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The Central African Republic – the end of Françafrique and the return of imperialist competition

D 31 mars 2024     H 13:44     A Ben Jackson     C 0 messages

The Central African Republic has, despite being at the centre of the continent, been a country on the margins of global power since independence. Despite a conflict which has lasted for more than a decade, the country remains largely ignored. Ben Jackson writes that while African conflicts are often underreported, for example the war in Sudan barely gets a mention, the situation in the Central African Republic demands our attention.

Since the Seleka uprising in the early 2010s, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been very much a fragmented state. In Sango, the word Seleka means coalition or alliance and was used to refer to a group of mainly northern rebel forces who came together to bring down the government of President François Bozizé. Throughout his tenure, Bozizé had been embroiled in civil conflict with armed groups in the northern region of the country. With the departure of Bozizé in 2013 after the Seleka made it to the capital Bangui, successive governments have struggled to control territory outside of the city. France, as the former colonial power, has always been willing to get involved to protect its interests in the country. In 2013 they launched Operation Sangaris, an ineffective intervention that officially ended in 2016, although complete French withdrawal did not come till a few years afterwards. Sangaris was, remarkably, the seventh intervention by the French military in CAR since independence in 1960.

Even now, the most recent letter from Omar Hilale, Chair of the CAR Peace-building Commission outlined how armed groups continue to destabilise the country in the east, west and central regions. Many of these groups formed the previous Seleka rebellion but have since fractured into multiple different clusters of combatants, who over the past decade have attempted to entrench themselves within the various regions of the vast country. Back in 2015, a group known as the Popular Front for the Rebirth of CAR (FPRC), led by Noureddine Adam, announced that they had formed a new state known as the Republic of Logone centred around the city of Ndele. The new Republic was short lived and was never taken seriously, but it was a reflection of how former Seleka groups were trying to carve out areas of influence. Cities such as Bambari have come under rebel control over the past few years, while in other regions such as the Ouaka and Haute-Kotto provinces we have seen former Seleka allies fighting each other for territorial control. In the absence of state protection, many civilians and former members of the military formed groups known as the ‘Anti Balaka’, which translates to anti-machete. Both Anti-Balaka militias and former Seleka groups have been known to commit human rights violations over the past decade.

Multiple attempts at peace talks have failed, with treaties being signed and then renegaded on almost immediately. The state has then lacked the means to equip and deploy its own military due to UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2127 that imposed an arms embargo on the armed forces (FACA). This embargo, in place since 2013, was only relaxed through UNSC Resolution 2693 in July of 2023. As a result, the country has been reliant on a UN peacekeeping force that has been described as undermanned and underequipped to carry out its mandate. Given that there was no peace to keep, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) became an active military component to the country’s civil war.

MINUSCA has been involved in trying to tackle the rebel groups head on, with some limited success. In 2020 they were able to retake Bambari from the Unity for Peace in Central Africa (UPC) rebel group. However, their more active involvement has certainly caused some backlash. There have been allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as use of excessive force against detainees during its operations, while their lack of overall success in bringing about the end of the conflict raised questions amongst the population about their role and effectiveness.

Enter Russia

Into this security void came Russia. After French failure to control the situation, alongside allegations of sexual misconduct against the former colonial power’s military, the government turned to Russia. The move was intriguing to many, considering that during the Cold War there had not been much of a relationship between the CAR and the Soviet Union, given that France had held sway over most of its former colonies. Yet, as we have seen in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, French influence on the continent is waning, and has been rejected by popular pressure. Into this gap, Russia has been more than willing to step forward.

Russia’s military involvement in the country began in 2018, with the UN easing the arms embargo enough for Russia to provide some weapons to the struggling Central African Armed Forces (FACA). Alongside this formal state involvement, the now well-known Wagner Group were also entering the country. While formal Russian involvement took the form of ‘military advisors’, the reported 1,200-2000 strong mercenary group were active combatants helping the government in attempts to reclaim lost territory. The force was effective in defending the capital and prevented the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra from falling at the hands of a more united rebel front in 2021.

