Minerals, Militias and Mercenaries: Putin’s Stake in the Central African Republic

By Hannah Pedone

Ahead of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, President Vladmir Putin claimed that Russia was “ready, not to repartition the continent’s wealth, but to compete to cooperate with Africa.”  He asserted, “[We] absolutely reject any sort of geopolitical games involving Africa.”  

Since 2016, when the French receded from the Central African Republic (CAR) with the culmination of Operation Sangaris, Russia has emerged as the chief arms supplier to the Central African Army, upturning French geopolitical predominance in the former colony, and perplexing allies in the process.  The Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group has been active in the CAR providing military training and arms in exchange for favorable mining rights in the resource-rich country.  Putin, with the help of his paramilitary proxies, has embarked on a plan to do precisely what he claimed he would not in 2019: repartition the country’s mineral resource wealth and cut himself (and his oligarchs) a sizable slice.  Rebuilding Soviet-era prestige may be in the back of Putin’s mind.  But, tangible gains from resource extraction and the need for new alliances—in the wake of Russia’s isolation following its unpopular 2014 annexation of Crimea—are at the forefront of the country’s provocative strategy in the CAR.

Violence among rebel groups has persisted in the CAR, since Francois Bozize seized power in a violent coup in 2003.  Clashes peaked again in December 2012, when the Séléka, a coalition of armed groups, overthrew Bozize and took control of the country.  The commanders, which included Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, exploited diamond and gold-rich areas, stunting the country’s economic development.  Faustin-Archange Touadera, a former Prime Minister, came to power in 2016 following a transitional government, bringing with him hopes for stability.  However, rivalries between armed groups and criminal gangs including ex-Séléka forces have lingered, and the government continues to lack control over basic state functions.

In December 2020, Bozize returned from exile and proceeded to launch an electoral campaign to take back his seat as president.  Clashes reignited ahead of the December 27th election as Bozize-aligned rebels formed a new alliance with the intent to topple Touadera.  While his bid was foiled by the constitutional court’s invalidation of his candidacy due to UN sanctions, Bozize nonetheless galvanized major support for the merger of a coalition of armed groups into the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC).  Ahead of the election, rebels advanced towards the capital Bangui capturing towns and major supply routes.  The CPC declared the 2019 Khartoum peace agreement null, scrapping the contract which established preliminary conditions for security sector reform and formalized a deal to allocate territorial holdings to armed groups competing over resource-rich areas.  The government has failed to secure most territory outside of Bangui, and Touadera retains little authority to govern. The country is also now facing a severe humanitarian crisis.  Over 20,000 people have been displaced in the surge in armed conflict in the leadup and aftermath of the December 2020 election.  

Samuel Ramani, an Oxford University International Relations researcher, describes how Russia accelerated its engagements in the CAR, strategically at the culmination of the French Operation Sangaris (2013-2016).  Since 2013, the UN has enforced a sanctions regime and arms embargo banning the sale or transfer of weapons into the CAR.  While such a measure was critical to curb weapons trade across state borders, it put the Republic’s government and aligned military at a disadvantage against armed rebel groups, who have well trodden channels for procuring illegal weapons.  In 2017, the CAR made a plea for weapons assistance to fight the well-armed rebel groups.  The UN sanctions committee, in need of a quick solution for Bangui, approved a Russian donation of AK47s, sniper rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers.  Also in October of 2017, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with President of the CAR Faustin-Archange Touadera in Moscow.  The leaders signed off on an agreement which enshrined a “partnership in mineral resource exploration and delivery of Russian industrial equipment and farming machinery to the Central African Republic.”  The CAR government, desperate for security assistance, saw a deal with the Russians as mutually beneficial.  Most recently in the December 2020 election crisis, Russia further deployed at least 300 military instructors to aid CAR defense capabilities.  However, instead of predominantly conspicuous state military forces, Putin has leveraged private paramilitary forces to train soldiers, in exchange for lucrative mining rights. 

