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Democracy deferred — France, US may attempt to strike deal with CAR president to counter Russian influence

Democracy deferred — France, US may attempt to strike deal with CAR president to counter Russian influence
Russian president Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadera (right) during their meeting on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 23 October, 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mkhael Metzel / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

Are France and the US preparing to drop opposition to a third term for CAR’s president if he evicts Russia?

Signs are emerging that France and the United States (US) are contemplating a deal with the Central African Republic’s (CAR) president Faustin-Archange Touadéra. 

The Faustian pact, it is speculated, is that if Touadéra breaks ties with Moscow — and particularly evicts the Russian state-funded paramilitary organisation Wagner, which has a stranglehold on the CAR — France and the US will withdraw their opposition to him seeking a third presidential term.

A referendum to change the constitution to allow Touadéra to run again will be held on 30 July. No one expects either the referendum or the subsequent presidential election to be really free and fair, so Touadéra seems set to remain in state house for at least 10 years. (Three years remaining of his second term plus at least one term of seven years under the new constitution.)

France, as the former colonial power that retains considerable interests in the CAR, and the US, had been critical of Touadéra’s often brutal suppression of his political opposition and curtailment of political and civic freedoms. The US has also publicly criticised Touadéra’s third-term bid, and France is believed to have done so at least privately. It seems African organisations and governments have remained silent. 

But the US and France are changing their approach, according to the journal Africa Confidential. It reported this month that French president Emmanuel Macron was leading this effort starting in February and March this year when he and Touadéra met in Gabon in President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s presidential palace. It added that Macron’s hospitality to Touadéra at his international summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris last month also indicated a change of heart by the French leader.

Further signals were evident on 20 June, when the CAR was discussed at the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Africa Confidential said these included French Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Nathalie Broadhurst Estival, praising the CAR government for all it had achieved so far, and hoping the referendum would be free and transparent. That is, implicitly accepting the referendum itself. Neither France nor the US have announced any official change of positions on CAR, unsurprisingly.

But J Peter Pham, former US special envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes regions — whose advice is still sought by the US administration — supports the new approach. 

“Given that recent events have shown how unreliable reliance on Wagner can be — to say nothing about the criminal network’s prospects for even surviving, much less thriving, over the long term — the US and its allies should welcome the regime in Bangui reassessing its choices and offer it an opportunity to realign,” he told ISS Today. “Of course, if it does not, it will have to suffer the full consequences of its wilful stubbornness.”

When asked if he and the US more generally should not be concerned about abandoning support for democracy and human rights, Pham said: “Not ideal, but getting rid of Wagner and standing up an alternative cannot be done without a partner in place for the time required. Holding a campaign while that is going on will overly complicate the situation and create an opportunity for Wagner to engage in mischief as it exits with bad grace.”

How far Pham’s views reflect or have influenced the Biden administration’s, in this case, is not yet clear. Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, is sceptical about a deal between the US, France and CAR’s president. “Touadera is deeply immersed in the illicit trafficking of CAR minerals out of the country through Wagner. He now also relies on Wagner for his personal protection,” he told ISS Today. “So, not only does he have little incentive financially to consider leaving Wagner, but it may be dangerous for him to even consider doing so.”

But Remadji Hoinathy, senior researcher on Central Africa and the Great Lakes at the Institute for Security Studies, has also detected a conspicuous silence by the US and France and other Western governments since the start of the referendum process last year. That was in sharp contrast to the expectation that they would condemn the referendum and Touadéra’s harsh crackdown on political protests against it. 

Hoinathy also recalls that in February this year it was reported by Le Monde that Washington proposed to Touadéra that if he got rid of Wagner over 12 months, the US would provide support to the CAR military with training and equipment. (There was no public mention of the US withdrawing its opposition to his third term bid at that time.)

And Hoinathy notes that because of the CAR’s ambivalent position, Western countries could very well “lower their expectations of human rights and democracy to open the possibility of Touadéra turning to them”.

“But this still, in my opinion, remains a hypothesis,” Hoinathy adds, saying he hasn’t seen conclusive proof of an actual deal having been done between France and the US on the one side and Touadéra on the other.

“And the way Wagner is really getting so deep into the security apparatus of CAR suggests this is not something that will happen very soon,” he says, noting that Wagner reinforced its troops in the run-up to the referendum. 

If such a deal goes through, it would perhaps be one of the clearest signs yet that Africa’s relations with the ‘West’ and ‘East’ are regressing to the Cold War era. Then both global poles strove for support in Africa — and elsewhere — to bolster their global alliances, regardless of the adherence of the African countries to democracy and human rights. 

Wagner — and through them Moscow — is also deeply involved in other countries such as Mali, Sudan and Libya. Would this mean that some Western powers would be prepared to give these others a free pass on values too if they drop Wagner and Moscow?

And this week there was a coup in Niger, which France and the West had turned to as their anchor support in West Africa after being evicted from Mali. Whether Russia encouraged that coup or would once again step in to exploit it is not yet clear. 

Although the African Union has apparently not criticised Touadéra’s bid to extend his powers, it has generally identified third-termism as a governance problem to be addressed. Not least because it often provokes violent measures to get rid of leaders who won’t leave democratically. And Touadéra specifically hasn’t shown himself worthy of an extended term of office. His own Faustian deal with Wagner, which keeps him in power by violently suppressing opposition in exchange for mining resources, is hardly the development model the CAR needs. 

The legendary Faust’s deal came at the price of his soul and eternal damnation. Analogously, are two world powers that are meant to be promoters and protectors of democracy globally, selling out on those values in parts of Africa? Would the price of a deal to woo Touadéra away from Moscow do serious injury to the fundamental democratic and human rights values on which Africa’s long-term development ultimately depends? DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Russia you have attacked a country without cause, and them you say its a terror attack when they attack back?!

    There is clearly something wrong with your collective brain and I look forward to Ukraine kicking your other end.

    Hard.

  • Tracy Smith says:

    Either way, someone is always throwing money at the problem. Maybe that’s the problem.

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