A close look into Russia’s activities in the Central African Republic (CAR) is reflective of the former’s quest to determine the politics of the continent. Moscow’s foreign policy in Africa has been a multi-faceted trajectory cutting across political and economic influence backed by military intervention in the fight against rebels and insurgency. While Russia’s activities have been viewed with widespread criticism especially from Western countries and other locals sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, the reigning CAR government appreciates her ‘kind’ gesture. The CAR President, Faustin Archage Touadera embraces the Russian military presence in the country as progressive comradeship at a time in need. Let us look into how Moscow’s foreign policy has influenced the political economy of one of the most politically volatile jurisdictions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
20 plus years’ conflict
Susceptible to ethnic violence, coups, rebellions and religion motivated warfare, CAR has been marred in conflict for over 20 years. Violent uprisings in CAR linked with religious intolerance and political misunderstanding have reigned supreme in many provinces in the country. Rebellious movements backed by violent extremist groupings such as Al Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) proved too much for the government’s troops to handle. Resource-wise and battlefield know-how has contributed to the failure of national troops to reclaim territories from the rebel groups. This prompted the Touadera government to forge a military alliance with Russia. The alliance, while predominantly military, also includes some economic connotations. Putin’s government is set to benefit from natural resources from CAR. The political fracas in CAR reached boiling point 2013, when the incumbent leadership was deposed through a military coup. This triggered backlash from militias loyal to the ousted regime prompting violence and multiple splits within the armed militia and discontented Islamic rebels. After a protracted military effort to wade off threats from rebel groups such as the Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R), the government sought active military assistance from Russia.
Russia’s intervention in the CAR
Russia’s assistance in the CAR included the beefing up of the State military weapons comprising machine guns, ammunition and 175 military instructors. Russia’s move came in response to France’s unsuccessful effort to aid CAR. The Paris effort was ruled to be in violation of the Security Council regulations for it breached arms embargo regulations. In addition to military aid, the special security adviser to President Touadera is a Russian nation, Zakharov. The active participation of Russia into a country hinged on French colonial history has been viewed by many international relations experts as a modern revival of the Soviet Union’s influence in Africa. This is however not the first military entrance by Russia since it has previously brokered military deals with countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ethiopia. In 2017, Donald Bolduc responding to China and Russia’s economic and military influence in Africa respectively, the U.S special forces Commander, signalled a lack of interest in Africa. This came amid U.S claims that the Russian presence in CAR sparked war crimes and human rights atrocities following the use of landmines which were believed to be of Russian origin.
Indirect Russian influence, the Wagner Group
In order to deal with possible and ongoing insurgents, the Touadera government brought in the Wagner Group, a Russia-based private military security company. The Wagner Group is infamous for using mercenaries and for breaching Geneva Conventions in their military operations. The Putin government has vehemently dismissed the Wagner’s links with his government citing the company as a private entity different from the State. However, the company is widely speculated to be Moscow’s proxy for violent military intervention. In 2016, the U.S Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and other companies for working “to advance Russia’s influence in the Central African Republic”. It is estimated however, that the extent of the Groups military presence accounts for almost 2000 personnel in Bangui.
The presence of this well-equipped military enterprise has however, led to mixed reactions from the CAR civilians and global institutions who feel that the continued presence of Russian personnel has reached worrisome levels. The lack of transparency surrounding their presence has ignited debate and speculation that the Touadera government must be engaging in opaque dealings with Russia outside the interests of the ailing masses. France on the other hand deems the Russian activity as direct encroachment of its territory and mandate. It is crystal clear that there is cut-throat competition for political control in the Central African Republic between France and Russia. Could this be another form of neo-colonialism that is being witnessing in CAR or a genuine military alliance aimed towards restoring stability?