Feature

In Central Africa, Russia Won the War—but It’s Losing the Peace

Putin’s pursuit of influence, arms sales, and mercenary meddling in the Central African Republic has left Moscow mired in a quagmire.

Peacekeepers go on patrol
U.N. peacekeepers go on patrol through the rebel-held town of Bria, Central African Republic, on Feb. 9, 2018. Jack Losh
Peacekeepers go on patrol Peacekeepers go on patrol

U.N. peacekeepers go on patrol through the rebel-held town of Bria, Central African Republic, on Feb. 9, 2018. Jack Losh

In the lawless provinces of the Central African Republic, a deep hole has been dug into the bare earth of a military base. Measuring some 20 feet deep by 12 feet wide, this grim pit is used by Russian mercenaries and federal troops as a black site to detain anyone suspected of rebel sympathies, two sources familiar with its existence told Foreign Policy.

Peacekeepers go on patrol

U.N. peacekeepers go on patrol through the rebel-held town of Bria, Central African Republic, on Feb. 9, 2018. Jack Losh

In the lawless provinces of the Central African Republic, a deep hole has been dug into the bare earth of a military base. Measuring some 20 feet deep by 12 feet wide, this grim pit is used by Russian mercenaries and federal troops as a black site to detain anyone suspected of rebel sympathies, two sources familiar with its existence told Foreign Policy.

Food and water are seldom provided. Men and women are held together, exposed to blistering heat or torrential rain, with no access to toilets. Release is only granted when a relative pays hundreds of dollars—a huge sum in what is one of the poorest countries in the world. “Even if you’re innocent, you have to pay,” said a local source who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearful of reprisals.

“Everyone came into contact with the rebels when they were here, so, in the Russians’ eyes, anyone is a suspect,” a U.N. source said. “People thought life couldn’t get any worse. But it’s got worse.”

While denied by the Russian authorities, the use of this squalid, secret jail in the town of Bambari epitomizes the brutal and counterproductive strategy pursued by CAR’s government and its Russian allies to claw back territory held by rebel militias for years. After a coalition of insurgents launched an offensive last December, Moscow’s paramilitary units joined government forces to repel them and have been gaining ground nationwide since.

Yet their punishing counterattack has come at a steep cost. The military operation is devastating communities, exacerbating grievances, and causing a spate of human rights abuses—all paving the way for greater conflict to come.

A billboard in Central African Republic

A billboard in Sango reading “Central African Republic hand in hand with Russia / Strong soldiers at the Berengo training center” is pictured in downtown Bangui, Central African Republic, on May 27, 2019. Jack Losh

A dirty war is unfolding in the country’s impoverished hinterland, mostly hidden from view as journalists are banned from leaving the capital, Bangui. With pro-government forces on one side and an unruly array of rebels on the other, civilians are trapped between marauding forces, subjected to disappearances, sexual violence, torture, and execution.

As Russia makes dramatic inroads into Africa not seen since the Cold War, with the promise of boosting its economy and global reach in the process, its unprecedented gains in CAR suggest that, on the surface, Moscow is winning the war—a complex, protracted conflict stretching back decades, fueled by blood diamonds and interethnic rivalries.

In the longer term, however, Moscow’s ruthless, ham-fisted strategy will lose the peace.

“The country has moved into a darker chapter,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “No one knows where this is going. The risk of the country becoming ungovernable could get even more pronounced in the coming months.”


A family shelters from the midday sun

A family shelters from the midday sun beneath a parasol in a sprawling camp for thousands of families displaced by civil war in rebel-held Kaga-Bandoro, northern Central African Republic, on Jan. 21, 2018. Jack Losh

Teenagers warm up before a soccer game

Teenagers warm up before a soccer game run by the charity War Child as part of peace-building efforts in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, on June 7, 2019. Jack Losh

Children learn at a makeshift learning space at a sprawling displacement camp

Children learn at a makeshift learning space at a sprawling displacement camp in Kaga-Bandoro on Jan. 21, 2018. Jack Losh

Last year, there were small but promising signs that CAR could finally be putting its troubled past behind it as an array of U.N. agencies, humanitarian organizations, civil society groups, government ministries, and foreign states sought to reconstruct the country from the ashes of a catastrophic civil war. Efforts were focused on the four pillars on which countries emerging from conflict are typically reconstructed.

The first is security, providing citizens with a safe environment and a robust foundation on which subsequent pillars can be built. The second is justice and reconciliation, in which good law enforcement can heal divisions, prosecute abuses fairly, and punish offenders humanely. Third, social and economic well-being is key to meeting basic needs, fostering long-term development, and diminishing the financial lure of armed groups to marginalized communities. And fourth is governance and participation, creating representative political institutions and an effective public sector.

