Civil war erupted in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2012 when rebel groups in the northeast formed a coalition (Seleka) to topple the then President François Bozizé. The cited reason for the uprising was the protection of marginalised populations. Realistically however, it boiled down to long standing issues of identity and a lack of economic progress. The catalyst was likely presidents attempt to take control of the lucrative mining business. With a vacuum of US power, gaining influence in Central Africa is an important part of Putin’s foreign policy strategy. As such, Russia has become heavily involved both militarily and diplomatically.
The route to the capital for the Seleka was a quick one, the CAR’s army was weak and had little interest in defending its autocratic leader. In March 2013 they held a coup and took control of the country. The Seleka represent the minority Muslim population and in response to their brutality, a countering coalition of Christian fighters called ‘anti-balaka’ formed. They started carrying out equally brutal attacks against Muslim populations. In an attempt to relax tensions, the government disbanded the Seleka forces. This just lead to ex-Seleka members forming splinter groups and fighting back against the anti-balaka forces. It is this that plunged the CAR into the complex civil war and the ever-growing humanitarian crisis we see today.
As the conflict took on an ethnic and religious face, as is so often the case, reports of atrocities started to mount. In the past year alone, the Russian backed government has been linked to almost as many war crimes as the rebels have. Reports of rape, abduction, torture and executions are commonplace on all sides. As rebel groups began to take control of territories, landmines and IEDs became a powerful tool to project them. Minefields and IEDs are making it hard for peacekeepers and aid workers to reach villages in desperate need of support. Most of these weapons are believed to have come from Libya and some harvested from active minefields in Chad and Sudan. The procurement of such weapons is fuelling the black market, a worrying sign in a region so fragile.
Part of a wider strategy to expand influence across Africa, Russia began to back the struggling government. Although formally denied by the Russian government, the Wagner Group is thought to be heavily integrated into Russia’s military efforts in the CAR. Russia played an important role in the 2019 peace deal between the government and rebel groups. Although this has largely fallen apart, cooperation with the UN and the African Union has added legitimacy to Russia’s role as a diplomatic arbiter.
Commentators see three main objectives for Russia’s involvement in the CAR. Firstly, to expand its diplomatic leverage. Russia has forged a robust military partnership with the regime, as well as with rebel groups dominating northern regions. This hedging strategy is not unfamiliar on the international stage. This would ensure leverage in the country no matter the outcome of the conflict.
Secondly, Russia wishes to challenge the UN backed sanctions on the CAR. The country is resource rich, and the hope is that with providing support, Russia can benefit from the country’s mining industry and growing economy. There is also an arms embargo on the country, something Russia is working to lift. Exclusive arms contracts with a developing nation, in a strategic location would be a major economic and foreign policy win for Putin.
Thirdly, Russia see this as a springboard for expanded influence in Africa. There is a vacuum of US leadership in Central Africa. With France losing its colonial influence across the region, the economic and diplomatic opportunities are there for the taking. China and Russia are taking full advantage of this, often leaving little opportunity for the West. Russia have already strengthened their relationship with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and wishes to spearhead large scale infrastructure projects. Current CAR President Touadéra has requested a Russian military base to be built in the country. Further cementing Russia’s influence, or at least scope for influence in the region.
Regrettably true peace is still someway off. Rebel forces are far from defeated and the recent government advance has merely pushed them back into peripheral areas and forced an adaptation to guerrilla warfare. Most commentators do not see a military solution being found. As is so often the case, civil war is founded on deep rooted grievances. For much of the population, identity is at the heart of the issue. The CAR is overall a very xenophobic society, analysts put this down to the decades of violence involving differing religions and ethnicities. Many see differing ethnic groups as foreigners and responsible for the bloodshed and humanitarian crises. On a more basic level, public services are non-existent. The state has never attempted to develop the peripheries and citizens want the country to develop and prosper. This is a population that has access to information about developing and developed nations, economic prosperity is the goal for many now.