Proxy wars pitting France and Chad against Russia and Rwanda threaten to destabilize the entire region while subjecting Central Africans to more violence and instability.
By John A. Lechner, Alexandra Lamarche.
BANGUI, Central African Republic—Citizens of the Central African Republic (CAR) went to the polls on Dec. 27 to select their next president and legislature. But even after the announcement of preliminary results in the early evening of Jan. 4—President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the incumbent, secured a second mandate with 53 percent of the vote—an enduring sense of vulnerability continues to permeate the country, culminating in numerous attacks from armed groups on key cities including the capital, Bangui.
Just days before the elections, CAR’s constitutional court invalidated former President François Bozizé’s candidacy, leading to the sudden emergence of a rebel alliance that quickly captured towns near Bangui. The military response from Russia and Rwanda on behalf of the Central African government rapidly internationalized the conflict, while the G5—composed of the African Union, United Nations, European Union, United States, and France—finds itself in an awkward position, championing elections that many believe were neither safe nor fair. Touadéra has declared war on the rebel alliance, but many question whether his government represents all Central Africans, and if it has the ability or willingness to take on armed groups.
As a result, the conflict in CAR has become increasingly geopolitical—with France and Chad on one side, and Russia and Rwanda on the other. These actors will only intensify a crisis of overmilitarization in a region suffering from the effects of climate change, instability, lack of good governance, and displacement.
Indeed, the geopolitical stakes, and political division in Bangui, have already exacerbated a dire humanitarian crisis. With the security situation deteriorating rapidly, the international community must now focus on providing Central Africans with desperately needed aid and supplying peacekeeping operations with the funds they need to protect citizens.
Tensions had been mounting between Touadéra and his former boss-turned-rival, Bozizé, since the latter’s contentious return from exile in late 2019. In 2013, a Muslim-majority rebel alliance, Séléka, ousted Bozizé’s largely Christian-dominated government. Before Bozizé fled, he and his government mobilized predominantly Christian self-defense groups—known as anti-Balaka—to arm and resist Séléka’s advance. The result was a brutal civil war, followed by a “stalemate peace;” Bangui signed the latest version with 14 rebel groups in 2019, the Khartoum Agreement. Warlords became advisors to the government, and, despite the parties’ “rejection of violence,” attacks against civilians continued.
But on Dec. 3, CAR’s Constitutional Court ruled against Bozizé’s candidacy. In response, Bozizé called for the opposition bloc—known by the French acronym COD—to put forward one candidate against Touadéra. Then on Dec.19, six rebel groups—3R, the MPC, UPC, FPRC, and two anti-Balaka militias—announced a new alliance, known by the French acronym CPC, and launched attacks on security forces. The next day, the opposition bloc, which includes Bozizé’s party, called for a delay to elections, citing the violence.
The government and the U.N. have linked Bozizé to the armed groups. Indeed, Bozizé has a close relationship with the two anti-Balaka leaders, Maxime Mokom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, as well as MPC’s Chadian head, Mahamat al Khatim. Bozizé met both Al Khatim and Mokom prior to the alliance’s announcement.
The current rebel coalition affirms an important fact in the continuing conflict: “Political and economic power struggles” often trump identity. The CPC, for example, includes 3R—a group founded to “protect Muslims” from anti-Balaka—as well as anti-Balaka responsible for war crimes against Central African Muslims. Many fought against each other in 2013; there is no guarantee that this alliance will last.
The international community was caught off-guard as news of town after town falling to armed groups spread. Russia, Rwanda, and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) acted quickly. Within days, Russia sent to Bangui 300 “military advisors,” then more troops and helicopters; Rwanda deployed hundreds of troops not “constrained” by U.N. rules of engagement; and MINUSCA received reinforcements, including 300 Rwandan blue helmets stationed in South Sudan.
The result: Most towns were back in government hands. MINUSCA recaptured the town of Bambari, losing three peacekeepers in the process. The country’s armed forces (FACA)—with the support of the Russian private mercenary company, Wagner Group, and Rwanda—retook Mbaiki, Boali, and Bossembélé.
Despite these security issues, the G5 and the government in Bangui pursued a strategy of “elections at all costs.” As a result, the Dec. 27 vote was on schedule, but it was not safe. Electoral convoys were attacked; in some towns armed groups destroyed ballot boxes. In 29 of CAR’s 71 sub-prefectures, no voting took place; six sub-prefectures held only a partial vote.
Still, in many areas Central Africans turned out in surprisingly high numbers to voice their exasperation with armed groups and Bozizé’s attempted coup.
Increased fighting in CAR leads to more displacement and humanitarian crises. At present, more than 2.8 million Central Africans—out of the country’s 4.9 million population—need humanitarian assistance. Recent election violence has forced close to 120,000 to flee their homes—half of which have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Now ordinary citizens find themselves in even greater danger as the delicate balance of power shifts among local politicians, international actors, and armed groups.
Bozizé has been the primary catalyst for this shift.
Since coming to power in 2016, Touadéra has failed to expand state authority much beyond the capital. For Gervais Lakasso, a prominent civil-society leader, “Touadéra doesn’t have support in the provinces. They like opposition candidate Martin Ziguélé because he wants to fight the armed groups.”
But the most recent attacks have shown that the FACA is weak and ill-equipped. Gervais adds, “It’s clear that Russian training did not do much. FACA fled immediately.” Perhaps hundreds deserted in the current fighting. For many in Bangui, this was a shock; it seemed that FACA was becoming a professional force, capable of retaking the country.