Each pillar is crucial. “Failing to address this often means that grievances fester and sow the seeds for future wars,” Jonathan Cohen, the executive director of Conciliation Resources, a peace building group, wrote in openDemocracy.

But today in CAR, the country’s authorities and a notorious Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, are degrading these pillars of peace, stifling dissent, and backsliding toward the worst excesses of past predatory rulers—and, by doing so, are stoking the next insurgency.

“The Russians had an opportunity with CAR,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at King’s College London. “They could have said, ‘We will do this efficiently, and you can trust us.’ Instead, the Russians have come in with the view that the way you win these things is to be more brutal than the Europeans, without realizing they’ve blown the thing that could have given them a permanent advantage.”

Bambari’s hole of horror—one of several suspected to exist—fits into a wider trend of violations. A report by U.N. investigators in June highlighted a pattern of excessive force and serious abuse committed by Russian mercenaries with impunity in a country wracked by perennial conflict, extreme violence, and intensifying dysfunction.

Members of a women’s support group

Members of a women’s support group, which includes war widows and refugees who sell produce together and pool their income, meet in Bangui on May 26, 2019. Jack Losh

One such case in February saw at least six civilians die during a Russian-led assault on a mosque in Bambari, then held by rebels. Fighting later moved into a displacement camp, wrecking a medical center and wounding 36 people, among them eight women and nine minors including a 17-month-old toddler.

“[N]o efforts were made to distinguish between civilians and fighters,” U.N. investigators said.

The previous month, according to the U.N. report, Russian soldiers shot dead two unarmed individuals with disabilities, and two weeks before that, Russian troops and soldiers from CAR’s federal army, the Central African Armed Forces (known by its French acronym, the FACA), fired on a civilian truck as it approached a military checkpoint in Grimari, a small town 50 miles west of Bambari. They killed three civilians and wounded 15, including six women and a child, with many suffering multiple bullet wounds.

Around the same time, the report adds, six rebel suspects were arrested in and around the southern riverside town of Bangassou on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During their detention at a military base, two were allegedly tortured and threatened with execution. A few days later, rebels launched a dawn attack, forcing state security forces and Russian soldiers to flee. Inside the base, five bodies and one survivor were found. U.N. investigators later confirmed that only two of the six were genuine militants.

Investigators also accuse Russia’s Wagner units of widespread looting during field deployments, thieving livestock such as chickens and goats as well as money, motorbikes, and mattresses during house-to-house searches. Even aid groups—on which more than half of the population depend—are not spared. In one instance, soldiers stole kits for survivors of sexual violence in the northwestern town of Bossangoa worth some $1,850.

CAR’s political opposition has cried foul, but the government seems unbothered. In the same week that those kits were stolen, an advisor to CAR’s president posted a video on Facebook dismissing concerns about Russian soldiers. Tolerance of certain behaviors, he said, was the price to pay for their help to “liberate the country.”


UN peacekeepers

U.N. peacekeepers guard the entrance to a displacement camp in Kaga-Bandoro on Jan. 21, 2018. Jack Losh

Moscow gained a foothold in the restive country after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in October 2017 in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The two countries’ burgeoning alliance began with a donation of weapons and ammunition to CAR’s weak military—as well as an accompanying force of 175 so-called military instructors.

There were economic and strategic incentives behind this, as the Kremlin strives to re-create its once sizable footprint in Africa.

Economically, CAR offered a tantalizing showroom for guns, military vehicles, and other types of firepower manufactured by Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the United States. The war-wracked state is located in an unstable neighborhood—Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan all border it—that promises big bucks for Russia’s arms industry if its military hardware could be shown to have transformed the fortunes of CAR’s besieged government.

CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet for talks at the Rus Hotel in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 9, 2017. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via Getty Images

CAR also presented a strategic opportunity to Moscow to expand its sphere of influence in a continent from which it had retreated after the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union. Even better, the springboard for that new push was a former French colony hungry for a new patron, often frustrated with the meddling of its old imperial master in Paris.

And Russia could do this all on the cheap, and with a degree of deniability, by using Wagner’s hired guns—those purported military instructors who boast links to the Kremlin and the country’s foreign military intelligence agency—rather than Russian regulars.

At the start of this ambitious venture, CAR was tentatively emerging from a civil war that had erupted almost five years earlier when a mainly Muslim coalition of rebels known as the Seleka overthrew the country’s former authoritarian leader, François Bozizé. In response, loyalist anti-balaka militias, consisting of Christians and animists, carried out vicious reprisals against Muslim communities, leading to the deaths of thousands.

