This time just over a year ago, Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera, a polygamist like nearly all his predecessors, was almost banished to the sofa. But he wasn’t dealing with wife troubles; it was more life-threatening, and he survived thanks to heavy-handed intervention by East Africans.
With presidential and legislative elections looming in CAR on December 27, 2020, yet another rebel grouping, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), upped their attacks and called on President Touadera to suspend them. Voting went ahead, and he was re-elected, amid outcry from the opposition.
By mid-January 2021, the CPC rebels were closing in on the capital Bangui. Since its independence from France in August 1960, the country has seen the government change through nearly a dozen coups and armed rebellions. Many of the rebellions emerged from neighbouring Chad – and none had failed.
This time, though, a United Nations peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca) had been well-established in the country. It had 21 countries participating, and equalled the largest number of East African Community (EAC) states ever to locate together in a single peacekeeping mission, the other being in Somalia. Reprising its role in Somalia, Burundi had boots on the ground, as did Tanzania, which had been in DR Congo, and Rwanda, now one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping in the world, which had recently been to Darfur, Sudan, is in South Sudan, and in CAR for nearly seven years since the crisis of 2014.
The other African countries are Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Zambia and Gabon, which was kicked out after its troops were involved in a sexual abuse and exploitation scandal. Additionally, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Jordan, Pakistan, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Sri Lanka also have peacekeepers in Minusca.
Ahead of the December polls, the UN said it had to be neutral, and couldn’t be seen to be continuing protection for President Touadera, because it wasn’t doing so for his rivals. With rebels hovering in the distance and fearing it was a plot to expose him to assassination, Touadera called for Russian help, and the famous private security company Wagner, seen as little more than a mercenary outfit, pitched up. Touadera also decided he specifically needed African help too and called Rwanda. Rwanda already had a force in CAR, but it was under the UN. It sent a battalion, operating independently, under a bilateral agreement. The Russians and Rwandans arrived in Bangui within hours of each other.
The mix of complicated UN peacekeeping politics, and alleged meddling by European countries that were seen as aggrieved by Touadera, saw it give instructions to its contingents not to engage the rebels.
Like with the UN peacekeeping forces in DR Congo, sections of Minusca had a reputation for shrinking before the rebels. Even in CAR, some peacekeepers had previously given up their arms when confronted by insurgents. Except there were the East Africans, who in the peacekeeping circles, are said to “die with a gun in their hands.”
In their fight from the Chad border toward Bangui in the south, the rebels avoided the Burundians in the centre and Tanzanians in the southwest, approaching Bangui finally from two directions. Along the way, other peacekeepers heeded advice to do nothing or slunk away. Bangui, however, was largely controlled by the Rwandan forces.
With the rebels surrounding the city, a familiar story was playing out. CAR soldiers dropped their uniforms and melted away in the darkness. Several senior army officers shifted loyalties. Ministers and officials took off for the villages. The Bangui people stayed home, leaving streets deserted. Touadera looked like he was about to be unemployed.
The Rwandan peacekeeping force was pondering the do-nothing orders, when the rebels gifted them, attacking its convoy that was delivering breakfast to its troops in the north of the capital.
Acting in “self-defence,” the Rwandan peacekeepers attacked and eliminated the rebel’s northern axis. The rebels’ western axis was still hopeful and came upon the main bridge leading to Bangui. The Rwandan unilateral force was at the bridge. The rebels took their shot.
Unrestrained by the restrictions placed on its UN counterparts, the Rwandan force scorched the rebels. The Russians, though numbering a few hundred at that point, also stuck by Touadera and have since continued to fight the rebels in the far-flung and remote parts of the country, with their numbers now swollen to 2,500, according to estimates by sources in Bangui.
It was the first such attack to be foiled in CAR’s troubled history, and the people of Bangui, the political class, and the rebels are still coming to terms with its meaning, according to diplomats in the capital.
Col Augustin Migabo, who heads the Rwanda Minusca contingent, says it has resulted in a sea change in CAR about how power should change hands.
“I think the idea that you can put together a quick coup or a rebellion and get your way has been dealt a blow in CAR, and that is the strategic gain of the January pushback,” he told The EastAfrican.
He might have a point. A national dialogue to reach a political consensus in CAR is finally set to kick off. There are isolated spots of recovery, and trade is bustling in especially, the suburbs dominated by the country’s Muslim minority. New buildings are beginning to emerge, and some old homes are being spruced up, in a city whose roads are from a by-gone era.
Touadera is more comfortably in power, but much like Uganda did in Amisom, his security is wholly overseen by the Rwandans. At Touadera’s State House and in his convoy, the outer security circle is manned by stern-faced Rwandans. In between are four Russian Wagner protectors, dressed like characters from a Hollywood movie.
Then there are Central African security officers, and finally, the inner circle protecting Touadera is Rwandan. That formation is maintained through his convoys. He lives in State House with his two wives, who are both protected by Rwandan female army officers. Senior officials in the country, including the Chief Justice and Speaker of the National Parliament and other officials, are protected by the Rwandan Police.
As the sun sets and the 10pm curfew approaches, from their base in the north suburbs of Bangui, their commander Col Egide Ndayileye sees off Rwanda patrols in Toyota pick-ups mounted with machine guns, and armoured vehicles, as they fan out in their hundreds and with a smattering of CAR troops, virtually take over the city, setting up ambushes at strategic points like bridges and utilities that might be sabotaged.
The government and president might sleep a little better today, but the vexing issue of how sustainable this is, especially if the national dialogue doesn’t result in a new political compact, remains like a giant gorilla in the room.
Watching it at close quarters also raises very troubling issues that call into question the ability of the CAR to exist on its feet at all, and how much it has been emasculated by the humanitarian and NGO industry – manned by a record 70,000 highly paid individuals in a country of barely five million.
CAR’s lifeline is a 600-kilometre road from Bangui to Beloko, at the border with Cameroon. If it is closed for long, CAR will collapse.
It was disrupted by rebels previously, and Rwandan forces fought to open it. To this day, this lifeline, named Main Supply Route 1 (MSR1) in UN parlance, which is only just slightly shorter than the distance between the Kenyan capital Nairobi and Uganda’s capital Kampala, is patrolled and kept working by Rwandan troops. At the same time, an African Development Bank-funded road linked from the Congo Republic oil hub of Ponte-Noire is soon landing in the CAR. That road could totally upend the economic order in Central Africa, and create new dynamics on the western edge of the EAC – especially for Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. And it would be even more profound when DR Congo joins the EAC.
Simultaneously something truly remarkable has happened, and its scale is yet to dawn on the continent. If you reckon with Rwanda’s peacekeeping role in South Sudan; Uganda’s regime maintenance project in South Sudan; Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda’s heavy hand in the Somalia peacekeeping force Amisom; the EAC trio in CAR; the partner states still dabbling in DR Congo peacekeeping; Uganda’s recent return to fight its Allied Democratic Front rebels there; and Rwanda’s stabilisation mission in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado; five of the six EAC states have established a security ring that starts at the northern coast of Mozambique, loops through Somalia on to South Sudan, to the CAR, Congo, and back through Mozambique, ringing off nearly 30 per cent of the continent.
Next week: The extent of CAR fragility, the possibilities the various interventions offer it, its Russian dilemma in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and the new East and Central African sub-regional order being crafted both by design and accident by the EAC powers.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3