In the span of a year, the Central African Republic has gone from a country on the margins of international attention to a flashpoint. Russia’s expanding military presence and French attempts to retain influence over its former colony have ignited a competition for influence, threatening CAR’s already shaky peace process and its fledgling democratic government, which lacks much authority beyond the capital, Bangui. If Russia and France continue to recklessly prioritize their own interests, then CAR’s fragile security situation will only worsen.
In late October, Moscow announced its second arms shipment to CAR and the deployment of 60 additional military instructors. France’s opposition to Russia’s activity has ramped up steadily since then. On Nov. 2, France announced its own delivery of arms, as well as 24 million euros in bilateral aid. French officials also indirectly reprimanded Russia for overseeing a parallel peace process that has undermined the established United Nations-led talks between the government and over a dozen armed groups. In August, Russia and Sudan met with a number of Central African rebel groups in Khartoum and signed a preliminary peace agreement. Paris drafted a resolution for the Security Council labeling the U.N. peace process “the only framework” for a peace deal in CAR. Russia responded by chastising France, saying it should put aside “parochial national interests” and insisting that its efforts were helping.
Prior to Russia’s engagement, France’s interest in CAR’s affairs appeared to be waning as the peace process, which began in 2013, dragged on. Even as the security situation continued to deteriorate, France showed little appetite for any kind of intervention, and only took a major political stance in April when some armed groups falsely claimed that they had French support.
French disengagement from CAR created an opportunity for Russia to expand its economic and political ties in the resource-rich country, which has vast deposits of gold, uranium and other minerals. Moscow blocked a French effort to deliver arms for the Central African military at the U.N. Security Council and lobbied last January to deliver its weapons instead. With the shipment came 170 Russian civilian trainers who were later revealed to be mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Sewa Security Services. The mercenaries have been acting as bodyguards for President Faustin-Archange Touadera and helping train CAR’s military and gendarmerie.
While the Kremlin worked with the Central African government, the French magazine Jeune Afrique reported that Russian officials had also reached out to at least three rebel groups to discuss lucrative mining concessions. The nature of Russian ties with armed groups in CAR remains opaque. In July, three Russian journalists were killed in an apparent robbery while investigating the scope of Russian mercenary activity in the country.
Lost in the intricacies of competition between Russia and France is the impact this outside maneuvering will have on those caught in the middle of CAR’s crisis. Arms, whether from Russia or France, are not useful without a military to wield them efficiently or ethically. The European Union has had an in-country training mission for some time, but there’s little indication that the Central African Armed Forces are in any shape to oppose the various armed groups occupying most of the territories outside Bangui. Russian promises to train the military may bear fruit, although the resulting forces may not be as supportive of the government nor as concerned with the EU’s standards for military conduct.
A great-power competition for influence and resources in CAR will torpedo any hope of a lasting peace.
The struggle between France and Russia risks drawing in additional actors that are more interested in resource extraction than the country’s stability. Recently, a group of Chinese nationals looking for a mining site in CAR were killed by townspeople after the suspicious death of a Central African guide who had accompanied them; accounts of what may have happened differ between the Chinese media and other outlets.
Central African government contracts that were leaked two years ago revealed that Chinese defense company Poly Technologies was interested in CAR for its resources. The company, which has a history of unsavory deals in Africa, undertook oil exploration in the country and donated vehicles to the Central African military this past August. The company also attempted to deliver arms like Russia had, but the U.N. Security Council blocked that effort in June.
The spat between Russia and France has already filtered into Central African politics and eroded the government’s unity. In October, the Central African Parliament was embroiled in a political struggle that ultimately saw the ouster of the pro-French speaker of the National Assembly, Karim Meckassoua, by the ostensibly pro-Russia Touadera following accusations of embezzlement. The episode had a notable impact on the elite in Bangui, motivating even some of the most outspoken pro-French officials, like Martin Ziguele, a former prime minister, to adopt a neutral tone when the Russian presence is mentioned. Ziguele said in a recent interview that safety is the main concern for Central Africans, no matter who provides it.
This kind of outside political maneuvering, alongside competing peace processes, only makes the possibility of actual peace in CAR more unlikely. Sudan, Russia’s partner in its parallel peace talks, is not the honest broker CAR needs, as its previous shipment of weapons to the Seleka rebels in 2012 and continued raids into CAR by Sudanese government-backed militias indicate. Sudan, with Russian support, continues to deride the U.N. negotiations. Were Russia interested in reaching a peace settlement, it would throw its weight behind the U.N.-backed process, instead of dividing the international community’s efforts.
Perhaps most of all, France and Russia’s competition signals to Touadera that remaining in power depends on his ability to make his foreign patrons happy. While France and Russia will not win Touadera’s wars for him or resolve CAR’s deeply rooted tensions, historical precedent suggests that one or both of them will forcibly safeguard his political position and personal security so long as he is perceived as a better alternative to rival politicians and rebel groups.
Ultimately, a great-power competition for influence and resources in CAR will torpedo any hope of a lasting peace. Instead of presenting a united front in favor of resolution, disarmament and development, Russia, France and even China are likely to continue pursuing their narrow interests in the country, at the expense of Central Africans.