside Bangui and the major threat in the city would come from Seleka forces whom the French and MISCA together would ultimately neutralize allowing for the restoration of peace and security in the city.

Third would be a decision by the anti-balaka forces to leave Bangui and return to the provinces and a parallel decision by the Seleka fighters to return to the barracks and to participate in a renewed program of DDRR.

Each of these scenarios will affect the prospects for ending the current crisis. However, we believe that the following three immediate security actions are required under all three.

Immediate security steps required

First, restore law and order (or initially at least stability and order) in Bangui.

  • a. French forces, MISCA and the returning CAR police gendarmerie need to carry out joint patrols in Bangui and disarm anyone–Muslim or Christian–in possession of a weapon and require that any armed group return to barracks. Patrols should include judicial police officers able to make arrests. Policing Bangui to prevent revenge attacks is now essential.
  • b. Along with the street patrols in the center of Bangui, the French and international forces must prioritize the estimated 40 IDP informal centers around Bangui, along with hospitals and medical centers, and ensure humanitarian access in conjunction with OCHA in the city.
  • c. Immediate control needs to be established along the key roads into and out of Bangui.

Second, re-establish law and order in the tense communities where inter-religious clashes have been reported, particularly in Bangui and the northwest and secure the main economic corridors from Bangui to the Cameroon Border and from Bangui to Bossembele-Bossangoa to the Chad border. Again a priority must be to provide security and humanitarian assistance in the hotspots, particularly among IDP camps in the provinces. Opening major roads not only will mean faster, more sustainable relief to those communities but it will permit some economic reactivation along those corridors and seek to prevent further spill-over to neighbouring countries.

Third, steps need to be taken to ensure that those responsible for international peace enforcement and peacekeeping forces are tightly coordinated, fully resourced, rapidly deployed and complemented by a rapid installation of combined international and CAR police forces. Militarily the French are in the lead and their robust capabilities are the best hope to halt more atrocities in Bangui. However, they cannot be everywhere and do everything and therefore it is essential that the US not only cooperate fully with the French but also speed its own support to the MISCA peacekeeping mission and encourage the right balance of forces in terms of national troop contributors and religious balance and the right skill sets—such as police, engineers and medical units—in addition to combat troops.

Support needed for AU military deployment and UN planning

The US announcements of a $40 million support package for MISCA, followed by the President’s authorizing of an additional $60 million to support the French and to help provide logistics and lift to the African Union troop contributing countries are extremely welcome. We would hope that those funds are quickly moved through the bureaucratic process so that they can be available as early as the troop contributors are ready to move. We understand that DoD also has moved separately on emergency authority to bring some of the promised 850 Burundian soldiers into the country. It would be essential to use some of the DoD assistance to provide mobility (including armoured vehicles) and communication to the deployed African contingents. We also would urge the US to encourage the UN and the AU to make good on the commitment to assure that some 1000 of the first 3600 contingent of MISCA forces are a mix of gendarmerie and street cops. It also is clear to all that a far larger peacekeeping force, at least at the level of an additional 2400 MISCA forces, as agreed by the French, the AU, CAR neighbours, the EU and UN representatives in the last summit held in Paris on CAR two weeks ago, is going to be required. And at least an equal portion of them should be police, capable of working side by side with suitably trained CAR police in communities across the country.

Yet at the moment, the number of international police is a fraction of what is needed. Nor is there a clear indication that steps have been taken to identify French-speaking police who can make up the difference. We would urge everyone involved to make this a major priority. No one in the AU or the UN is able to answer the question of who is ready to provide civilian police or when. Policing Bangui and the other CAR cities is going to be key to avoid further revenge attacks and to re-establish state authority.

There is a separate issue which relates to whether and when MISCA will need to be transformed into a follow-on UN peacekeeping mission. MISCA needs to get on the ground at its full size and the French will need to work closely with them to achieve initial military control. It also is clear that the UN should accelerate its current timeline for assessing conditions on the ground and the adequacy of the existing peacekeeping force and make recommendations to the Security Council on the need for a UNPKO, the mandate for that PKO, how it will build on and incorporate appropriate MISCA forces and how the strength of the Africa Union commitment can be harnessed even as the troops shift to wearing blue helmets in what could be a new hybrid mission.

Clearly one of those elements is a robust police and justice capacity able to help CAR re-establish its own justice system first in Bangui and at a later stage in the provinces.

The UN Secretary-General was requested to “undertake expeditiously contingency preparations and planning for the possible transformation of MISCA into a United Nations Peacekeeping operation.” We would urge the Committee to press the Administration to request that the planning be accelerated and that clear recommendations for that follow-on PKO be available as early as next month so that the detailed planning for Troop Contributing Countries and their financing can be placed on a fast track.

