Russia’s military deal with the CAR draws attention to its growing influence in Africa

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The Russian government yesterday signed a military agreement with the Central African Republic (CAR) in Moscow, in what is seen as an evidence to bring back Russian influence in Africa. The new agreement will see Russia train the CAR’s armed forces, though it is yet unclear whether the training will happen in Russia or in the Central African Republic.

This new agreement is a culmination of a charm offensive by Russia towards the CAR that began after Russia secured special permission from the United Nations in 2017 to supply weapons to the often-troubled Central African country. Russia then provided a security detail for CAR’s president Faustin-Archange Touadera, whose security adviser is Russian. Russia also sent five of its military officers and 170 civilian instructors to the CAR army. Analysts are already predicting that all these are precursors to Russia having its first African military base in the Central African Republic.

After it reduced its involvement from African affairs following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is steadily bringing back its influence on the continent. By promoting military cooperation in the Central African Republic, Russia is hoping to challenge the influence of the US, China, and other European countries that already have military bases in Africa.

How important is Russia’s help in CAR

The Central African Republic is a tiny country located centrally on the map of Africa. Its democracy has been unstable since it gained independence from France in 1960. A coup d’état in 1966 by army general Jean-Bedel Bokassa began one of the most brutal dictatorships in Africa’s history. He ruled the CAR with an iron hand from 1966 to 1979, proclaiming himself the Emperor of the Central African Empire, in an imitation of his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. He oversaw the looting of CAR’s wealth (including diamonds, gold, oil, and uranium) that had a profound effect on the country even till today. CAR has one of the poorest populations in the world today. Bokassa was overthrown in a coup, supported by France in 1970.

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The country has, since then, experienced a series of coups and countercoups, the latest plunging the country into turmoil again in 2013 when rebels from a Muslim Seleka rebel group deposed ex-President Francois Bozize and seized power in the majorly Christian country. A Christian militia, called the anti-balaka rose up to fight the Seleka, resulting in a free-for-all fight between Christians and Muslims in the country that left thousands of people dead. The Seleka eventually handed over power to an interim government in 2014 amidst various interventions from the UN, the French military, and even the Pope.

An election in February 2016 declared Faustin-Archange Touadera as the president of the Central African Republic. He has constantly advocated for peace between the religious and militant factions in the country, and the involvement of Russia has been seen by many as the President’s plan to secure this fragile peace.

This has been Russia’s direct involvement in any African country’s political affairs in a long time, and it could mean many things. There is a possibility that the endgame is to have a military base in Africa, which could be beneficial to the CAR, because of its many warring factions. It has worked in other African countries, especially with francophone African countries. The presence of a French military base in some of these countries, though neo-colonialist in nature, have helped to put an end to militant uprisings before they began.

Russia’s influence in other parts of Africa

Asides the CAR, Russia’s influence in Africa has been on the increase in recent times. Russia is selling arms to Cameroon, as it battles Boko Haram Jihadists. It signed military deals with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Angola, and also signed a deal with the government of Sudan to assist the latter with nuclear power capabilities.

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It has stakes in Zimbabwe’s and Guinea’s mines, hoping to have the same level of influence that China has in many of these countries. Like China, Russia is not weighed down by a colonial past in Africa. Hence, many countries are more receptive to its ‘Trojan horse’ gifts. Analysts say Russia’s charm offensive in Africa is not for ‘economic development’, but rather, for ‘political advancement’.

Is this the beginning of another western proxy war in Africa?

The first western proxy war in Africa was during Africa’s independence struggles. Russia, the dominant republic in the Soviet Union, trained Africa’s freedom fighters as they fought to free their countries’ from the hands of colonial masters. People such as Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, were trained in guerilla warfare and communism by the former Soviet Union or Cuba and China, the last two countries having excellent economic ties with the Union. The Soviet Union’s presence in Africa was part of a proxy war, popularly called the ‘Cold war’, with the West, and especially the United States that began after the end of World War II.

However, the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 90s meant Russia had to refocus on affairs at home and put an end to some of its interventions in Africa. Russia’s capital, Moscow, was also the Soviet Union’s base of operations. Russia’s reduced influence in Africa helped China gain the upper hand in pitching its tents in Africa. Many African countries see China as an alternative to western countries who attach stringent measures before giving aid to African countries. The re-involvement of Russia in the ‘fight’ for Africa and its resources gives many of those African countries other alternatives, which at the end of the day may be beneficial to African countries.

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