Colombe de Grandmaison is an MA International Peace and Security student. Her article focuses on the ongoing battle for influence between France and Russia in the Central African Republic.
Vladimir Putin’s determination to restore Russia’s global power status has never been a secret. In recent years, this has translated into a more aggressive foreign policy. After getting involved in two separatist conflicts in eastern Europe (Georgia and Ukraine) in the last decade, as well as in the Syrian civil war, Russia is now turning its attention to sub-Saharan Africa, especially Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). The recent renewal of economic ties, strengthening of diplomatic relations, as well as the growing presence of Russian private military companies (PMCs) have been the subject of intense speculation over Moscow’s intentions for the region. The Russian involvement in CAR has been increasingly criticised in the past year by France, the historically dominant foreign power in the region. This is causing fears of diplomatic escalation between Russia and France, which could have harmful consequences for CAR’s reconstruction process.
To understand the reasons why the growing Russian presence in CAR may present an obstacle to the country’s reconstruction, it is crucial to understand the context of the internal conflict and its regional implications. Furthermore, France’s reaction to Russian involvement should be understood with regards to its historical relations with CAR.
Historical context: colonial rule and civil wars
After its independence from the French colonial rule in 1966, CAR spent thirteen years under the brutal dictatorship of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself as Emperor Bokassa I in 1976. He was overthrown by Dacko in a bloodless coup in 1979, who was himself overthrown two years later by Kolingba. After the rise of a pro-democracy movement in the 1990s, elections were held in 1993. Ange-Felix Patassé became President and was re-elected in 1999. However, a failed coup in 2001 led to a violent repression of political dissent, which eventually caused unrest, and General Francois Bozizé overthrew Patassé. This led to an internal conflict with Bozizé posed against Michel Djotodia’s rebel groups, which was characterised by extreme violence and human rights violations, before a semblance of peace was temporarily established.
In 2012, CAR experienced sustained violence when numerous Muslim-majority rebel groups formed the Séléka coalition to oust General Bozizé and establish Djotodia as President. In retaliation to Selaka crimes, Christian-majority militias were formed, called the anti-Balaka, plunging the country into what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon referred to at the time as a “total breakdown of law and order”. Fearing a genocide, African Union forces were sent to try and stabilise the country. France, which had already intervened militarily in its former colony on several occasions since independence, launched Operation Sangaris, sending troops to CAR. President Djotodia was forced to resign, and Catherine Samba-Panza acted as interim President until current President Faustin-Archange Touadéra was elected in 2015.
French troops remained in CAR for almost three years, during which numerous allegations of sexual abuse of children by French soldiers put the force under growing pressure and deeply degraded France’s reputation within the country. After this controversy and the withdrawal of Operation Sangaris, France’s involvement in CAR drastically reduced. Furthermore, French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has increasingly turned its attention away from central Africa. After largely guiding the transition, France was indeed mainly concerned with drawing the controversial operation to a close, thus creating a political void, which offered Russia an avenue to get involved.
Russia steps in
In the current volatility in CAR, Russia has found new opportunities to project power far beyond its borders and rekindle strategic partnerships in Africa, which had been limited since the fall of the Soviet Union. In less than ten months, Russia has indeed become almost omnipresent in CAR’s capital Bangui. While the UN had imposed an embargo on arms sales to CAR, President Touadéra requested arms from the UN to strengthen the Central African Armed Forces (FACAs) in the face of rebel groups rapidly re-arming. A French proposal to sell weapons that had been confiscated from Somali pirates was rejected by the UN Security Council. On France’s advice, Touadéra turned to Russia. In January 2018, five Russian military officers and 170 civilians came to Russia to deliver these weapons and serve as advisors to the FACAs. From there on, Russia’s involvement in CAR increased exponentially. They have now replaced the Rwandan peacekeepers contingent as President Touadéra’s security detail, as well as taken on a mediation role with armed groups in addition to training the FACAs. Bases have also been set up in diamond zones.
While the Russian activities in CAR are all technically legal, there remains some ambiguity surrounding Russia’s true intentions for the country. The murder of three Russian journalists who had been investigating reports of mercenary activity in the region in July 2018 increased speculations about the extent of Russian activity in CAR. While Russian officials are still denying these reports, this pattern of operations is typical to Russia: a variety of PMCs operating under the disguise of civilian instructors or security advisors. This model of action is highly risky, as it has the potential to breed instability on a local level and create strong resistance from segments of the local population. Furthermore, the lack of accountability to any official actor makes these mercenaries even more dangerous and unpredictable.
On August 21st, 2018, a military cooperation agreement was signed between Russia and CAR, thus deepening Moscow’s involvement in CAR. However, during the same period, some armed groups expressed their willingness to return to talks with the government under the auspices of the AU. They presented eighty-nine demands, twelve of which were non-negotiable, including “the revision or cancellation of military cooperation agreements with Russia […]”. Could Russia’s involvement in CAR be a direct obstacle to peace then?
