Maka works as an editor at the journal, Anti Infox, which battles disinformation in the country. He is one of many Central African journalists who believe disinformation and “fake news” are on the rise in CAR—much of it to support the current regime.
As elections approach in December, it appears that favorable views on Russia are tied to positive opinions of Touadéra’s presidency. The president has touted his ability to bring Moscow into the mix as a major success. This may not be good news for Russia; “people in Bangui,” says Gervais, “are beginning to think that the Russians are only here to protect and keep Touadéra in power.” Rumors are even circulating that the tanks are not for combatting armed groups, but for putting down protests during or after the elections.
The dangers of over-simplified discourse
The “Russia in CAR,” or “Russia in Africa,” discourse is problematic for several reasons.
First, portraying Russia as a “neocolonial” actor allows America and Europe to distance themselves from their own highly-destructive colonial and Cold War pasts, both in CAR and in Africa generally. This is not to suggest that Yevgeniy Prigozhin and Wagner Group are good-faith actors; they are undoubtedly violent and operate in their own self-interest. But focusing on Wagner as the only “bad actor” in CAR distracts the international community from allegations of sexual abuse against children by French and UN forces, or European diplomats’ complicity in the diamond trade.
Second, describing CAR as “Ground Zero for Russian Influence” overstates Russia’s ability to control outcomes in the country and denies agency to Central Africans. Moscow is limited by the same constraints—complex politics, instability, and corruption—that all other international and local actors are subject to.
The discourse also fails to answer how CAR is important to Russia’s foreign policy and military interests. Why would “Putin’s Private Army” need to fund itself through mineral concessions in one of the world’s poorest countries? Is this a sign of strength, or weakness? Why would Russia—a great power—give one man’s company free rein to operate in a country that is the new “ground zero” for Russian influence? Why does Russian military strategy make no mention of Africa?
Third, falling prey to simple binaries (exploitative Russia vs. altruistic West) prevents the United States and Europe from defining their own interests in CAR. It’s easy to be against Russia in CAR, it’s much more difficult to state what role America, Europe, or the UN should play.
Finally, if these simple narratives start informing policy, the “West” must “counter Russia’s influence.” America and Europe then risk repeating past mistakes: undermining good governance, exacerbating over-securitization, and fueling corruption.
Rather than “counter influence,” there are myriad ways to help make positive change. Policymakers should concentrate on working with Central Africans to improve governance, livelihoods, and security. CAR has a small population; only 4.6 million—mostly in Bangui. But more than half of its citizens need humanitarian assistance.
Yet the humanitarian response is chronically underfunded, having only received 62 percent of the funds needed for 2020. The United States and Europe could easily fill this funding gap, providing crucial services during an especially difficult time amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. But they continue to focus on Russia.
Central Africans cite armed groups as the main contributors to political and economic instability. The United States and Europe, therefore, should push for security sector reform and fund training and reintegration for armed groups. An effective Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program is crucial to ameliorating the crisis of over-securitization in the region.
Western NGOs and people on the ground understand what people want, but their governments are not willing to put in the time, money, or effort required. Year after year, the international community expands MINUSCA’s responsibilities beyond protecting civilians, but rarely affords additional funds or human resources. Requiring peacekeepers to support the implementation of the peace accord, advance DDR programs, and secure the upcoming elections—all with limited resources—is an exercise in futility. It is no surprise that local support for peacekeepers is waning.
Increasing engagement and delivering on our own promises, rather than worrying about another’s “influence,” will bring tangible benefits to ordinary people’s lives. In the end, the discourse surrounding “Russia in CAR” reveals far more about Western discomfort with its own past and present in Africa, and the existential uncertainty of a multipolar world, than it does about Russia or CAR.
The Central African Republic is not a blank space on the map for great power competition. In fact, the complexities of CAR mean that locals often have far more agency than Russians or other international actors. Any policy going forward should be based on partnership and mutual respect.
John Lechner is a former financial analyst, now a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He writes on the politics and languages of the former Soviet Union, Turkey, and Africa. Twitter: @JohnLechner1
Alexandra Lamarche is Refugees International’s Senior Advocate for West and Central Africa, where her work focuses on conflict and displacement crises. Twitter: @AlyLamb. Note: the views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Refugees International.