How the international community spent its way to losing the peace—and opened the door to Russian mischief—in the Central African Republic.
BY LAURENCE WOHLERS
The international community has amassed a great deal of experience in failed-state stabilization in Africa in recent decades. Sadly, it has had a remarkably poor return on its investment. In South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and the Central African Republic, to name a few, stabilization efforts have dragged on for decades and spent vast sums. Yet in each of these conflicts, not only have years of effort and expense failed to enhance stability, but the roots of conflict have actually become deeper and more entrenched.
To understand why, this article reviews the sad fate of a country I have followed closely: the Central African Republic (CAR). For the last decade, this desperately poor country of fewer than 5 million inhabitants has been mired in chronic violence. The international community’s response has been robust, spending more than $1 billion annually—a sum that represents 50 percent of CAR’s GDP—on a multifaceted stabilization effort. And yet the conflict in CAR has descended into a stagnant and dysfunctional status quo, a dysfunction that Russia has recently succeeded in adroitly exploiting for political and commercial gain.
What accounts for this failure? It would be easy for the international community to shrug its collective shoulders and bemoan the challenges of working in “failed states.” And certainly there is some truth to that. Is that, however, the only reason? Is it possible that the very size and complexity of the response created an illusion of progress, thereby blinding the international community to deep conceptual flaws in its stabilization strategy? Could it be that the political “cost” of chronic failure in CAR has simply been—for us—too low to force a hard look at our own mistakes? And did the international community’s failure inadvertently create the perfect conditions for Russia’s hybrid military-business force to succeed?
We begin with a little history. In December 2012, CAR burst into global headlines when an armed group suddenly emerged on the country’s sparsely populated northwest frontier. Initially the origins, motivations, and funding of the group that called itself “Seleka” were a mystery. But the group quickly proved itself a formidable force and, in a series of ferocious pitched battles, won decisive victories. By Christmas, the Central African army had ceased to exist as a fighting force. Although the region’s leaders managed to negotiate a temporary truce, three months later Seleka’s forces marched into the capital, sending then President François Bozizé fleeing into exile.
Seleka proved far more proficient at fighting than governing. Its fighters, largely Chadian and Sudanese veterans of the Darfur conflict, had been promised payment in pillage. And pillage and killing is precisely what they proceeded to do, for months on end. The very scale of the group’s atrocities, however, would prove to be its undoing. A horrified Western public demanded an international response, and in December 2013, a French expeditionary force sent Seleka’s fighters fleeing north out of the capital. Ultimately, however, neither the French nor a subsequent African Union peacekeeping mission was large enough to stabilize the countryside.
So long ignored by the world, CAR had now become a hot topic in peacebuilding circles. Demands for a full United Nations peacekeeping mission quickly multiplied, and by early 2014 an initially reluctant U.S. government finally agreed. Known by its acronym MINUSCA, the mission would eventually grow to a combined military and civilian force of 12,000—far outnumbering the country’s own army. It was not, moreover, alone: Indeed, it was robustly supported by bilateral security assistance programs, notably from the European Union, France, and the United States, as well as an array of development and humanitarian initiatives.
The traumatized Central Africans greeted this response with jubilation. They felt certain that a professional U.N. force would make quick work of armed groups, reestablish order, and create the conditions for reconstruction. At first glance, that optimism did not seem unfounded. In those early days, not only did the various armed groups number only a few thousand, but they were on the defensive and desperately short of revenue to pay their fighters. Further, the Central Africans had themselves rallied around a new transitional government, which in turn quickly organized a national forum to provide popular support for the rebuilding process. In short, if a robust international stabilization effort could have succeeded anywhere, it should have been in CAR in 2014 and 2015.
Sadly, it was not to be. Despite the deployment of MINUSCA garrisons around the country, over the next eight years, the armed groups became both more numerous and more deeply embedded while the democratically elected government never succeeded in reestablishing its authority. Instead of peace, a dysfunctional but resilient status quo emerged: The government (supported by MINUSCA) controlled the capital and surrounding countryside, and various armed groups controlled and exploited regional fiefdoms, while chronic low-level violence occupied the lands where government and warlords’ spheres of influence ebbed and flowed.
Certainly, Central Africans themselves, especially their political elite, must accept a share of the blame. Political squabbling over power and control of rent-seeking opportunities has made the government much less effective than it should have been. Outside actors, initially CAR’s neighbors and later Russia, have also manipulated and profited from the violence.
In hindsight, however, early signs of the likely failure of the international community’s game plan for stabilization should have been evident. The international community failed to accurately identify the security—but especially the political—challenges to durable peacebuilding. Among its mistakes are the following four.