Wagner’s counter insurgency also gave the government much more control of its territory than since the elections in 2016 and 2021. However, during the counter insurgency there was documented evidence of human rights abuses carried out by Wagner forces, as well as the death of a number of Russian journalists investigating the groups presence in the country in 2018.

Furthermore, there have been accusations that the Russian presence in the CAR is a means to secure valuable diamond mining and other resource concessions from the state. This is certainly nothing new in the history of great power involvement in African states. During the Cold War, many African leaders were highly skilled in using state resources to extract what they needed out of these more powerful actors to ensure the survival of their regimes.

Yet for many citizens of the country, Russian presence is a positive compared to the years of UN and French involvement. For example, in Bangui there is even a statue dedicated to Russian soldiers, showing a group of them protecting a woman and her child. After the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, there were even messages and flowers left underneath the statue.

Cold War rivalries resurface

As the war in Ukraine intensified, the war of words between the US and Russia has also escalated. As such, we have seen a return of the Cold War battlegrounds in a state that is often ignored. Early last year, the United States government made an offer to the CAR government. If they were willing to expel Russian military forces, the US would step in to train the FACA and increase humanitarian aid at the same time.

Yet this offer did not come out of the blue. As reported by Le Monde, a memo was sent to President Touadéra outlining the benefits of a shift from Russia to the US at the end of 2022. The ultimatum was apparently set to expire after 12 months, although this has never been confirmed nor denied by the State Department.

For readers of African history since independence, it can feel like Groundhog Day. Cold War rhetoric within a modern theatre of international diplomacy, where news and fake news are constantly battling for supremacy. The most recent report on the CAR from the State Department was titled The Wagner Group’s Atrocities in Africa : Lies and Truth. Russia is accused of disinformation by falsely claiming that the Wager Group is a force for good in the CAR, as well as in Mali, Sudan, and Libya.

President Touadéra now occupies the position that so many African leaders did throughout the 1960s-1980s. After removing the limits to his presidential term in 2023, he is looking to make himself invaluable to global power, with the result that domestic policies are largely ignored. Touadéra has already shown signs that he could be ready to play the game, using both sides to get what he wants. During the UN General Assembly vote on an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine last year, the CAR was one of 32 abstentions. However, Mali, a country that draws many comparisons, voted against the ceasefire alongside Russia.

The end of French influence in Africa ?

Both Mali and CAR, in their rejection of the former imperial power France, are expressions of a shift in the external influence on the African continent that has been emerging since the 2000s. For a number of decades now there has been tension between China and the West in terms of influence within African states, especially regarding development aid. When the former Soviet Union withdrew its support for its allies in the late 1980s, given that the financial cost of keeping satellite states afloat, this gave former colonial powers and the US free reign, for a time. Yet China, as its role as a global superpower grew, has been willing to come in and provide aid, free of the conditionalities that have been tied to donor money from the west.

Many did not see a return of Russia, and certainly not a situation in which the country would be able to usurp French colonial influence. Even after granting independence, France, and French companies, continued to exert extraordinary influence over its former colonial possessions. So, for years, CARs Presidents have historically been able to rely on the backing of the French military to keep them in office, but now that appears to be no longer the case.

A number of former Francophone countries in Africa, including the CAR, have rejected French military influence in favour of looking further east. Across the Sahel region, both military governments in Niger and Burkina Faso have joined them in sending the French troops home and turning to military support from Russia to protect their new army-led regimes.

It begs the questions as to what future role France has, if any, in Africa ? Can the role of Françafrique – the poisonous neo-colonial relationship between the French state, and its former African colonies – be resuscitated ? While the situation in the CAR may feel like a return to Cold War politics, it comes during a time of wider French decline within Africa, especially across the Sahel.

Ben Jackson is a Senior Project Support Officer and researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. He has a BA in International Relations from the University of Leeds and an MSc in African Politics from SOAS and is interested in conflict, power, and African history. He released his first book on the history of the Africa Cup of Nations at the beginning of 2024.

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