Support to Central African Republic’s Armed Forces Missing Peace Perspective

President of the Central African Republic Faustin Touadera, Defense Minister Marie-Noelle Koyara, and the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy, Victor Tokmakov, attend the training of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) during a medal presentation demonstration in Berengo on August 4, 2018. (FLORENT VERGNES/AFP/Getty Images)

The Central African Republic (CAR) received renewed international attention last month when on July 30 three Russian journalists were assassinated in mysterious circumstances in a zone nominally secured by internal security forces and United Nations peacekeepers. The journalists were reportedly investigating the activities of Wagner, a Russian private military group known for its presence in Ukraine and Syria, as well as mining firm Lobaye Invest and Sewa Security Service, both established in CAR in late 2017 following an arms deal between the governments of CAR and Russia. China, the United States, and France have also invested money in the CAR Armed Forces (FACA, or Forces Armées centrafricaines in French), through donations of military hardware. The varying forms of support to FACA—the UN, international partners, private companies—are intended to assist the government’s stabilization efforts, yet recent events and trends indicate that adjustments need to be made.

UN Stabilization Support

A central component of international support for stabilization in CAR has been the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA). Deployed in 2014, MINUSCA is mandated to assist in the stabilization of the security situation and the extension of state authority, following the collapse of the government of Francois Bozizé in March 2013, and the subsequent dissolution of the Séléka rebel movement which toppled him. MINUSCA is also tasked to protect civilians amid fears of ethnic cleansing, facilitate transition processes, and support security sector reform and institution building.

While clashes between the government and rebels have largely subsided, and despite MINUSCA’s best efforts, fighting between rebels and militias and between insurgent groups persists in parts of central, southern, and western CAR. Attacks on civilians, peacekeepers, and humanitarian workers continue unabated. Meanwhile, the northeast and southwest of the country, controlled respectively by the fighters of the Popular Front for the Rebirth of CAR (FPRC—formerly part of the Séléka coalition) and the government, remain mostly stable. MINUSCA was able to assist the FACA and internal security forces to re-establish control of key axes and roads between the capital, Bangui, and the Congolese and Cameroonian borders. FACA have recently deployed in Bangassou (south), Sibut (center), and Paoua (northwest). Strategic towns like Bambari, secured with the help of UN troops, have experienced some unrest since then and are yet to benefit from the FACA presence promised by the government.

Bilateral and Multilateral Actors

Since late 2017, tensions have emerged over how multilateral and bilateral partners should support the FACA. Despite an arms embargo on the CAR since 2013, Russia successfully obtained an exemption from the UN Security Council to ship light weapons and ammunition to the government, earmarked for EU-trained FACA battalions. Russian military and civilian instructors were deployed in January 2018 to equip and advise the FACA, train additional defense and security forces, and provide personal security to President Touadéra. In July, after pressure from Russia, a presidential statement of the UN Security Council omitted explicit reference to the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy in the training and deploying of FACA—a framework that guides UN support to EU-trained FACA. Later that month, the EU Military Training Mission in CAR (EUTM-RCA) was extended to September 2020, and its mandate expanded to include training for the president’s cabinet and to provide military-civilian cooperation to the Ministry of Interior and the gendarmerie. In August, Moscow and Bangui signed a new military cooperation pact, the latest instance of an apparent race to support the CAR’s security institutions.

As armed groups control approximately 80 percent of the country’s territory—a swath of land roughly the size of Spain—FACA only has about 7,000 active forces, mostly stationed in the capital. Together with external partners and donors, CAR’s government in July outlined an ambitious plan: create, by 2022, a 9,900-strong garrison army spread across four zones, with about half stationed outside Bangui, including some in the northern town of Ndélé currently held by the FPRC.

The deployment of armed forces in CAR is already a protracted and disjointed process, and the above plan will be even more challenging without the appropriate sequencing—notably with regards to the ongoing political processes. Amid African Union efforts to facilitate dialogue in CAR, Russian officials attempted to mediate talks between rebel groups and the government—an offer that was met by skepticism or rejected by actors on both sides. Meanwhile, armed groups’ suspicion and opposition to Russian military support and presence in the country could portend a dangerous period of military escalation which could witness the regrouping of rebels, as seen in Kaga-Bandoro recently.

Limitations of a State-Centric Approach to Peace

While advancing the professionalism and capacity of CAR’s armed forces is a welcome development, these efforts should not short-circuit attempts to find a comprehensive political solution to the conflict. External actors must avoid the temptation to enter the apparent auction sale being organized by the CAR government as they play bidders against each other, all toward narrowly-defined benchmarks of hard power and stabilization. As situations like South Sudan demonstrate, state-building can be a risky endeavor, when serving political-military elites’ quest for rents that finance their budgets and fuel patronage politics.

The latest Security Council presidential statement on the CAR called on government authorities to implement the reform of the security sector toward the establishment of “multi-ethnic, professional, representative and well-equipped national defense and internal security forces.” So far, external support to CAR’s armed forces tackles the “well-equipped” and “professional” indicators—but little progress is to be seen with regards to the multi-ethnic and inclusive character of the forces. In CAR’s history, even relatively well-trained members of the FACA were in the past a source of conflict and instability—from coup d’états, rebellions, and mutinies, to predatory behavior and abuses. Is investing in a coercive institution toward the extension of state authority the right solution? On the surface, this “maximalist” approach quickly becomes a “minimalist” one, given the illusion of stabilization and securitization in a country where the concept of “state” has mostly been meaningless for its people.

The Geo-Economics of Stabilization

This year has seen a dramatic convergence of interests, between a government asking for peace enforcement and foreign actors attempting to gain a foothold in CAR. Despite its relative geo-strategic marginality, the country has diamond, gold, and uranium mines, and sits at the nexus of north-south and east-west continental trade routes and smuggling corridors. As in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries, the race to support the armed forces in CAR appears unsustainable and counterproductive. As of now, these efforts are pursued solely as part of the logic of building raw hard power for geopolitical calculations—devoid of any human security considerations and disconnected from sustaining peace efforts.

Beyond the technical aspects of security sector reform, multilateral and bilateral partners must ask tough questions on the qualitative dimensions of deployments. They should harmonize their efforts and encourage the government to develop clear benchmarks with regards to the inclusivity of defense and security forces, and make qualitative efforts in its relationship with society and local communities.

Going forward external actors will need to be more concerted and clear in how they intend to train, equip, and help deploy the FACA—and how this will contribute in the long run to the peace, stability, and territorial integrity of the country, and more importantly, the security of its people.

Towards a Sustaining Peace Approach

In light of the above limitations, a new approach where peace rather than stabilization is the end goal needs to be actively explored. While security is important, tracking existing processes of local mediation, informal governance structures, community dialogue aimed at violence prevention, and youth engagement in peacebuilding constitute better steps to laying the foundations for self-sustaining peace. CAR’s partners, together with local authorities, need to recognize these resilient capacities for peace and build  on what is working in the country. An aggressive securitization agenda, that may produce pyrrhic localized stability for the state with questionable benefits for the people, is ill-advised, as the country’s recent violent history demonstrates.

Archibald Henry works on protection of civilians and humanitarian affairs at the International Peace Institute (IPI).