A January 22nd article in Foreign Policy, “External Powers Exacerbating Conflict in Central African Republic,” correctly highlights the extent of the Central African Republic’s growing fragility, but misinterprets its causes.
In particular, there is little evidence for the idea of a Russian-French proxy war. It is true that the Russians opportunistically exploited the population’s long-standing love-hate relationship with France.
However, the reference to the role of French “networks” and the implication that the French government or elements in it somehow support the armed groups does not stand up to analysis. This would mean that the French would endanger the lives of soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission there known as MINUSCA (whose founder and major financier is France). the Delegation of the European Union in the Central African Republic (of which France is in turn an important supporter and donor); and the substantial number of French citizens in the Central African Republic – all in support of predatory, fortune-seeking armed groups and an unpopular former president already under international sanctions. That doesn’t make any rational political sense.
Whether there are people in France who are trying to destabilize the Central African government is another question. In France, there are many groups with longstanding ties and interests in the Central African Republic, and it is even likely that some have sneaked into the armed groups. However, this is certainly not the basis of a new geopolitical conflict.
The real question that needs to be answered is why, despite the billions of dollars and robust peacekeeping that the international community has poured into the Central African Republic in recent years, the country has taken small steps toward viability. Certainly, it cannot be that the armed groups pose an insurmountable threat. In fact, they have never numbered more than several thousand, lack a sophisticated military organization, and have virtually no popular base of support.
There is a lot of guilt to go around. Let me suggest a few reasons:
First, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra failed in his most important task: rebuilding the security services into a well-run, motivated and appropriately supported force. Touadéra has rightly criticized the international arms embargo, which the government has violated far more bizarrely than the armed groups that can easily finance illegal arms purchases from their equally illegal trade. The reality, however, is that rampant corruption and government malfunction would definitely have hampered the security forces.
Second, instead of offering the population a single electoral list and a credible platform, the civil opposition fought among themselves. Some continued to discredit themselves by flirting with former President François Bozizé, who is the subject of UN sanctions, and the armed groups. In the end, it wasn’t so much that Touadéra won the December 2020 elections as that the opposition lost.
Third, CAR’s neighbors (especially Chad) are making matters worse. In contrast to France, Chad has longstanding ties to the armed groups. Chad’s first connection with the Séléka group – a Muslim-dominated rebel alliance – is known. However, Chad’s general interest is more commercial than political. It wants a free hand in the use of the open spaces of CAR (for access to pastures for its herds) and the extensive natural resources. The armed groups are natural partners in this regard. While it is difficult to know how much direct cross-border support armed groups are receiving at any given time, it is even more difficult to imagine that they could thrive without those links.
Finally, the international community did not give MINUSCA the mandate to disarm the armed groups, nor did it prioritize building a Central African army capable of holding its own territory. In the absence of a plausible endgame, a collective pretext emerged over the years to portray the armed groups as virtually legitimate parties in a peace process. However, the truth is that, with the exception of small ethnic groups in the Northeast, the armed groups do not have a local constituency and therefore have no interest in peace and the affirmation of state authority.
So the sad result is that after six years and billions of dollars, the armed groups are more violent and solid than ever. Meanwhile, the CAR Army always seems not quite ready. The problem is harder to solve, not easier. The arrival of the Russians on the stage is less the harbinger of a new great power competition and more a symptom of the lack of a sustainable, long-term path forward. That’s good for the Russians. The status quo works well for them.
Indeed, the main problem in CAR today is that the main actors are too familiar with the status quo. That certainly applies to the elite in the capital Bangui – both the government and the opposition. While they may not like the government’s lack of territorial control, there is little incentive to reform the culture of corruption and narrow self-interest as long as Bangui himself manages to stay safe behind his MINUSCA shield and artificially strengthen its economy through donor spending will that both lines pockets and undermine the effectiveness of the government.
However, the international community itself is not as uncomfortable with the status quo as it should be. Yes, MINUSCA is expensive and the lack of progress towards peace is daunting. As long as MINUSCA’s presence keeps the conflict at a low level and it rarely appears in global headlines, CAR is not an issue that high-level policymakers outside of the country have plenty of time to discuss. Maintaining the status quo is easier than reassessing basic assumptions.
The options for action are limited. The elections were flawed, but a delay would not have changed much. Nor can there be much confidence that a second Touadéra term will be much different from the first. The most likely prospect, therefore, seems to be an indefinite continuation of a very ugly status quo, with all the very real population hardship that it entails.
The surprising alliance of armed groups and anti-balaka groups (what is left of Christian self-defense forces, now little more than criminal gangs and associated with Bozizé) combined with the shock caused by their incursions into the outskirts of Bangui offers both the government and the international community the opportunity to abandon the status quo and take a new course.
It has to start with the Central Africans themselves. Fortunately, CAR has a long history, unique in the region, of bringing together political elites and civil society in times of crisis in forums to address core issues and develop consensus solutions. Central Africans’ greatest asset is that they know how to talk to each other. It is true that previous forums were better at identifying consensus than at fully implementing solutions. In contrast to elections, which are about gaining power for the privileged few, all of Central African society comes together in forums to reflect on their future. You have to do this now.
The international community needs to bring the government, civil opposition and civil society together to get a clear message: The security shield will not last forever. Before it’s too late, Central Africans must envision a bold new social pact to save the country. This should include commitments to rebuild genuinely professional security forces, restore state authority outside Bangui, and zero tolerance for corruption, underscored by the new realization that the country cannot expect the international community to solve its problems. In return, the international community could pledge to do its part, including increased commitment to building a resilient Central African army.
The armed groups should not play a role in continuing on their current path. They are not allowed to sabotage elections in their territory and then use their weapons to replace themselves as representatives of the people. Nothing sustainable will come of this. The aim of a forum is to bring together those Central Africans who are interested in restoring state sovereignty and effectiveness. In this case, the days of the armed groups are counted.
Such a process will of course not be easy. It will take time and a firm commitment from the political leadership to convince a skeptical public. Marked by years of conflict and decline, many Central Africans tend to take care of themselves in the moment rather than working together to create a better future for all. Even so, there are still some really patriotic and dedicated Central Africans. They understand the seriousness of their situation and are eager to participate in reforms. What they lack is a catalyst to start a conversation about real, comprehensive reforms. The new threat posed by the armed groups and the anti-balaka coalition, coupled with a tough message from a focused international community, could be just that catalyst.