CAR presented a strategic opportunity to Moscow to expand its sphere of influence in a continent from which it had retreated after the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union.

By early 2016, when a new president, Touadéra, was sworn in, fighting had eased. But by the time Moscow made overtures to his administration the following year, violence was again intensifying between fragmenting factions of the Seleka and anti-balaka militias.

During a lull in fighting last year, CAR’s retrained and rearmed government troops, supported by Russian mercenaries, began leaving their strongholds for the first time in years, tentatively deployed to areas long held by rebels. Abuses soon followed: sexual violence, forced disappearances, and executions in broad daylight, along with other systemic violations “particularly affecting women, children and minority groups,” U.N. investigators reported in January.

A woman exits the hospital in Bossangoa

A woman leaves the main hospital in Bossangoa on June 9, 2019, past a sign that prohibits bringing weapons into the health facility. Jack Losh

A teenage girl performs a traditional dance

A teenage girl performs a traditional dance as part of a program run by War Child to encourage community cohesion in Bossangoa on June 7, 2019. Jack Losh

Nor was there any hope of redress. CAR’s chief military prosecutor lacked any funds for court hearings, bringing the military justice system to a standstill.

Then, late last year, the rebels regrouped under the direction of Bozizé and rebranded themselves the Coalition of Patriots for Change before launching attacks nationwide, including a botched raid on Bangui. This prompted a fierce counteroffensive from CAR’s Russian-backed army against the country’s various rebel groups.

Led and supported by Wagner personnel—reported now to number more than 2,000, almost twice the official Russian tally—pro-government troops inflicted severe losses on CAR’s variety of rebel groups, including the Central African Patriotic Movement (known by its French acronym, MPC) to the north and the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) to the south. Their campaign resulted in the death of the leader of Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or “3R,” in the northwest and fostered factional splits within the Popular Front for the Rebirth of the Central African Republic (FPRC) to the northeast.

But this supposed multilateral endeavor has become a Russian-dominated campaign, as Wagner personnel increasingly obstruct and sideline the U.N. mission’s international force of peacekeepers during a dark and unpredictable onslaught.

“I don’t see anything to suggest that Russia’s actions are helping the situation. There is evidence that they are in fact exacerbating the situation.”

“CAR is already a humanitarian disaster zone,” said Mark Bellamy, a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya and now a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t see anything to suggest that Russia’s actions are helping the situation. There is evidence that they are in fact exacerbating the situation.”

In early August, another U.N. report—this time compiled jointly by its Human Rights Office and its MINUSCA peacekeeping mission in the country—documented hundreds of abuses committed in CAR over the last year, including summary killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, disproportionate force, sexual violence, and serious violations against children. While rebels were found to be responsible for just over half of these violations, the report’s authors said the FACA and its Russian allies, as well as members of CAR’s Internal Security Forces, had committed a staggering 46 percent of the confirmed incidents.

Against this backdrop, the Russians continue to implant themselves at all levels of CAR’s politics and security. A former Russian spy advises Touadéra, who himself is protected by Russian bodyguards. Russian personnel control strategic mining sites and staff CAR’s lucrative customs operation—supposedly, said one top official, to help the country “fight against fraud and corruption.” Meanwhile, Wagner personnel are usurping the authority of CAR’s police officers; in April, they forced a gendarme at gunpoint in the northwestern town of Paoua to hand over 15 detainees.

Nurses support mothers and their ill babies at a malnutrition clinic

Nurses support mothers and their ill babies at a malnutrition clinic in Bangui on Jan. 18, 2018. Jack Losh

Those who suffer abuse by Russian personnel do not expect justice. Victims are scared of lodging complaints, say U.N. investigators, because “individuals have disappeared without trace after being detained by national security forces and Russian instructors.”

CAR’s defense ministry has said it is aware of accusations against its soldiers but dismisses them as false, despite widespread and corroborated testimony to the contrary, although the country’s justice minister has since created a commission to investigate.

The Kremlin also refutes the allegations. “Russian military advisors could by no means participate in murders and killings,” a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin said in June. Moscow’s ambassador in CAR denies the presence of Russian mercenaries.

In response to questions about the black site in Bambari and whether the authorities were aware of it or planned to investigate, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson denied its existence as well as “the participation of Russian specialists in human rights violations,” adding that none of these soldiers “are directly involved in hostilities” besides training the army and providing advisory and humanitarian assistance.