The stabilization strategy lacked a sense of urgency. The scope and size of the international community’s security, economic, and humanitarian intervention beginning in 2014 gave a sense of inevitability to the stabilization process. The influx of outsiders even led to a mini–construction boom in Bangui. True, the international community’s deployments were complex, ponderous, and slow, measured in years rather than months. Yet, it was easy to believe that time was on the side of the peacebuilders.
The reality, however, was that security was in fact not improving for most Central Africans outside the capital. And the problem was not just the original armed groups. Even after MINUSCA’s garrisons deployed to major cities, the surrounding countryside remained remarkably lawless. In that power vacuum, local militias proliferated. An attack on one village led to a response, creating a cycle of retaliation and counterretaliation that both spread and entrenched violence at a level too localized for MINUSCA’s forces to engage. Whether for profit or just to settle grudges, violence became the principal currency of community relations.
Without enforcing a cessation of hostilities at the local “granular” level, time was never going to be on the side of peace. By failing to recognize that quickly, the international community missed its window of opportunity.
The international community’s peace strategy was fundamentally flawed. Initially, the violence in CAR was not an especially difficult military challenge in a traditional sense. The armed groups were neither numerous, highly motivated, nor militarily sophisticated. MINUSCA’s mandate, however, was limited. It did have the authority to use force in certain situations, such as for civilian protection, but it had neither the mandate nor the forces to disarm all the militias and broadly enforce peace.
From the beginning, therefore, the international community’s preferred solution to the violence was an inclusive peace deal, one negotiated by all parties to the conflict—including the armed groups. This peace strategy had a fundamental flaw, however: The armed groups had no interest in any deal that would have meaningfully reestablished the rule of law. Indeed, their business model depended on the absence of law.
They were, however, perfectly content to pretend to negotiate. Over the ensuing years, therefore, the “peace process” would fruitlessly reinvent itself several times, with involvement eventually expanding to CAR’s neighbors, the African Union, and finally the Russians. Yet there was never any prospect of a durable peace “deal” as long as no force capable of enforcing it existed.
The international community did not consistently counter the destabilizing agendas of CAR’s neighbors. Both Sudan and Chad not only sought to profit from CAR’s economic assets (gold, diamonds, and cattle), but manipulated the cross-border movements of armed groups for their own political purposes. Chad’s late president, Idriss Déby, in particular, strove to be a political kingmaker in CAR, and his opportunistic support for the armed groups, although never explicit, made it easier for them to withstand outside pressure.
Unfortunately, the international community mostly ignored the neighbors’ contribution to CAR’s instability. Partly it was because the world had larger fish to fry with those two countries. Partly, however, it was simply a function of bureaucratic disconnect—Western officials working on CAR were often not the same ones who were responsible for Chad and Sudan, and the concerns of the former were not those of the latter.
Without enforcing a cessation of hostilities at the local “granular” level, time was never going to be on the side of peace.
Most importantly, the international community failed to build a political partnership with the CAR government. From the beginning, the international community was reluctant to be too closely tied to the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), partly to maintain its posture of neutrality toward all the “parties to the conflict” and partly because of legitimate worries about FACA’s professionalism. Training, yes; support for FACA deployments, no.
The truth, however, was that a strong FACA was critical to stabilization success. After all, if MINUSCA could not impose order, the only plausible option was for the Central African security forces to play that role. At a minimum, a stronger national army would have put pressure on the warlords to take peace negotiations more seriously.
The election in 2015 of a new president, Faustin Touadéra, offered the perfect opportunity for a new security partnership between the international community and the government. Having won handily in what all observers agreed was a free and fair election, Touadéra offered a partner with real legitimacy. Moreover, he was eager to demonstrate to the population that he could get the FACA out into the field and become a force for better security. To do that, he needed support from the international community.
Unfortunately, a deal was never made. Touadéra wanted the international community to provide arms and logistical support to the army quickly; the international community resisted, insisting that various reforms had to come first. Both sides had arguments on their side, but the impasse dragged into months and then years. If the international community had hoped to push him toward better governance by withholding its support, it was mistaken. Weakened politically, he instead leaned ever more heavily on a corrupt and highly partisan political circle—and began to search for a new outside partner.
By 2017, not only Touadéra but much of population was disillusioned by the lack of progress toward peace. The international community’s massive presence and profile made it easy to blame. It was a perfect opportunity for Russia to exploit. Beginning with a shipment of Russian arms, the relationship rapidly expanded, with a grateful President Touadéra accepting first military trainers, and then fighters under the Wagner brand. Wagner was easy to underestimate initially; its first fighters were lightly equipped and short on professionalism.
