By Robbie McClure
On June 10, Firmin Ngrebada resigned as prime minister of the Central African Republic (CAR), in what had already been a tumultuous week in the war-torn African nation.
Ngrebada was appointed to the post of prime minister in February 2019, shortly after leading the CAR government delegation in peace negotiations with rebel groups, resulting in what is known as the Khartoum Agreement. This deal, signed between the CAR government and 14 rebel groups, was the eighth attempt in six years to end the fighting, which dates back to 2013 and has left thousands dead. Three days prior to Ngrebada and his entire cabinet’s resignation, the CAR’s traditional ally, France, froze financial aid and suspended military support for its former colony, leaving new prime minister Henri Marie Dondra and the nation in a precarious position.
France has historically played an important role in the CAR since the country gained independence in 1960 from its former colonial ruler. In addition to the over 20 French global corporations conducting business locally and contributing to the CAR national economy, France remains the leading foreign investor in the country. It is also the only country in the European Union with an embassy in the CAR, and Paris provides annual budgetary assistance of more than 30 million euros.
But against the backdrop of escalating violence, it’s the military dimension where French support is arguably most significant. Nearly 300 French soldiers are currently based the CAR and engaged in counter-insurgency support. At the height of Operation Sangaris, a French military intervention between 2013-2016 that aimed to restore peace after a long period of violence and civil war, there were up to 2,500 French soldiers stationed in the CAR. The operation represented France’s seventh Central African military intervention since independence.
However, French officials stated on June 7 that, due to the CAR government’s failure to respect political opposition and also put an end to a “massive anti-French disinformation campaign,” aid would be halted. Notably, 10 million euros of budgetary support has been suspended, and around 160 French troops have gone off-duty (they had previously been providing operational support in the capital, Bangui, by training CAR forces). Another 100 French troops involved in various international missions, such as the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA, will continue to cooperate with the CAR’s military.
The current bilateral schism opened in May, when French national Juan Remy Quignolot was arrested in Bangui. According to the police, Quignolot was in possession of an arsenal of weapons at his residence in the capital, and the authorities accused him of having aided and trained rebel fighters since 2013. An image was subsequently circulated on social media that France condemned, claiming the picture was a “clear manipulation” and that “disinformation networks” were being used to target French presence and actions in the CAR. Last week, Quignolot was charged with espionage, conspiracy, and harming state security only two days after Paris announced it was suspending financial & military aid, further exacerbating the dispute.
Relations had been fraying since 2018 due to tensions surrounding the CAR’s burgeoning friendship with Russia. In the lead-up to December’s presidential election, Facebook accused both France and Russia of running rival disinformation campaigns, with the tech giant suspending as many as 500 fake accounts posing as local people. Ultimately, the French decision to freeze aid to the CAR follows a string of accusations against Bangui, claiming they had been complicit in a Russian-organized disinformation campaign against France.
France has seen its influence wane in the resource-rich CAR since Moscow’s entry in 2018. Unlike other colonial European powers and modern-day superpowers such as China and the United States, Russia has not yet cemented itself as a presence on the African continent. However, Putin is looking to change this, identifying, in an October 2019 summit, “significant opportunities” for intensifying Russian-African relations in various fields. One opportunity for deeper cooperation is military support. In early 2018, Russia sent a shipment of firearms and munitions to the CAR, as well as 175 Russian instructors assigned to train the country’s beleaguered armed forces. Russia is credited with strengthening the otherwise poorly equipped national army, as well as stepping up investment into the CAR’s mining sector. One sector of particular interest to Russia is the CARs endowment of diamonds. Having been granted key diamond mining concessions in the country, Russian operatives have also allegedly partnered with rebels to obtain access to mines in insurgent territory, undermining their advertised objectives in the region. There have also been reports of Russian human rights abuses targeting local populations. Whether Russia seeks to end the war as publicized, or prolong the conflict for its own benefit, it remains a fact that Russian-CAR relations are strengthening. In a week when former ruler France froze financial aid to the country, President Touadera was in St. Petersburg, seeking further Russian investment from the CAR’s new ally.
Military assistance, wherever it comes from, is currently essential in the CAR. The landlocked nation has been embroiled in a civil war involving the government and rebel groups since 2013, a conflict that has drawn in international assistance from the UN, EU, France, Russia, South Africa, and Rwanda. The war is sectarian in nature and has been fought by predominantly Muslim Séléka fighters, who toppled the regime of previous President Francois Bozizé in 2013, and Christian anti-balaka (literally ‘anti-machete’) militias.
Despite numerous peace treaties, the country has been locked in a cycle of violence, with over 70% of the CAR is currently under the control of armed groups. Estimates suggest the conflict has internally displaced almost 600,000 Central Africans. The nation is currently ranked as the second least-developed country in the world, and has the lowest global life expectancy at 53.3 years. It is worth noting that all of the CAR’s immediate neighbors have similar development challenges. Since fighting restarted in the lead up to December’s presidential election, the UN has estimated that 2.29 million people – half the CAR population – are in “high levels of acute food insecurity,” compounded by low agricultural production, COVID-19, and rebel fighting.
If the CAR is to continue strengthening its relations with Russia and win back the affections of its former colonial ruler France, new Prime Minister Dondra will be required to perform a skilled diplomatic balancing act over the opening weeks of his tenure. Dondra will also be seeking to immediately quell this latest surge in violence, which continues to damage political stability, agricultural output and, most importantly, the lives of those living in the CAR.
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