The Central African Republic (CAR) has intermittently been the backdrop for somebody else’s war.
Despite having a population of only 4.8 million people, it is approximately the same size as France, Denmark and the Netherlands combined.
That vast open space has been used as a venue for battles by different parties; former coloniser France, strongmen from Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious Ugandan rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army and a United States Special Forces unit.
The latest visitors are Russia, its army and the private military outfit Wagner, who, unlike some of those who came before them, have mostly been welcomed by the locals.
“A number of citizens here consider Wagner’s presence a good thing, especially since their operatives and our army pushed back an assault on our capital, Bangui in January 2021,” reports freelance journalist Fiacre Salabe from the city.
That month, rebels backed by a former president, François Bozizé, attempted to take control of the country after his candidacy for the presidential elections had been rejected by the Constitutional Court.
A standoff and fierce battles ensued but in the end, the rebels were held back, thanks in no small part to the contributions made by Wagner. That episode is the subject of an action-packed film, Tourist, which has been played in Bangui’s main stadium to capacity crowds.
Wagner’s defence of Bangui in January 2021 is seen as one of its very few success stories on the continent. It led to President Faustin Archange Touadéra, whose re-election Bozizé and his rebels were seeking to prevent, declaring Russian as the country’s third official language, after Sango and French.
Learning the language will also be mandatory in the country’s universities as of the next academic season – and in lower education levels later.
An armed romance
The Russia-CAR romance goes back to 2017, when Touadéra met longstanding Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the seaside resort of Sochi. The following year, he met President Vladimir Putin.
The CAR was under UN sanctions at the time and the Russians were instrumental in having those sanctions partially lifted, so they could start selling light arms to the CAR.
With those arms came the instructors and thus Wagner, the outfit accused of being funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s close confidantes. Russia has also said its men there are military instructors but denied their participation in human rights abuses there.
The Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019, also in Sochi, cemented the ties further and Wagner became central to the CAR security architecture, with its operatives working with soldiers of the FACA (Forces Armées Centrafricaines) in the field and its advisers collaborating directly with Touadéra.
But Wagner’s significance should not be overstated, argued Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“They have protected the elites in Bangui, fought back Bozizé’s rebels and they haven’t lost a lot of people doing that,” he told Al Jazeera. “But they are not getting a good return on investment other than some individuals profiting from access to resources they got in return for their services.”
These resources are mostly gold and diamonds, which they accessed through another Wagner-linked company, Lobaye Invest, which has free rein at several mining locations across the CAR.
The Russians are faced with a problem that has confronted all foreign powers that got a foothold in this large chunk of Central Africa: Having gained access, now what to do with that access?
In the last century, the old colonial power France mostly parcelled out concessions nationwide for exploitation by private companies. This model produced predatory systems of resource extraction that rivalled those of Belgian-run Congo for cruelty and disregard for basic human rights.
And this history feeds into the current strain of anti-French sentiment that Salabe regularly observes on the streets of Bangui.
“The appreciation of the Russians is absolutely tied in with anti-French sentiment, similar to what you find in Mali, for instance,” he told Al Jazeera. “France is considered dishonest and unhelpful. There are regular anti-French demonstrations, these are organised by people close to those in power here.”
These demonstrations simultaneously hail the new saviours, Russia and Wagner.
The qualifications “dishonest” and “unhelpful” not only apply to the poor French track record of development in the CAR but also to underwhelming French efforts to restore some semblance of stability there.
France was either in the driving seat, for instance during the 2013-2016 Opération Sangaris, its seventh military mission in the CAR since Independence in 1960, aimed at disarming rebels and restoring stability but tainted by accusations of sexual abuse of children by some French soldiers.
Or they were in a support role, helping national or regional missions achieve the peace that has continued to elude the country.
The estimated 1,200 operatives working for Wagner are there, ostensibly, for similar reasons. Writing for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a government-aligned think-tank, the Moscow-based geopolitical analyst Andrew Korybko used language to this effect in a January 12 blog post in which he referred to Russia’s help in “the rehabilitation” of CAR.
The message that Russia’s presence is a good thing is the central theme in Tourist, the movie. A slick production, all sound and fury, it tells the story of a Russian soldier, nicknamed “Tourist”, who arrives in Bangui and helps fight off the rebels trying to capture the capital.
The film is dubbed in Sango, the national language and lacks any subtlety in conveying the message of Russian heroes come to town.
A new film, Granit, glorified the exploits of Wagner in Mozambique and was played in the same stadium last January before an audience that, according to local reports, thought the film was again about the CAR.
Not far from the university in Bangui stood a monument that carried the same message: A large Russian soldier is the centrepiece for an ensemble that forms an armed shield protecting an African family cowering in the background. It was inaugurated last December by Touadéra.
But reality seems different from propaganda.
Interestingly, in an interview published on the RIAC website, the outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the CAR stated that there are now more displaced persons in the country than ever before – 1.3 million people, so clearly, not everything has improved.
Armed gangs continue to split and regroup and analysts argue that the presence of Wagner has made the country even more lawless than it already was.
A government-commissioned report released last October said that Wagner operatives had been found to be involved in extrajudicial killings, summary executions and looting. International watchdog Human Rights Group also came to a similar conclusion earlier this year.
On February 23, the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 36-year-old Jean Sinclair Maka Gbossokotto, one of the CAR’s most prominent journalists was found dead under mysterious circumstances.
His friends insist he was poisoned to silence his work – debunking misinformation spread nationwide from all sides but mostly by Wagner-linked troll factories.
His murder follows that of three Russian investigative journalists killed in August 2018, as they were investigating Wagner’s actions in the CAR, and how it made its money.
Back to the drawing board
But Wagner’s time in the CAR has not been a resounding success for the group.
First, the pickings from the gold and diamond concessions they were given in recompense for their work have not been particularly fruitful.
Also, major donors like the European Union and the World Bank have halted further payments to CAR, as they await assurances that their money will not be spent on matters like paying Russian mercenaries.
And now Moscow’s vision has been blurred by its invasion of Ukraine.
“Beyond irritating the West, Russia has no strategic interest in the CAR per se,” Vines pointed out. “They have never been historically interested in the country. But the CAR was supposed to be part of what you may call a ‘corridor of influence’ across this part of the African continent, starting in Sudan and then going on into Congo.”
“Ukraine puts a stop to that,” he said. ”They are overstretched and, of course, Russia is not China. They don’t have deep pockets. So as far as building that corridor of influence is concerned, it’s back to the drawing board.”
That Russian military base in the CAR, which had been talked about since 2019, is unlikely to materialise and there are credible reports saying that Wagner is reducing its presence in the CAR because its operatives are needed in Ukraine.
Is the CAR’s size overwhelming yet another military visitor?