- The presence of the Wagner group in the Central African Republic’s (CAR) civil war has generated mixed feelings in the population.
- Russia aided Touadera’s government in lifting French-led sanctions of the UN Security Council.
- Both leaders wish to benefit from Wagner’s support in CAR, favouring Russian influence in and aiding Touadéra’s civil war efforts.
Why is Putin in camaraderie with Touadéra?
Answer: The Central African Republic can serve as Russia’s gateway to the African continent and its benefit as a resource-rich nation.
Civil war in the Central African Republic (CAR) broke out at the end of 2012 after Seleka rebels (a Muslim-majority coalition of rebel groups) attempted to topple the government of François Bozizé. Ten years, four presidents, and many failed agreements later, the conflict remains ongoing. After the exit of French troops that were aiding government forces and mediating the conflict, CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra welcomed mercenaries from the Russia-controlled Wagner Group to support his leadership and force the retreat of the rebels; mercenaries have been present since 2016.
While Western influence in Africa is slowly decreasing, China and Russia are filling the void. In the case of Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked to expand Russia’s influence in Africa. In the CAR, this support is primarily focused on providing military assistance. Besides Wagner Group mercenaries — Putin’s indirect link to the conflict — Russia has also sent military instructors and weapons.
Africa plays a relevant role in the future of Russian foreign policy. In the scope of the war on Ukraine, countries such as the CAR have become important actors in UN meetings by supporting Putin politically to alleviate international pressures. At the same time, Russia’s investment in resource-rich African nations is an indicator of Russia’s interests in increasing its influence in the continent.
What does Touadéra want?
Answer: Touadéra seeks to enhance his personal security and prosperity.
In 2016 French officials announced the end of their peacekeeping mission in the African nation in support of MISCA (African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic) to prevent further bloodshed between different ethnic and religious groups. A combination of variables can be found when understanding the French withdrawal, from the increased intensity of the conflict to social unrest against French operations. Since the exit of the French forces, rebel groups have reorganised, and deaths spiked soon after their retreat.
Despite the government’s complaints, every two years, the UN Security Council has extended an ongoing arms embargo since 2013. Due to increasing insecurity in rural areas and ongoing electoral crisis, armed conflict re-sparked in 2020 between government forces and the Coalition of Patriots for Change rebels.
However, in 2017, Touaderá met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Vladimir Putin. Since then, Russia has become a firm supporter of the arms embargo lifting. Russia has argued the impossibility of CAR’s armed forces functioning under the sanctions, claiming that “armed groups […] have no obstacles when it comes to obtaining arms through trafficking.”
Still, while Russia has veto power on the UNSC resolutions, they have abstained from voting on the embargo. This has caused Touaderá to turn to the Russian PMC Wagner Group to support the activities of the Central African Republic’s army. So far, despite multiple accusations of disproportionate use of force, they have been successful in pushing back the rebels in the outskirts of the urban areas and destabilising the groups’ integrity.
At the same time, Touaderá’s actions are not selfless. While his war efforts are followed by the rhetoric of protecting its country from rebels and ending the long-lasting civil war, the government mainly focuses on controlling the capital while Wagner protects the major roads. Also, Wagner offensives are concentrated in securing resource-rich areas, particularly forestry and mineral exploitation. This combination allows Touaderá (and Russian businessmen) to directly profit from the exploitation of these resources.
What does Putin want?
Answer: Vladimir Putin is making efforts to create strategic partnerships with African nations and replace French involvement.
The presence of Russia in Africa this last decade has increased substantially. In fact, Putin is interested in restoring the old ties of the Soviet era in Africa. He has continuously emphasised building ties — commercially and militarily — with African countries where Western power is declining, or with former socialist ambivalent allies like Angola, Ethiopia, and Egypt.
Since 2015 Russia has signed over 20 military cooperation agreements with African governments. These cover weapons sales, the training of soldiers in Russian territory, the donation of military hardware, the presence of Russian military advisors, and access to African seaports and air bases. In exchange, the Central African Republic has plenty of minerals such as diamonds, uranium and gold, that provide opportunities to Russian enterprises.
In 2019, president Vladimir Putin hosted the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. Among the most important conclusions of the summit, Putin highlighted his desire to disregard the political condition of African countries when signing trade deals and investments, something that Western powers tend to use as leverage. With the exit of France from CAR, Putin recognises the opportunity in supporting Touaderá’s government.
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the founders of Wagner group and a key figure in Putin’s circle, has expanded his enterprises in Africa. In the Central African Republic, some of his companies were granted gold and diamond exploitation licences before Wagner Group’s arrival. By getting involved in this conflict, Putin is investing in the stability and security of Russian state-linked businesses, ultimately supporting the state budget under pressure from Western sanctions. At the same time, abstaining from voting in the UNSC’s embargo resolutions, he guarantees business for Wagner and himself.
Beyond financial and economic reasons, partnerships with African nations give Putin very useful allies in international congresses and conflicts. In fact, sixteen African nations abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among them was the Central African Republic. This influence strengthens Russia’s position on the global stage.
What is Touadéra doing?
Answer: He has employed the Wagner group to support his position in the Civil War, as well as hosting Russian military instructors.
Despite the richness of resources in CAR, the country remains one of the poorest in Africa. The long-lasting civil war has impoverished both the state and its citizens, whilst damaging economic infrastructure. The lack of governmental control in many areas of the East leaves Touaderá with the task of reviving a failed (or even phantom) state. With international actors like the United Nations and France withdrawing a great part of their direct military support, Touaderá is searching for support elsewhere. Russian aid — part of Putin’s strategy to approach Africa — was well-received by the population.
As Putin is busy in his own borders, President Touadéra relies on the Russian paramilitary forces to guarantee his own security. However, he now faces both international and national pressure regarding Russian mercenaries’ human rights violations and excessive violence. Many NGOs have raised concerns about the levels of abuse allegedly committed by Wagner’s troops, where civilians have been unlawfully detained, abused, tortured, and killed.
Despite the evidence linking the Wagner Group to Touaderá, he continues to deny any link to the group. This ‘technique’, commonly known as plausible deniability, may seem senseless, but it frees him and his government of any accountability for the mercenaries’ actions.
Who is winning and what about you?
Answer: This partnership favours both leaders for different reasons.
For Touaderá, this alliance offers security and logistical advantages. From guaranteeing the security of its government and population to the control of key natural resources, the aid provided by Putin has proven essential.
For Putin, the benefits of this partnership are primarily economic. As aforementioned, soon after the meeting between Touadera and Putin, concessions and exploitation licences were granted to Russian enterprises in the Central African Republic. It is also part of Putin’s plan to approach Africa and restore Soviet-time relations with African nations, putting him in the pole position to influence diplomatic conflicts, geostrategic developments and economic deals.
Though indirectly related, the war in Ukraine has provided a distraction from the war and the crimes committed in CAR by both the Wagner group and Touaderá’s government. Equally, Putin’s support to African leaders guarantees their reciprocation with his campaign in Ukraine, backing him in international meetings and conferences. While this conflict may seem distant, its significance is not. Like in Mali or Sudan, where Russia has followed a similar approach, the diplomatic developments of these African nations and Russia in the upcoming years will be worth following. Equally so is whether Putin can guarantee stable and healthy relations or suffer the failure of a foray into Africa.
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