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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
"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".
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, 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.
Read the original on the Crisis Group