For Touadéra, however, Wagner’s willingness to deploy directly with the FACA gave him the military relevance the rest of the international community had denied him. And for that, he was willing to overlook Wagner’s disdain for civilian protection rules, its steadily increasing demands for payment (mainly in the form of lucrative mining concessions), its growing reach inside his own government (a Russian “national security adviser” sits in the presidency), and its pervasive social media disinformation (targeting the French for especially ugly attacks).
All of this caught the rest of the international community flat-footed. The Russians may have been brazen, brutal, and mendacious, but they were also politically nimble. Largely self-funded (both directly by the Central African government and indirectly by their local “businesses”), the Russians could be extremely opportunistic. Moreover, their hybrid official/commercial model also allowed the Russian government to shrug off Wagner’s most egregious actions as just a private business affair.
Burdened by ponderous, headquarters-driven decision-making and unprepared for this kind of political competition, the rest of the international community was simply outmatched. Even the French, despite deep ties to most of the Central African elite, found themselves outmaneuvered. After struggling for months to fight back against Russian disinformation, and finding their complaints ignored by Touadéra, the French finally just gave up. By the end of 2021, France—the one external actor with the means to challenge Russia politically—had begun to pull out of CAR.
Today we are a long way from the hopeful days of MINUSCA’s inception. A considerably strengthened Wagner has made the Touadéra government a force to be reckoned with in the countryside, but the armed groups still flourish. Indeed, a loose coalition of armed groups that includes the former president, François Bozizé, even talks provocatively of mounting an attack on Bangui itself. In the meantime, most of the population live in a state of low-level but unpredictable violence.
At the same time, Touadéra’s relationship with the Russians has proved a Faustian bargain, and his margin for acting independently is increasingly thin. For the moment, his presence is sufficiently useful to them that they are heavily supporting a constitutional amendment to allow him a third term. However, the Russians have so cleverly entrenched themselves among the Bangui political elite that they could just as easily arrange for him to be deposed.
The international community, therefore, now finds itself in a quandary: Prospects for peace are dismal, and its relationship with the government has been largely supplanted by Russia. In response, the international community has cut off much-needed budgetary support. Yet just “pulling out” security and humanitarian presence would likely unleash even more instability and greater violence.
What the international community should do now in CAR and what an effective stabilization policy generally would look like are complex questions that do not have simple answers. Certainly, the problem was not and is not a lack of courage and commitment at the level of individual members of the various multilateral and bilateral missions in CAR. I will always remain in awe of the many who each day coolly calculate the risks before them, and then set off to work.
But as an actor, the “international community” has some distinct disadvantages, especially when it comes to the need to devise and implement policies based on the integration of economic, military, and political tools. In the CAR effort, the international community was hardly united, either in terms of grand strategy or day-to-day operations. There were certainly regular coordination meetings, but coordination is not integration. Each institution, each government, and each subgovernmental agency pursued independent strategies, with separate funding streams, based heavily on internal bureaucratic constraints.
A case in point is the U.S. government’s own inconsistent attention to the crisis. Given the U.S. role as lead contributor to U.N. peacekeeping and the international financial institutions, as well as its dominant presence in humanitarian funding, the American government was the single-largest funder to stabilization efforts in CAR, at least indirectly. (Indeed, the American taxpayers’ spending on CAR probably added up to $2-3 billion over the decade, but it is hard to know for sure because it is nobody’s job to do the math.)
However, the U.S. did not act like a dominant presence in the stabilization effort. To be sure, staff members in several parts of the U.S. government worked hard on discrete projects for CAR, several of which were extremely effective. What was largely missing was an approach both whole-of-government and political, one that not only tied together the U.S. government’s own efforts, but fostered an equal level of coordination among the international community as well.
The U.S. government is simply not structured to do that; nor are our like-minded national partners. Indeed, once MINUSCA was formed and the initial crisis faded, a junior State Department desk officer was the highest level of consistent political attention that the crisis received within the Washington foreign policy machinery. There were just too many other higher-profile crises competing for limited senior attention.
This proved most costly in the failure to build a political relationship with President Touadéra. A French-educated, former university rector, he was initially a willing partner. The international community had both the leverage to push Touadéra toward better governance and the tools to help him appear successful to his voters. It was the kind of complicated and politically messy relationship, however, that the international community did not know how to navigate.
As a result, in allowing stabilization failure to become chronic in CAR, the international community created the perfect environment for Russia’s hybrid military/business strategy to succeed. It is too soon to say if Russia’s strategy is sustainable. It is possible that Central Africans will eventually understand that the Russians have come to exploit instability rather than solve it. Or it is possible that the country may explode into a new cycle of violence that no one will be able to control.
The place to start an honest reassessment of policy in the CAR, however, is by recognizing that it is the international community, as much as the Central Africans themselves, that is responsible for stabilization’s failure. Only then can a true search for better outcomes—in CAR and elsewhere—begin.
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