Putin’s Playbook: Central African Republic
The Central African Republic is a heavily split, resource-rich country that has been hit with decades of under-development. Militia groups control at least two-thirds of the former French colony as the current conflict, which began a decade ago, seeps into every facet of society.
While a United Nations peacekeeping mandate is attempting to support the country, they have also accused government forces of training and collaborating with private military groups (PMCs). The country struggles with insecurity, displacement, corruption and ethnic divides, with local authority predicated on who holds the most weapons.
The country's predominant rivalry is between the majority-Christian Anti-Balaka alliance and the majority Muslim Séléka alliance. The country has been entrenched in a power struggle since 2012, leading to the UN mandating a Chapter VII stabilisation mission. However, the UN is not the only outsiders maintaining a presence in CAR, as Moscow has also made moves inside the country.
Sochi's New Guest
The relationship between Bangui and Moscow has tightened over the past five years, with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra visiting Sochi in 2017 before holding an extensive meeting on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic in May 2018. In 2019, the Russia-Africa summit was held in the Black Sea town, signifying Russia's ambitions to re-establish its African presence.
"Moscow’s moves in Bangui are not transparent, creating hurdles for the peacekeeping mission to fulfil its mandate and create a long-term peace process in the country."
After the Russian-CAR security accord, private military companies Wagner and Sewa Security Services entered the country. Sewa Security Services is said to be merely a Wagner front that is engaged in high-profile protection. Open source investigations across the years have confirmed that Russian-government-linked forces have become Touadéra’s security personnel. Russia is dependent on Touadéra’s presidency to fulfil its African ambitions.
The country has been locked in civil war for over a decade, becoming one of the world's least-developed countries and the host of MINUSCA (TheUnited Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic). Moscow’s moves in Bangui are not transparent, creating hurdles for the peacekeeping mission to fulfill its mandate and create a long-term peace process in the country. Wagner, which operates in multiple African countries, is a coercive tool used by Putin to keep a foot on the continent. The group distinguishes itself as advisors stating they only host around 550 personnel in the country. However, the United Nation’s investigations have found up to 2,100 personnel have been present in CAR.
Wagner-Linked Footprints Across The Continent
The notorious St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs Wagner, is also said to have a heavy media role. Prigozhin-linked groups have funded multiple outlets across Africa, creating information channels and investing in television stations.
Wagner-linked companies often go unnoticed throughout Russia's footprint despite revealing information exemplifying Russia’s role in exploiting Africa’s natural resources. Lobaye Invest is a Wagner-linked company that won gold and diamond mining concessions. Prigozhin is said to either own or control M Finans and Lobaye Invest, both companies conducting mining operations in CAR.
The two companies are both linked to Wagner and have ties to Concord Catering which has historically provided material assistance to the IRA. Several Russian journalists who have attempted to investigate Prigozhin’s links to the gold and diamond trade have been killed, while UN investigations state mercenaries have participated in hostilities “grave human rights abuses, including rape, summary execution, targeted killings, torture, forced disappearances, murder and other abuses.”
The Notorious Game
The government has been accused of entertaining Russian-backed disinformation campaigns. During the election season, which was notably assisted by the MINUSCA mandate, fabricated accounts posed as locals and local media criticised French foreign policy and concurrently disseminated positive rhetoric surrounding Russia’s presence in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as supportive commentary on the CAR’s Touadéra government. Social media companies have identified and dismantled several campaigns across their platforms, particularly ahead of the 2020 election.
Disinformation campaigns have actively promoted anti-UN critiques in a bid to promote Kremlin’s proxy role. Despite the UN’s recent efforts to engage stakeholders in disinformation training, Russian-led campaigns continue to find oxygen. These are not light campaigns; they threaten the countries’ security and create further divisions among CAR citizens.
The PMCs Strike Back
President Touadéra, who was re-elected at the end of 2020, has dismissed any improper relationship with Russia and denied any dealings with Wagner or Prigozhin. However, since January 2021, CAR forces supported by Russian PMCs have been leading a series of offensives against rebels in the country, reclaiming territory for the first time in years. These offensives have been accompanied with accusations of human rights abuses, including the deaths of dozens of civilians.
In July 2022, the UN voted to relax an arms embargo against CAR that has been in place since 2013. As the civil conflict enters its second decade, it appears that violence and insecurity remain the only certainties.
Written by Perri Grace.
Edited by Wade McCagh.