Rwanda’s growing influence in the Central African Republic (CAR) – involving military, diplomatic and economic interventions – is coming under increased scrutiny as Bangui’s reliance on the support of Russian mercenaries leads to a freezing of foreign donor support for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s administration.
Rwanda’s support for Touadéra is examined in a new report from the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG). The publication of the report, published on July 7, highlights the fact that both Rwanda and the Moscow-allied Wagner group are providing troops to Touadéra at the same time as exploiting the country economically.
The report points to a number of dangers that Rwanda’s intervention raises for the CAR. Notable among them:
– Rwanda – whose government under President Paul Kagame is already looked upon favorably by Western powers – could be pulled into “the tussle for influence” between the West and Russia;
– There is potential for clashes between Wagner troops and Rwanda’s forces. Although some Wagner troops have left the CAR since the group’s recent abortive rebellion in Russia, Bangui claims this is simply part of a “rotation” of units, and the ICG reports that there is already tension between Rwanda and Wagner; and
– Rwanda’s economic interests in the CAR, backed by the presence of Rwandan troops, could provoke a violent response from the people of the CAR.
The ICG records that Rwanda:
– Is the biggest contributor of peacekeepers to the United Nations mission in the CAR, which included more than 2,000 Rwandan soldiers and police officers by 2022;
– Has sent another contingent of nearly 1,000 troops under a bilateral agreement with Bangui;
– Has signed economic agreements with Bangui, under which more than 100 Rwandan firms are registered in the CAR;
– Has been closely involved with Angola in attempts to broker peace between Touadéra’s administration and CAR rebels opposing him; and
– Supports security sector reform and is helping to strengthen state institutions in the CAR.
Unlike human rights group reports on the Kagame administration, the Crisis Group report does not condemn Rwanda’s activities in the Central African Republic. “For the most part,” it says, “Rwandan soldiers in CAR, whether blue helmets [UN peacekeepers] or bilaterally deployed troops, have a good reputation with the Central African authorities and population.”
While some serious incidents have tarnished their image, they “are few in number compared to those involving other UN forces operating in CAR and to the grave human rights violations perpetrated by Wagner paramilitaries, both of which have included sexual exploitation and abuse.”
As a result, Kigali’s interventions – which “tend to perform functions closer to counter-insurgency than traditional peacekeeping” – have boosted the country’s reputation “as a credible African alternative to multilateral operations, which have often been ineffective.”
This enables Rwanda to “burnish its image as a guarantor of stability, under the banner of ‘African solutions to African problems’, a vision close to… President… Kagame’s heart that Western capitals often also endorse as an alternative to large outside peacekeeping missions…” says the ICG report.
The release of the ICG report comes only weeks after the release of a United Nations report on Rwanda’s support of the M23 rebel group in the eastern DR Congo. Refuting denials from Kigali, a “Group of Experts” appointed by the UN Security Council said there is evidence of direct interventions by Rwandan troops on Congolese territory, either reinforcing M23 combatants or fighting the DR Congo’s army and local armed groups. The UN report generated sharp condemnation of Kigali’s role by the United Statestea European Union (EU) and individual EU member states such as France.
The Crisis Group report notes that, just as the relative success of Rwandan troops in combating the Cabo Delgado insurgency in Mozambique has drawn praise, their efforts in the CAR “have earned [Rwanda] considerable respect”. It adds: “These interventions also arm Kigali with arguments to counter growing anger at its backing for the M23 rebellion…”
Citing tensions over President Touadéra’s efforts to run for a third term in office, as well as the freezing of aid to his government over its links to Wagner, the ICG says that “in these circumstances, an expanded partnership with Rwanda looks like a way for CAR authorities to mitigate the risk of a full-blown crisis.”
But warning of public discontent over Rwanda’s role, it says “the country has a long history of popular revolt against the predatory practices of foreign powers operating together with national authorities.”
Summarizing the recommendations with which the Crisis Group customarily ends its reports, it says that to reduce the potential for intensified conflict in the Central African Republic:
– Rwandan investors should help build the CAR’s formal economy and interact with local authorities and rural communities;
– Bangui and Kigali should end the secrecy around their collaboration and publish the contents of bilateral agreements to the CAR public; and
– Rwanda should link military support for the CAR to security reforms, and join Touadéra reviving a peace process with CAR rebel groups.