There is no peace in the Central African Republic. Indeed, the military operations of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), supported by Russian and Rwandan allies, continue to conquer the territories occupied by the rebels who have joined the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), formed in December 2020 to hinder the electoral process in the country, a goal that has not been achieved. Ever since the fall of President François Bozizé in 2013 (overthrown by the Seleka rebel alliance), it is estimated that 70% of the country’s territory is de facto controlled by armed groups. Another militia, 3R (Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation), has been weakened by the murder of its leader, Bi Sidi Soulemane.
There is no overall assessment of the clashes between government forces and rebels or of the ongoing round-up operations, which began between May and June 2021, nor of the number of dead, wounded or prisoners. It seems likely that the rebels, alerted of the arrival of troops, are hiding or fleeing temporarily, with the risk of returning if representatives of the State authority and security forces are not installed also in places far from the capital Bangui. On the other hand, there are reports of human rights violations by the Central African military, but also, and above all, by the Russian allies. Officially, Moscow has sent 475 civilian instructors to the Central African Republic, giving them permission to operate. Another 300 instructors arrived in late December 2020 at the request of President Faustin Archange Touadera, to organise the training of additional units of the local armed forces. Many call these instructors ‘mercenaries’ of the Wagner group. Accusations of arbitrary executions, abuses and theft are raised against Russian allies as they travel through the country. While Russia even denies the existence of contractors, Bangui sticks up for its ally and distances itself from the UN report.
Former President François Bozizé, who is wanted by the Courts on charges of fomenting the rebellion, is considered a fugitive. According to concordant sources, Bozizé was in Chadian territory in early 2021. An investigation is underway to shed light on the creation of the CPC rebellion, but also on possible links between the former president and opponents Anicet-Georges Dologuélé, Martin Ziguélé and Karim Meckassoua. Bozizé’s candidacy in the presidential elections had been rejected due to sanctions imposed by the UN.
What is being fought for
The reasons for this war are not clear, as they are attributable neither to ethnic rivalries nor, even less, to religious issues. Factors that in the past of the Central African Republic had little or no importance. Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) sees in the Central African panorama a “business conflict model” that many, too many, are interested in seeing protracted over time. The analyst’s note entitled “Ecosystem of armed groups”, from October 2018, is still relevant today. “Since 2013, armed groups have been the real masters of the Central African Republic”, observed Vircoulon. The ecosystem of armed groups remains fundamentally open for three main reasons. Firstly, in a political space characterized by extreme poverty and by the inversion of the social contract, the “business conflict model” of armed groups is very attractive, even for political actors in Bangui and for communities seeking protection and means of subsistence. It is a self-sufficient model, since insecurity becomes an economic resource. Second, while the relationship between government and armed groups is often represented in an antagonistic way, it actually contains areas of cooperation. Third, the actors who are supposed to contain and combat this “business conflict model”, that is, foreign powers and peacekeepers, are pursuing a policy that tacitly or explicitly encourages it.
Russia has become a leading ally of President Faustin Archange Touadera’s Central Africa, especially with regards to national security. The country is officially under an arms embargo imposed in December 2013, in the midst of the political-military crisis following the armed coup led by the Seleka alliance against former president Bozizé. Despite various peace initiatives, a transition period and elections in 2016, the sanctions are still in force but the fifteen non-government militias (in addition to common bandits) who control or controlled three-quarters of the territory until recently, never lacked weapons. This is contrary to the regular army, which until recently was almost non-existent and lacking in resources. In such a situation, it is difficult to flex muscles in front of a horde of rebel groups unwilling to give up.
It is in this context that the Russians entered the Central African scenario. In February 2016, Touadera was elected and France decided to withdraw the Sangaris military mission, which had been sent in extremis in December 2013, when violence was rampant. Taken by new crises, particularly in the Sahel, Paris disengaged with the area, leaving an open door. France proposed to the UN Security Council to send weapons recovered from piracy in Somalia to the new Bangui army. At the council of the United Nations, Moscow raised a legal objection, which was accepted. France then asked Touadera to mediate, thinking they would obtain a softening of the Russian position. The president was so convincing that he achieved much more: Moscow’s direct involvement alongside the armed forces, with instructors, vehicles (second-hand weapons and armored vehicles), advisers and presidential guard, as well as the infamous mercenaries of the Wagner group.
