Only Central Africans Can Save the Central African Republic

The international community can help rebuild the army and institutions, but its presence cannot be permanent.

A MINUSCA soldier
A MINUSCA soldier holds a position in front of a bar in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Jan. 13. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images

A Jan. 22 article in Foreign Policy, “Outside Powers Are Making the Conflict in the Central African Republic Worse,” correctly highlights the scope of CAR’s ever-increasing fragility but misreads its causes.

In particular, there is little evidence to support the idea of a Russian-French proxy war. It’s true that the Russians have opportunistically exploited the population’s long-standing love-hate relationship with France.

A Jan. 22 article in Foreign Policy, “Outside Powers Are Making the Conflict in the Central African Republic Worse,” correctly highlights the scope of CAR’s ever-increasing fragility but misreads its causes.

In particular, there is little evidence to support the idea of a Russian-French proxy war. It’s true that the Russians have opportunistically exploited the population’s long-standing love-hate relationship with France.

However, the reference to the role of French “networks” and the implication that the French government or elements within it are somehow supporting the armed groups does not withstand analysis. It would mean that the French were putting at risk the lives of soldiers in the United Nations peacekeeping mission there, known as MINUSCA (of which France is both founder and a substantial funder); of the European Union delegation in CAR (of which France again is a major supporter and funder); and of the substantial number of French citizens in CAR—all in support of predatory, fortune-seeking armed groups and an unpopular former president already under international sanctions. That makes no rational policy sense.

Whether or not there are individuals in France who seek to destabilize the Central African government is a different question. There are many groups in France with long-standing ties and interests in CAR, and it is possible, even likely, that some have surreptitious contacts with the armed groups. But that is certainly not the basis of a new geopolitical conflict.

The real question that needs an answer is why, despite the billions of dollars and robust peacekeeping force that the international community has poured into CAR in recent years, the country has only made small steps toward viability? Surely it cannot be because the armed groups present an insurmountable threat. Indeed, they have never numbered more than several thousand, lack a sophisticated military organization, and have virtually no popular base of support.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Let me suggest a few reasons:

First, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra failed in his most important task: rebuilding the security services into a well-led, motivated, and adequately supported force. Touadéra has justifiably criticized the international arms embargo that has bizarrely hurt the government far more than the armed groups, which can easily finance illicit arms purchases from their equally illicit commerce. Yet, the reality is that rampant corruption and government dysfunction would have hamstrung the security forces in any event.

In the end, it was not so much that Touadéra won the December 2020 election as that the opposition lost.

Second, the civilian opposition has been squabbling among themselves instead of offering the population a unified electoral slate and a credible platform. Some further discredited themselves by flirting with former President François Bozizé, who is the subject of U.N. sanctions, and the armed groups. In the end, it was not so much that Touadéra won the December 2020 election as that the opposition lost.

Third, CAR’s neighbors (especially Chad) are making matters worse. Unlike France, Chad has long-standing connections with the armed groups. Chad’s initial connection to the Séléka group—a Muslim-dominated rebel alliance—is well known. Chad’s overall interest, however, is more commercial than political. It desires a free hand in exploiting CAR’s open spaces (for access to pasture for its herds) and extensive natural resources. The armed groups are a natural partner in that regard. Though it is hard to know how much direct cross-border support the armed groups receive at any given time, it is even harder to imagine that they could prosper without those connections.

Finally, the international community neither gave MINUSCA a mandate to disarm the armed groups nor fully prioritized building a Central African army capable of holding territory on its own. Lacking a plausible endgame, therefore, a collective pretense emerged over the years that portrays the armed groups as quasi-legitimate parties to a peace process. The truth, however, is that, with the exception of small ethnic groups in the northeast, the armed groups have no local constituency and therefore no interest in peace and the reassertion of state authority.

The sad result, therefore, is that, after six years and billions of dollars spent, the armed groups are more violent and more entrenched than ever. The CAR army, meanwhile, always seems to be not quite ready. The problem has become harder to solve, not easier. The Russians’ arrival onstage is less the harbinger of a new great-power competition than a symptom of the lack of a viable, long-term way forward. That’s fine for the Russians. The status quo works out well for them.

Indeed, the key problem in CAR today is that the main actors are too comfortable with the status quo. That is certainly true of the elite in the capital, Bangui—both government and opposition. Although they may not like the government’s lack of territorial control, as long as Bangui itself manages to remain secure behind its MINUSCA shield and its economy is artificially buoyed by donor spending, there is little incentive to reform the culture of corruption and narrow self-interest that both lines pockets and undermines government effectiveness.

Yet the international community itself is not as uncomfortable with the status quo as it should be. Yes, MINUSCA is costly, and the lack of progress toward peace is disheartening. However, as long as MINUSCA’s presence keeps the conflict at a low simmer and it rarely appears in global headlines, CAR is not a topic that senior policymakers anywhere outside the country have much time for. Maintaining the status quo is easier than reassessing fundamental assumptions.

The options for action are limited. The elections were flawed, but delaying them wouldn’t have changed much. Nor can there be much confidence that a second Touadéra term will be much different than the first. The most likely prospect, therefore, seems to be an indefinite continuation of a very ugly status quo, with all of the very real hardship for the population that entails.

That said, the surprising alliance of the armed groups and the anti-Balaka groups (what remains of Christian self-defense forces, now little more than criminal gangs and affiliated with Bozizé), combined with the shock posed by their incursions to the outskirts of Bangui, does offer an opportunity for both the government and the international community to abandon the status quo and chart a new course forward.

That must start with the Central Africans themselves. Fortunately, CAR does have a rich history, largely unique in the region, of bringing political elites and civil society together in times of crisis in forums that address core problems and develop consensus solutions. Central Africans’ greatest asset is that they do know how to talk to each other. It is true that past forums have been better at identifying consensus than at fully implementing solutions. However, unlike elections, which are exercises in grabbing power for a privileged few, forums are where the whole of Central African society sits down to ponder their future. They need to do so now.

The international community needs to bring the government, the civilian opposition, and civil society together for a blunt message: The security shield will not stay forever. Before it’s too late, Central Africans must envision a bold new social compact to save the country. That should include commitments to rebuilding truly professional security forces, reestablishing state authority outside of Bangui, and zero tolerance for corruption, all underlined by a new recognition that the country cannot expect the international community to solve its problems. In return, the international community could pledge to do its part, including a strengthened commitment to building a robust Central African army.

The armed groups should have no role if they continue on their current path; they cannot be allowed to sabotage elections in their territories and then use their guns to substitute themselves as the people’s representatives. Nothing sustainable will come out of that. The purpose of a forum is to bring together those Central Africans interested in restoring state sovereignty and effectiveness. If that can be done, the armed groups’ days will be numbered.

Such a process will not be easy, of course. It will take time and a firm commitment from the political leadership to convince a skeptical public. Scarred by years of conflict and decline, many Central Africans tend to look out for themselves in the moment rather than working together to create a better future for all. That said, there are still some truly patriotic and dedicated Central Africans. They understand the gravity of their situation and are eager to participate in reform. What they lack is a catalyst to start a conversation on real, comprehensive reform. The new threat posed by the armed groups and anti-Balaka coalition, combined with a tough message from a focused international community, might just be that catalyst.

Laurence Wohlers is a retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to the Central African Republic from 2010-2013 and in 2014 as the first deputy special representative of the secretary-general of MINUSCA. In 2016, he was the interim U.S. special representative for the African Great Lakes.

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