One real doubt about any proposal to establish a new UN peacekeeping mission is to recall that there already have been two previous UN peacekeeping missions, the last one, MINURCAT, ended in 2010. Much of the criticism of MINURCAT related to its not having the resources to carry out its mandate.

The current UN political mission in CAR, BINUCA, has a recently expanded mandate, yet remains vastly under-resourced. As one example, despite its role in supporting DDR, it was reported as having only two officials dedicated to defining a DDR strategy. Similarly, to carry out its role in investigating and documenting human rights abuses, BINUCA only has four or five officials for the entire country. Without the promised security as well, BINUCA staff are unable to move beyond their compounds, let alone open the provincial offices as planned.

Medium-term concerns

There are additional steps that need to be taken to maintain security over the medium term and they all have to begin now and the US should support them all:

1. Disarmament, demobilization, “repatriation” and reintegration (DDRR). In CAR, the DDR program has to incorporate a significant element of repatriation since a major portion of the Seleka group leaders are foreign fighters, mostly from Chad and Sudan. So in the planning for this fifth DDR process in some 15 years in CAR, new thinking is required. First the diplomatic component needs to be in place for those foreign fighters to be repatriated to their own country. Similarly the Seleka fighters need to be pressed to re-enter cantonments and a process begun for their demobilization and access to some form of civilian employment or re-training. Some might be able to qualify for reintegration into community policing in the provinces but simply to incorporate them into a reconstructed army is a bad idea. Disarmament of the newly armed population also must begin once the Seleka have gone back to barracks and been disarmed. Such disarmament will lessen the likelihood of revenge killings. In Banguie, we already have seen some of those ex-Seleka being lynched.

2. Interfaith reconciliation, community-level social cohesion and peacebuilding activities need to be promoted in Bangui first and throughout the country as soon as possible. Radio messaging from inter-religious representatives, along with neighborhood-level peacebuilding activities, is essential given the present high level of religious violence in Bangui. Religious youth associations need to be incorporated into these neighbourhood-level mediations and dialogues. International religious leaders also might need to be brought into the effort to help reduce tension between the two religions.

3. Investigation, documentation of atrocities and holding accountable those responsible was a role laid out clearly for BINUCA. Yet the capacity of the relevant BINUCA unit is simply inadequate to that task. In other instances, the US has actually funded NGOs to document those atrocities and then to submit that information to local judicial authorities. These kinds of efforts should be considered.

4. An inquiry into the plunder of natural resources (ivory, gold, diamonds, etc.) is essential as a way to understand who benefits from the present disorder and to reduce financing of illicit militias. The CAR is suspended from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Kimberley Process. Such an investigation can help formulate a roadmap for the reintegration of CAR into these international bodies. In other instances, the US has also funded NGOs to do this kind of inquiry.

5. Kick-starting the economic recovery: In a country where near 50 per cent live in extreme poverty and the bulk of the militias on either side are young, unemployed and unhappy, a major focus should be attempted on promoting reconstruction of public infrastructure with labour intensive rebuilding efforts that reach those young people. Also to the extent possible, community based reconstruction should be attempted.

The US can support all of these efforts directly, through the World Bank, the African Development Bank (ADB), and the UN as well as bilaterally through USAID and the State Department.

The US also should examine what more humanitarian relief can be made available immediately and respond quickly to OCHA requests in this regard.

Let me suggest one additional step for the US to take immediately: determine what level of protection is needed to permit the reopening of the CAR embassy and the assignment of a new Ambassador. US political engagement is much more likely to succeed when you are in-country.

The Seleka coup and the subsequent inability of the transitional authorities to function contributed to the final implosion of the CAR state. While there now is a need for emergency response, we also need to avoid the usual quick fixes. The CAR collapse has been twenty years in the making with flawed development, corrupt governance and constant socioeconomic regression at its root. The country’s socioeconomic indicators are among the worst in Africa. Resuscitating CAR will require a focus on economics, particularly prioritizing job creation for the country’s large pool of unemployed youth. If we want to break this historical and long-term decline, the USG should urge the donor community to undertake an honest review of the development, statebuilding and governance failures of the last 10 years. This review should be a mandatory preparation for the donors’ conference scheduled for next February. It also is directly relevant to any hopes for a successful political transition. The timeline for the proposed electoral element of that transition also has to be reviewed in light of recent events along with a hard look at security sector reform and a recognition that CAR’s major security threat is internal and resides in the failure of economic development to benefit all but a small minority who controlled state power.

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.

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