On the other hand, Russia has been increasingly involved in mediation between Touadéra’s government and the numerous armed groups operating in CAR, both ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka. When the UN voted the renewal of its stabilisation mission in CAR (MINUSCA) in December 2018, Russia threatened to veto the resolution. A compromise was reached when their contributions to the stabilisation of CAR were partially recognised in the resolution.
In August 2018, peace talks between ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka rebel leaders were facilitated by Russia in Khartoum, Sudan. These militias signed a preliminary agreement to “create a common framework for dialogue and action for a real and lasting peace”, the Central African Rally. The agreement explicitly requested the integration of Russia in the AU peace process. This meeting was however widely criticised by external observers, as it was seen as an attempt by Russia to organise a parallel mediation, while the AU has already set up a roadmap agreement. France was among these critics.
Diplomatic escalation between France and Russia
France refused to positively comment the Khartoum meeting and reminded that the only issue to reach a peace agreement would be through the AU. The French Ambassador in CAR asked States to “put CAR people’s interests before their national interests” and to renounce “solitary and exclusive approaches,” in a subtle jibe at Russia.
As Russian involvement in CAR affairs is increasing, the former dominating power in the region, France, is making its return to the country in an attempt to counter the growing anti-French rhetoric. In October 2018, France warned that the growing presence of Russian military advisors and weapons in CAR could exacerbate existing tensions, and French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly reminded that “Africa belongs to Africans and no one else, no more to the Russians than the French.” Through this statement, not only was she criticising Russia’s meddling into CAR’s affairs, but reaffirming France’s respect for the sovereignty of its former colony, a topic of controversy.
In November 2018, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian visited CAR. After insisting on the historical ties between France and CAR, he said the reason for his visit was to examine how the peace process could be accelerated, in another attempt to reaffirm France’s influence in CAR.
In December 2018, after cancelling her two previous visits, Florence Parly went to CAR in order to reaffirm French support. While she denied that her visit was done in response to Russian involvement, she delivered 1,400 assault rifles and other military equipment after France received a partial exemption from the arm embargo. In addition to insisting on France’s role as CAR’s first partner in terms of development aid, as well as reminding that France “did not hesitate to intervene to stop a massacre five years ago,” she reaffirmed the “necessity of coordinated action with the international community [without] rivalries or private interests.” On January 23rd, 2018 Le Drian even directly pointed at the man behind Wagner PMC’s presence in CAR, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Although he refused to take part in a dialogue with rebel groups organised by Russia outside of the AU framework, President Touadéra seems increasingly close to this new ally. In December 2018, he indeed replaced his Minister of Foreign Affairs Charles Amel Doubane who was in favour of France’s involvement, with Sylvie Baipo Temon, known to be close to Moscow, despite her lack of political experience.
What are the implications for CAR?
“In places like CAR, where France was traditionally the most influential power, Russian activity is in part to show that it can act in areas the West considers its sphere of interest.” Russia indeed capitalises on the fact that other foreign powers are former colonialists, and African countries are appreciative of the fact that their relations with Russia are allegedly “based on the principles of equality and mutual respect,” inflicting a blow on the credibility of the genuineness of France’s intentions.
In a country like CAR, where 75% of the population lived beyond the international poverty line in 2017, and where armed groups still control over 70% of the national territory, external help is especially welcome. This has provided Russia with multiple economic, military and political opportunities.
However, the Russian presence is not without its detractors within the CAR population. Elements of the media are indeed suspicious of President Touadéra’s relation with the foreign power, and some even fear that Russia could help Touadéra to manipulate the 2020 presidential elections. The instalment of Russian bases in diamond zones also generate wide suspicions within the country.
However, many risks come with Russia’s strategy, including the presence of Russian mercenaries within CAR national territory. Furthermore, for many observers, national reconciliation is not a priority for Russia, as it seems to be ‘playing both sides’, by both working with President Touadéra and seeking to cut deals with rebel factions in mineral-rich regions. Hence CAR faces the risk of becoming an instrument for Russia to advance its economic and political interests ”with little regard for the rule of law or accountable and transparent governance.”
While such allegations are still hypothetical, the present risk of diplomatic escalation between the two foreign powers is real. While the competition between France and Russia offers certain advantages to the CAR government at the moment, in the form of arms deliveries, military training and development aid, the country still needs all the help it can get. Encouraging such competition is a dangerous game to play, and President Touadéra should not seem to be taking sides between his country’s historical (but neglecting) ally and his more recent (but whose intentions are yet to be determined) partner.
On January 24th, 2019, a peace negotiation dialogue between the CAR government and armed groups opened in Khartoum under the auspices of the AU. While the outcome of this dialogue is still uncertain, it will most certainly impact the respective roles of Russia and France in the stabilisation and reconstruction of the Central African state.