The Ammunition Box or the Ballot Box?
Like many countries in the region, the Central African Republic has been ravaged by post-election strife. The latest bout of fighting is two months old and dates from the presidential and legislative elections of December 2020.
The CPC (Coalition of the Patriots of the Central African Republic) launched an insurgency on different fronts across the country. According to Sylvain Nguema, a local military analyst, the FACA (National Defence Forces of the Central African Republic), is under-equipped as a result of an arms embargo imposed by the UN. The CPC fighters however are well-supplied through illegal arms trafficking routes from Chad, Sudan, and other neighbouring countries.
The UN Security Council discussed the security situation in the Central African Republic on February 24 via video-conference. Members deliberated whether to further reinforce the United Nations peacekeeping presence in the conflict-ridden country.
But the presence of the UN peacekeeping forces, known as MINUSCA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique) has failed to prevent the spawning of armed sleeper cells groups. It has also been unable to contain the open offensive of CPC fighters.
More than 14,000 military personnel posted to the Central African Republic since 2013 are considered ineffective both by military experts, and the general population of the CAR. One example of the ineffectiveness of the MINUSCA is the contingent stationed in Bouar. The local population has suffered constantly from attacks by armed groups, and they report that most of the time, the UN contingent at Bouar has stayed within the perimeter of their base, and has demonstrably failed to deliver on their mandate to protect the civilian population.
When the CPC started their offensive, the government called for aid. The U.S. was distracted by domestic politics at the time. The EU tends to take the lead in this region, especially since the CAR is francophone, having been a colony of France until 1960. But in the absence of support from EU countries, who had other priorities such as battling against COVID-19 and were slow to respond, the Russian Federation came forward promptly with military aid.
The relations between Russia and Central African governments in the security sector go back to 2017 when Russian military instructors, also known as the Officer’s Union for International Security, came to the CAR to provide quality training for the military personnel of the Central African Defence Forces.
When the CPC attacked the government of the CAR on December 17, the acting president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, issued a distress call asking for emergency backup for the national defence forces. There was a rapid response from Russia and the military aid was sent to the Central African Republic immediately, after approval by the Russian Ministry of Defence and by the UN Security Council.
On December 21, four days after the CPC declared that they would fight against the government forces, Rwandan divisions came to strengthen the Central African Defence Forces. Supported by their allies, the FACA were able to confront the CPC fighters who tried to take Bangui, the capital of the Republic. They repelled the attack and started a counter-offensive.
Since February 13, after the failed attack on Bangui, the CPC has been forced to retreat. The FACA, with the support of Russian instructors and Rwandan soldiers, has begun to liberate town after town, opening a vital transport corridor between Bangui and Cameroon.
In the middle of this successful counter-offensive, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) proposed a dialogue with the CPC fighters. This surprised military experts, as the CPC has been openly accused of crimes against civilians and attempting to destabilise elections. Nevertheless, ECCAS, headed by its president, Gilberto Da Piedade Verissimo, organised meetings with multiple leaders of the armed groups, thereby ignoring the wishes of the elected Central African government. According to local historian Gérard Grengbabo-Passy, this unusual interest of the Angolan-backed ECCAS is due to the ill-concealed vested interests of Angolan officials in illegal arms trafficking.
The dialogue with the CPC fighters has been condemned by security experts. The civilian population has publicly protested against the offer to negotiate put forward by ECCAS and Angola. The position of the Central African government on this question is quite clear; they are open to dialogue with the democratic opposition but will never negotiate with the people who raise arms to threaten the civilian population.
The key priority of the international community now is to support the Central African Republic in the way the people of the country require: providing military and humanitarian aid, supporting the relaxation of the UN arms embargo, and freeing the country from the violent forces which threaten to destabilise the Republic and terrorise the population.