Superpower countries like to keep conflicts off their territories by putting their boots on proxy nations controlled through ‘alliances’ or extending their empires. In the ally chess games of long-distance warfare, when a superpower snoozes, another one tries to take its place; in this situation, France has snoozed, and Russia has moved into the Central African Republic.
Like all proxy wars where locals suffer the most, it is not very different in CAR.
But the Russia-France situation has a windy history. One that goes as far as the 18th century with both superpowers having on and off alliances as they both extended their borders either by annexing neighbours with a shared history or going to other continents to claim new territories.
As France, a prominent coloniser on the African continent continued to advance its objectives, its former colonies, especially in West and Central Africa, started to revolt against its control. For Russia, the revolt it faces is close to home, with Georgia, Crimea, and now Ukraine being notable ‘insurrections’.
In recent times, however, Russia has proven to be more insistent in wanting to expand its powers through annexation and defiance to other powerhouses and regional bodies like EU and NATO, while France, more vulnerable to the bullets of political correctness, rising economic woes in its faraway former colonies, is losing out one country at a time.
While the French President, Emmanuel Macron, continues to play mediator between Russia and the rest of Europe to befriend Russia as France has done once or twice in the past, one of France’s favourite ‘former’ colonies is being politically annexed by Russia.
What is happening in CAR?
The central African Republic has been in a civil war —or two civil wars, depending on how you see the short transitional periods— since 2004. France, its former coloniser, has played different roles in this conflict but has recently been relegated.
CAR, blessed with diamonds, uranium (nuclear fuel), and oil, entered Russia’s eyes. The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) summation of the situation puts it in good perspective:
“Russia has rapidly expanded its influence in the Central African Republic (CAR) in the last few years, using military support to become President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s closest ally … While the government wields authority in the capital Bangui, it is largely absent from the provinces, where an array of rebels and other armed groups exercise their form of predatory rule. Disappointed by the inability of UN peacekeepers to extend the state’s writ, Touadéra turned to Russia in 2017, securing weapons and military instructors to bolster CAR’s shambolic army after the UN Security Council approved an exemption to the arms embargo on the country. Today, Russian advisers have the government’s ear in not just military but also political and economic matters.”
An important thing to mention is that ‘military instructors’, a term used to define the activities of the Russian Wagner Security Group’s mercenaries, was borrowed from France and MINUSCA, the UN’s peacekeeping arm, commonly known as Blue Helmets.
Another important highlight in the ICG report is that “Wagner is widely believed to be managed and financed by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to the Kremlin and under U.S. sanctions for attempted meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on companies and people working on Prigozhin’s behalf ‘to advance Russia’s influence in the Central African Republic’. Prigozhin has denied any links to Wagner. For his part, Touadéra has repeatedly said he has not signed a contract with the group. Wagner has no office or spokesperson in CAR. Yet its presence – estimated at between 1,200 and 2,000 personnel.”
There goes France, our former coloniser
Russia’s growing presence has been unsettling and upsetting for France. Recently, the former coloniser cut its military funding to CAR and accused it of supporting anti-French interests—Russian propaganda has been on the rise in CAR. In a press statement, France noted that “On several occasions, the Central African authorities have made commitments that they have not kept, both politically towards the opposition and in terms of their behaviour towards France, which is the target of a massive disinformation campaign in CAR.”
As France is withdrawing its guns and money away, Russia is stepping in. There is no better display of the power change than the recent arrest of French soldiers in CAR, over an alleged plot to assassinate the CAR President, and who only regained their freedom after UN intervention—one could argue though, that it was because they were Blue Helmets; but that itself is a sting.
Russia undermining NATO and their sanctions have not resulted in the U.S./NATO and Russia going to war. Neither has Russia’s activity in CAR caused France to go to war; instead, Emmanuel Macron is looking for a better relationship with Russia.
Unfortunately for the proxies, Russia is at war with Ukraine, and CAR is still searching for peace.
The Wagner Group in CAR has been accused of killing innocent civilians in massacres, committing several human rights violations which the EU has ‘sanctioned’, and very interestingly, has started taking over mining operations in the country. The war to take over these mines has seen the Russians allegedly boot out the French, clash with the Chinese, and even kill repentant rebel leaders who may be in the way.
France President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to befriend Russia is seen as a means to an end. French elections are coming soon, and the leader is seemingly trying to gain popularity for himself.
In an interview with AlJazeera, Rémi Lefebvre, a professor of political science at the University of Lille, noted that “the tensions in Ukraine are very timely.
“Macron had originally planned to use the French presidency of the EU Council to restore his presidential stature ahead of the elections, to project strength and political will. Now, the situation in Ukraine enables him to ‘stand above the scrum’ and play a key role on the world stage.”
With Macron’s motivation for Ukrainian peace dissipating, France, a country progressively losing control and seeking global respect but failing, may start to revisit its sanctions across Africa, where Mali recently started showing fierce resistance too.
Like other proxy wars, Russia’s expansion in its borders and internationally will be combated by its powerful rivals. Like the proxy wars, it is the people in those countries who will suffer, while Russia and France drink tea over fake attempts for global peace.
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