“As a result of their activities, the combat capability of the CAR army has significantly increased, the units of which have inflicted serious damage on the militants of various illegal armed groups,” the spokesperson added. “The experience gained helps CAR’s military reduce the loss of personnel and more effectively protect the civilian population.”


Women walk past a U.N.-armored personnel carrier

Women walk past a U.N.-armored personnel carrier at the entrance to a huge displacement camp in Kaga-Bandoro on Jan. 22, 2018. Jack Losh

For all the violence, public favor still seems weighted toward the Russian presence.

“Most people see the Russians as saviors and believe the rebels cannot be defeated without their help,” said one Central African journalist who requested anonymity, fearing attacks and the removal of his media accreditation by the authorities. “Some say the Russians are exploiting the country and abusing their power, but that is very much the minority. Most are fed up with negotiating and have lost faith in the peace process.”

The journalist, however, is under no illusions. “Life here is so horrible right now. It is more horrible than you can imagine.”

“Life here is so horrible right now. It is more horrible than you can imagine.”

Besides abuses meted out by Russian mercenaries, the country’s unstoppable unrest is spawning a mass of other pro-government militias, fueling further violence and division.

One of these is a shadowy group known as Les Requins, or “the sharks.” They started off as internet trolls, spreading false, divisive information on social media and threatening opposition politicians, but have since mutated into a paramilitary force. Bolstered by former anti-balaka militants and other vigilantes, they are reported to operate within the ranks of the presidential guard and have gained infamy for their extrajudicial nighttime operations, kidnapping individuals from their homes or abducting them from police custody.

Elsewhere, a notorious militia that terrorized the capital for years has morphed from public enemy No. 1 to a state auxiliary force. U.N. investigators say officials have discreetly recruited dozens of these militants to fight against rebels. Earning an average of $6 per day—or triple that if they join with their own weapons—they refer to themselves as Les Volontaires (“the volunteers”), bypassing an official disarmament program that was designed to reform CAR’s dysfunctional security sector.

Similarly, in Grimari, an anti-balaka group led by a wanted fugitive has been recruited to fight alongside the military, despite having attacked peacekeepers, aid workers, and minority groups. Further north, politicians in the country’s anarchic borderlands have raised a ragtag militia of local armed youth to block Sudanese smugglers arming the rebels and defend against rival fighters.

This troubling deterioration is not confined to the provinces. In the capital, the authorities have launched a full-frontal assault on political and media freedoms that smacks of the iron-fisted rule of the deposed Bozizé.

A peacekeeper prays

A Muslim peacekeeper prays near the U.N. compound in Bria on Feb. 8, 2018. Jack Losh

“There is a high risk of moving toward a one-party state,” Crisis Group’s De Marie Heungoup said. “[The government] has not reached the Bozizé time in terms of practices but certainly in terms of rhetoric and climate. People are scared of speaking out. The opposition does not have the courage to demonstrate. They are convinced that if they do, the Russians will shoot at them.”

The unrelenting spate of arbitrary arrests, casual torture, targeted killing, and other abuses fuels the rebels’ narratives that they are the self-anointed protectors of civilians rather than the war criminals that their repeated atrocities have shown them to be. This has prompted U.N. investigators to warn that the actions of the FACA and its Russian allies are “perpetuating the cycle of violence in the country.”

Privately, communities speak of their fears of being targeted with deadly force due to Russian soldiers’ stereotyped generalizations. Evidence from the field shows that, whether it’s linking all Fulani herdsmen to rebels or assuming that anyone whose skin shows scarification is an anti-balaka militant, given the group’s use of the practice in initiation rites, Wagner troops are opting for blanket persecution instead of targeted operations informed by reliable intel—losing hearts and minds in the process.

Russia’s weakness there is not only due to its alliance with the FACA, notorious for its poor discipline, ethnic imbalance, and weak command and control. It has simply sent in the wrong people for the job.

“Wagner is not what you use to stabilize a situation,” said Clarkson, the King’s College London lecturer. “The Russians get stuck with long-term commitments that deepen and deepen their role in environments that are peripheral to their security needs. It gets much more protracted and much more difficult for them to call the shots.”

As this atrocious war grinds on, abuses will continue, not least in that desolate hole dug into Bambari’s military base. As the Russians entangle themselves further into this violent quagmire, that miserable, makeshift prison may come to symbolize a much larger hole that Moscow has dug for itself in the brutalized heart of Africa.

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering conservation, humanitarian issues and traditional cultures, often in areas of conflict and crisis. Twitter: @jacklosh

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