It is the Central African government, however, that shows interest in Russian investments in the sectors of natural resources, electricity, transport infrastructure and agriculture. Obtaining licenses on mining sites is not a topic that Bangui wants to discuss clearly, on the contrary it tends to evade it, but it seems that so far the exploitation of the subsoil and its potential reserves by the large mining companies has not started. Russian. Bangui’s other official protector is the UN mission, with which it has fluctuating relations. Reports of alleged violations of human rights by the army and the Russians are often questioned.
France, which is no longer a privileged or exclusive partner, remains very active in sending humanitarian aid and development aid, in particular through the Agency française pour le développment (AFD). Paris has sent around 300 soldiers, engaged in training tasks for the national armed forces and, if necessary, provide support to the MINUSCA. In December, while the CPC declared its intention to prevent the elections, President Emmanuel Macron “condemned the attempts by armed groups and some political leaders, including François Bozizé, to obstruct the implementation of the peace agreements and the elections according to the program provided and supported by the international community “. Rumors of a possible involvement of Paris in the destabilization of Bangui have circulated in anti-neo-colonialist and neo-pan-Africanist circles. For the Franco-Beninese activist Kemi Seba, “the whole world knows what France has played a role in creating hotbeds of tension in the Central African Republic. France has set fire to this country, which suffers from neo-colonialism and françafrique.” According to the best-known French media that follow Africa, in this period is active a nebula of onlinemedia propagating conspiracy theories and anti-French messages, acting at Russa’s service.
Rwanda is also making its way in the scenario. In early May, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Central African Republic, General Zephlin Mamadou, led a military team on a week-long working visit to Rwanda. The purpose was to discuss the implementation of the defense cooperation agreement signed between Central Africa and Rwanda itself in October 2019. Currently, Rwanda is present with two battalions and a second-level hospital under the peacekeeping mission United Nations, and has also deployed an additional military battalion under the bilateral agreement.
Key figure or organization: Father Aurelio Gazzera
Father Aurelio Gazzera, Carmelite missionary in Central Africa since 1992, originally from Cuneo, has always lived between the towns of Bozoum and Baoro, in the North-East of the country – a region scourged by the rebels of the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), who sack villages and infer on the population. Here, every day, Father Aurelio reaches the most remote villages to grant children and teenagers with adequate schooling. This is a very difficult task, in a situation of constant insecurity. His work, however, is not limited to this: he has made his voice heard, also trying to mediate between the government and the militiamen. Father Aurelio strongly denounced the environmental and social damage caused by Chinese companies that have no remorse in intensive gold mining. Not even the arrest in 2019 stopped him. He remains alongside his people and has no intention of leaving the country.
FOCUS 1 – Diamonds don’t shine
In spite of the country’s wealth, the population lives in misery and relies on a subsistence economy, which is also put at risk by the conflict. The production of diamonds, which represented two-thirds of the value of exports before 2013, has plummeted according to official data from 365 thousand carats in 2012 to 23 thousand in 2019. Over 80% “leave” Central Africa via smuggling to Cameroon, and the state of war favors this practice. The country has also been subjected to a partial embargo on the exports of these precious items, because they are thought to be used by armed groups to finance themselves. Russia – which has enormous interests in the country, and which supports the current president – has in fact taken over the reins of Central Africa and hopes to lift the embargo by leveraging on the fact that it penalizes the quarrymen, who have no other means of subsistence. Of course, Moscow has every interest in it: Russian companies, linked to the leadership of the Kremlin, such as Lobaye Invest, hold various diamond concessions in the country. In the North, on the other hand, four Chinese companies are exploiting the gold fields, in the Bozoum area.
FOCUS 2 – Meanwhile, it’s business for China
Further away from the front, away from diatribes and mutual accusations, China signed an economic and trade agreement with Bangui in February 2021, worth 19 million euros. Two weeks earlier, Beijing had announced the cancellation of 15 million of Central African government debt. At the same time, it offered military equipment to the security forces. The other great power, Africa’s first trading partner, does not intend to move away from Central African positions (which, moreover, no one seems to want to abandon). In short, Beijing never misses an opportunity to find space for itself and affirm its economic potential, while remaining far from the war effort.