By Connor Solms
The Central African Republic (CAR) has suffered a history of conflict since its independence in 1960. The nature of this conflict is often regarded under sectarian terms. However, this fails to paint an adequate picture of the destabilization in the region. In fact, it is the trickle-down nature of this conflict from leadership as well as economic and external influences that cause the greatest strife in CAR, according to Isaacs-Martin. Russian interests in the gold and diamond industry are of particular note. Looking ahead, the mass influx of CAR refugees into neighboring states threatens to cause further harm to a fragile region. It is an important aspect of American foreign policy to assist in the stability of the region. As it currently stands, a rival power is gaining a dangerous foothold in a region with great natural resources while showing their success of private military operations.
A Primer on the Conflict
It is important to note the legacy of European colonialism, expansion, and resource extraction in CAR as a modern challenge to nation-building. Many divergent religious and ethnic groups currently live and fight within borders that were drawn with little attention to local interests as it pertains to allegiance and national organization. This has posed a serious problem for central government authority in CAR. Based upon a report by the Council of Foreign Relations, ongoing conflict started as soon as independence was established in CAR from France in 1960. However, the problem failed to receive international attention until 2012. The primary rebel component is the Seleka faction, which is largely Muslim. They committed a successful coup against the central government in 2012, which resulted in the first Muslim president of the CAR as noted by the International Journal of Conflict and Violence. His reign did not last long as in 2013 the anti-Balaka faction, a largely Christian group, began retaliatory operations. The actions of the anti-balaka faction resulted in the deposition of the Muslim president.
In the Spring of 2016, President Faustin Archange Touadera was elected. This brought a great deal of optimism to the country. However, President Touadera yielded large portions of the country to Seleka fighters, specifically in the south and east, but he managed to retain the capital of Bangui and the western region. The insurgency views an increase in violence as supplying them more bargaining leverage with central authorities, and atrocities have continued to escalate. Approximately 75% of the country lives in poverty as the private sector suffers decline according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations.
An election in December 2020 resulted in the reelection of Touadera as well as another spike in the violence. Touadera pledged to use his second five-year term to expand upon the survey of possible diamond, gold, oil and rare earth mineral deposits. In an article published in World Politics Review by Andrew Green, Touadera has vowed to rebuild the national army and police after years of civil conflict. Green goes on to report that Seleka rebels attacked the town of Bangassou and Damara earlier in January of 2021, resulting in a further contraction of government troops back to Bangui. It is currently expected that the assault may continue onto another coup attempt on the capital or an assault on presently undefended mineral rich town in the east of CAR.
According to the International Peace and Information Service, farming, logging, and mining are the three largest economies in CAR. The agriculture and logging sectors have particularly suffered due to the current instability. While many locals are involved in both of these trades, the infrastructure required to establish sustainable profits is nearly impossible to maintain due to the violence. The gold and diamond industry have proven more viable and stable.
In the same article by Matthysen published in the International Peace and Information service, gold and diamonds are CAR’s second largest export covering 7% of the country’s gross domestic product. 80% of the diamonds are of exceptional gem quality which means that CAR contains the fifth highest quality diamonds in the world. It is estimated that 30% of the stones leave the country in secret.
These figures are difficult to verify due to political instability. The high degree of corruption within the industry locally, and the lack of oversight continues to make it difficult for accurate analysis to occur. There is however a high rate of profitability in the precious minerals of CAR. Wendy Isaacs-Martin noted in her 2016 article that CAR possesses large reserves of natural resources, however its ongoing political instability accompanied by ineffectual governmental institutions and controls make the territory a prospect for entities seeking economic gain.
Russian Mining Interests
Kimberly Martin noted in an article published in Post-Soviet Affairs that Lobaye Invest, a Russian mining company, was founded in CAR in October 2017 by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and specializes in the extraction of gold and diamonds. The U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a report stating that it has continued investigating Prigozhin since evidence emerged that he was connected to a Russian disinformation campaign carried out in the United States during the 2016 presidential election. Sanctions were taken against Prigozhin’s companies in CAR by the Treasury Department with an accompanying quote from then Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin, “Yevgeniy Prigozhin has an international network of supporters to spread his malign political and economic influence around the globe. The United States will continue to target the ability of Prigozhin to conduct operations globally.”