Maka Gbossokotto—a CAR newspaper editor—was not surprised: “Three months of training [the standard] is not enough, they aren’t prepared to go to the front.” Viola Giuliano, of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, explains “there are two defense forces. The first is the presidential guard, which has privileged access to equipment and means. The second, ‘normal’ FACA, is deployed outside Bangui in deplorable conditions. No fuel for patrol. Salaries not paid for months and rotations are often delayed.”
And while Russia, Rwanda, and MINUSCA have beefed up their presence, the conflict has long been an international one. It’s clear that proxy wars are a major source of instability in CAR. French and Chadian networks support Bozizé and armed groups such as the FPRC, 3R, and MPC; Russian networks back the increasingly corrupt Touadéra government.
Africa is an important destination for Russia’s defense industry, as Moscow supplies 49 percent of the world’s arms exports to the continent (Algeria and Egypt represent a significant portion of that number). CAR provides Russia the chance to project great power status to both African markets and geopolitical rivals. Most importantly, however, Moscow can achieve this on the cheap. Private military contractors like Wagner Group—funded through local mineral concessions—plant a Russian flag in Africa; Bangui, in turn, receives hands-on assistance for its armed forces that no other country is willing to provide.
France’s economic and political interests in the region reflect a long-standing and deeply unpopular history of colonialism, followed by post-colonial military interventions.
Thierry Vircoulon, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), argues that France and Russia are locked in a proxy war, “but the stakes are not CAR. This war of influence in CAR is part of the bigger picture of Russo-French relations since the crisis in Ukraine.” While other countries may represent more important strategic interests—such as Libya, Syria, or Ukraine—Moscow’s presence in CAR is a cost-effective means to undermine France’s perceived influence over its former colonies.
On a regional level, outside intervention may represent the interests of powerful government officials, but not governments themselves. For example, Chadian involvement in the conflict, according to Gervais, surrounds elites’ investment in cattle.
This is not to say that the conflict in CAR is just a proxy war. At a local level, politicians seek international support for their own individual aims. Touadéra made a political decision when he “surrendered a great part of [CAR’s] sovereignty to pro-Kremlin security emissaries.” But this is nothing new. CAR’s aging politicians—the same faces have been around for decades—have a tradition of outsourcing the security of their politically weak regimes to outsiders.
All participants—from powerful international organizations to ordinary citizens—are now walking a tight-rope.
The G5, according to Thierry, “supported a mockery of an election, and appeared to side with Toudéra. They didn’t say anything when the government decided to withdraw electoral rights for 600,000 (mostly Muslim) refugees” that fled into surrounding countries since the outbreak of the civil war.
In fact, many locals now view Russia, Rwanda, and MINUSCA as partisan supporters of Touadéra. Bozizé, in turn, has little standing following his attempted coup. Viola put it simply: “The fact that he turned to armed groups to undermine the elections suggests that he doesn’t have sufficient support among civilians to mobilize popular uprisings.”
A second round may have been a chance to legitimize a flawed first round. But Touadéra won with just over 53 percent of the vote, in an election in which 40 percent of the country’s regions could not participate. Add to this the opposition’s claims of fraud, and many Central Africans believe, as Gervais notes, “that this was an electoral masquerade, in which the goal was to reelect Touadéra in the first round.”
The results still show, though, that in areas that did vote Touadéra has plenty of supporters. It appears the G5 will accept the results, which the constitutional court confirmed on Jan. 18. Nine opposition leaders, however, have jointly asked for the elections to be annulled.
As CAR enters another crisis, one thing is clear: Elections are not a panacea. Touadéra has promised war against the armed groups. Bangassou, a town in CAR’s southeast, fell to Bozizé’s CPC for two weeks. On Jan. 2, security services repelled attacks on Damara, Touadéra’s hometown, only an hour’s drive from Bangui. Between Jan. 7 and 9, rebels were pushed back as they advanced on Bouar—a key market town along CAR’s main trade route to Cameroon.
Finally, on Jan. 13 rebel groups stormed the capital. National forces and U.N. peacekeepers successfully repelled rebel advances—losing one Rwandan peacekeeper in the effort. But threats still loom as armed factions remain stationed along the outskirts of Bangui.
Armed groups’ attempts to take over Bangui and other towns have terrified civilians, disrupted trade routes, and limited humanitarian access to those in need. They are worsening an already critical humanitarian crisis. An international response, therefore, should prioritize Central African civilians first.
First, concerned governments and donors must address the country’s humanitarian needs; CAR received only 65 percent of its funding needs in 2020, and 51 percent of its COVID-19 related funding needs.
The second priority must be reform. After so many failed attempts at peace, the reality remains that territorial integrity is crucial for CAR’s stability. But FACA’s recent performance shows that they cannot guarantee that integrity on their own and that the international community should continue to push for security sector reform, not simply more arms or troops.
Like other fragile countries, CAR’s government, and its international allies, have failed to fund and enact a comprehensive response in good faith; one that would improve governance, strengthen the FACA across the country, quell armed violence, and protect Central Africans.
CAR is much more than a “security vacuum” in the region; in fact, many of the sources of the country’s instability come from beyond its borders. But the increasingly international nature of the conflict, and the focus on military solutions, will continue to overshadow the socioeconomic roots of CAR’s insecurity. Unfortunately, half-funded programs, and half-hearted reforms will only to result in half-baked solutions that lead to more instability, displacement, and death.
This analysis was first published by Foreign Policy.