• Perri Grace

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.

Central African army soldiers, Russian mercenaries, and UN peacekeepers in Bangui on 27 December, 2020. Credit: Adrienne Surprenant/TNH
Central African army soldiers, Russian mercenaries, and UN peacekeepers in Bangui on 27 December, 2020. Credit: Adrienne Surprenant/TNH

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.

Russian operatives provide VIP protection to CAR President Touadéra during campaign rallies in December 2020.
Russian operatives provide VIP protection to CAR President Touadéra during campaign rallies in December 2020.

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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera meet in Sochi in 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadéra meet in Sochi in 2019. Credit: The Krem

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.

Photo evidence of Russian military aircraft in Bangui.
Russian military aircraft have been identified regularly landing in Bangui. Credit: @Gerjon_

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.

An example of Russian disinformation on social media.
Translation of Russian-disinformation post: Today is World Children’s Day, and I would therefore like to thank President Touadera for everything he has done for our little Central Africans. I hope that thanks to his efforts to restore peace to the country, our children and the next generation will have a better life than those who saw the Central African Republic being ravaged by the tyrants. Pray for that.

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.

An example of Russian disinformation on social media.
Translation of Russian-disinformation post: RCA-TRANSPORT: THE HEAD OF CENTRAL AFRICAN STATE, PROFESSOR ARCHANGE-FAUSTIN TOUADERA TAKES PART IN THE INAUGURATION OF BARC By centrafrik-infos Bangui on December 04, 2020 The Central African Head of State, Professor Archanges-Faustin TOUADERA participated in the inauguration of BARC after several months of work. Note that after the appointment of SANI YALO at the head of BARC, the image of this building which was once far from bearing the name “BARC” changed at the halt. Note also that before SANI -YALO is appointed at the head of this building, BARC has a revenue of 83 million and a debt of 3 billion CFA francs. But with SANI YALO, this building is rehabilitated and modernized with an order for several trucks (200) which will be delivered in the days to come … ‘The Central African Head of State, Professor Archange-Faustin TOUADERA has only one option, to give the chance to those who have the will to move the Central African Republic forward to update their thoughts on advancement.

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.