Lobaye Invest lobbied and received permission to develop and mine in CAR cities including Bangassou, Bria, and Ouadda (located in the rebel-controlled eastern region of CAR.) As quoted in a New York Times article from 2019, “The rebellion in our country has cost us a lot,” said Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, the spokesman for the Central African president, “No one came to our aid except the Russian Federation.” “With the help of Russia,” he added, “we will be able to secure our diamond mines.” Internationally, the areas with Russian mining interests are regarded as ‘blood diamonds’ (unregulated stones sold from a warzone with the intent to finance an insurgency). This poses a threat the legitimate diamond trade which can assist the CAR economy and help stabilize the central government. This stands in contrast to the Russian military advisors coordinating with government forces and is likely a further destabilizing influence in CAR.
Russian Private Military Operations
Sewa Security Service, a suspected subsidiary of Wagner Group (noted Russian private military corporation) was founded in CAR just 12 days after Lobaye Invest by Prigozhin according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Then, in late 2017 Russia also received an exemption from the United Nations regarding an arms embargo to CAR according to UNICEF. In January 2018, the Russian government sent five military and 170 civilian trainers, widely believed to be Wagner mercenaries, to Bangui according to the same New York Times article from 2019. Another article from The Atlantic in 2018 reported that an additional 500 Wagner group advisors entered CAR via its border with Chad in July 2018. Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “They’re collecting friends and allies, and they’re finding permissive environments to sell their wares and gain commercial opportunities. They are using the U.S. retreat to present themselves as a global power.”
The escalation of violence in CAR can be linked to Russian military and civilian forces. The issue became even further destabilized in July 2018, as noted by Marten in the 2019 article published in Post-Soviet Affairs, when three Russian investigative journalists were assassinated while trying to document Wagner’s presence in the Central African Republic. The actual locations of Russian military operatives have also proven challenging to verify by international watchdogs. An article published in The Atlantic noted that a unit of Wagner mercenaries was operating in rebel-held territory. This, the Atlantic piece goes on to say, can be confirmed by the recovered footage taken by the deceased journalists. This evidence points to the contrary of Moscow’s assertions that Russian forces were present only to assist CAR authorities.
The Wagner Group’s ongoing capability to operate effectively as an undeclared branch of the Russian military has provided a tool to serve Russian state interests that has included the destabilization of CAR for economic gain via diamonds, gold, and other natural resources. They have enabled the Russian government to operate on foreign soil to exploit political and economic opportunities. Wagner appears to be serving as the personal security detail for CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera also mentioned in Hauer’s 2018 Atlantic article.
In the wake of the December 2020 elections, 200,000 people were forced to flee their homes due to the conflict in CAR, according to UNICEF. They mainly fled across the Oubangui River from CAR into the Democratic Republic of Congo. These many refugees threaten to not only destabilize CAR but also currently fragile surrounding countries. In January 2021, Russia told the United Nations that it planned to withdraw 300 ‘military instructors’ it sent to CAR, according to a report from AFP. However, it is difficult to ascertain the actual number of Russian operatives and their locations. The Russian presence in CAR continues to imperil the struggling states. The AFP went on to report that Russian operatives were identified both at the capital and in lucrative rebel-controlled minds in the west.
The American exit from Africa has enabled Russian intervention and foreign policy efforts to thrive in fragile states. The continued destabilization of CAR threatens the already fragile dynamic in surrounding states. In addition to the lucrative economic motives in the region and the proven capabilities of Russian private military operatives, this has proven to be a serious blight on American foreign policy in central Africa. The ongoing humanitarian component must also be considered. The humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic remains one of the largest in the world. Russian operations in CAR continue to jeopardize the situation in Central Africa at large and imperil American foreign policy.
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