Russia has prioritized deals securing mining rights over areas abundant in precious metals, as well as rights for oil and gas extraction and construction of nuclear power stations.  Private security companies (PSCs) and private military companies (PMCs), which are often “more flexible, cheaper, less accountable, and often a lot more capable” than military forces, have proven strategic for advancing Russian interests.  Most notably, the Wagner Group is a private paramilitary firm whose operations are deeply entwined with the Russian military and intelligence community.  The Center for Strategic and International Studies has called the Wagner Group, “a proxy organization of the Russian state rather than a private company selling services on the open market.” Angelo Richiello describes the complex power and role of private security actors in the CAR: “paramilitary mercenaries allegedly concern the protection of mining fields and other facilities under the secret control of Russians in exchange for arms deals and cash.”  While Putin claims that the Wagner Group does not represent the Russian state, the business ventures of Yevgeny Prigozhi a key member of Putin’s inner circle, (and nicknamed “Putin’s chef”) have been linked to the Wagner Group.  Furthermore, firms linked to Prigozhi have reportedly received rights for diamond, gold, and resource exploration in the CAR and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Russia’s engagements through the Wagner Group mark a concerted effort to challenge French influence in the CAR, and they showcase Moscow’s desire for regional prestige.  Paul Simon Handy of the Institute for Security Studies notes how the arrival of Russia in the CAR has bumped France from its seat as the sole power with interests and troops in the former French colony.  An investigation into France’s angles of support in the CAR reveals confounding positions of alignment.  France supports the ongoing CAR UN peace operations, but has shown little capacity to back the government since the end of Operation Sangaris.  While Moscow’s behavior in conditioning security sector assistance on favorable mining rights is exploitative and malicious, Putin is not short-sighted in his pursuit of power in the CAR.  As France continues to rely on its arguably diminishing military influence in Africa to justify its seat on the UN Security Council, Russia’s foothold in the CAR may further help Putin secure African allies within the Council, as three rotating seats are allocated to African membership. 

Russia undoubtedly aspires to position itself as a natural mediator between the Central African Republic and rebel armed groups, in preparation for when it comes time to negotiate access to diamonds, gold, and uranium.  Yet it remains to be seen how the CAR may benefit long term from Russian arms assistance beyond the immediate demand for weapons and troop training.  Reports have shown that neither France nor Russia have properly implemented security sector reforms to quell violence.  The Central African Army still has limited ability to store its own weapons securely to avoid pillaging from militia groups, and Russian weapons sold to the CAR government are likely to end up in the hands of rebel groups, fueling further conflict.  Moscow has nonetheless positioned itself as a key power broker on the continent, and attractively so, without colonial baggage.  The Wagner Group’s engagements in the CAR are likely to set an example for Russia’s maneuvering on the African continent as an exporter of security, in exchange for resource imports and access to lucrative territory. 

Bangui will likely remain hapless in its ability to harness its own mineral wealth for the foreseeable future..  More popular small-scale mining practices unconnected to the government have been conducive for illegal exploitation, and such associated profits rarely touch the average citizen.  Presently, criminal gangs continue to rule the majority of territory outside of Bangui and are likely to continue to partition the country’s wealth.  Intercommunal violence plagues the CAR particularly in western and central rural areas, and there is an undoubted need for political reforms to improve governance and trust in politics, in the wake of a fraudulent and violent election cycle.  There is a major need for economic diversification as well as a sincere effort for long term peacebuilding.  If anything, Russia’s role in the country has exacerbated tensions and strengthened a cycle of violence among armed groups.  Russia has shown little concern for the civilian population and ensuing humanitarian crisis, nor a will to provide comprehensive assistance to increase capacity for peace in the CAR.  Bangui, and the 19 countries with which Moscow has signed military cooperation contracts, should take note of growing Russian leverage as a predatory bidder for African security partnerships.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image source: kremlin.ru

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