In the shadow of KQ and RwandAir wings, Bangui’s future is laid bare
Sunday March 20 2022
On a hot day at the Central African Republic’s Bangui M’Poko International Airport, the sun shines brightly on big Kenya Airways and RwandAir planes.
Together with Ethiopian Airlines, these three Eastern African carriers rule the continental air corridor into CAR. Right there, under their wings, is a summary of both the tragedy and hope of CAR.
Slightly to their left is a motley of small United Nations and humanitarian planes. Farther away is a French military plane. And, not too far off, a Russian helicopter belonging to the Wagner private security group, friends of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who came to his rescue when rebels were barrelling down on the capital at the end of 2020. Around the airport, plastic waste is an eyesore.
All these elements at the airport sum up the many crises, fragility and possibilities for the CAR. The M’Poko airport is guarded and secured by the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) contingent of the UN peacekeeping force Minusca. On the rooftop of the airport, its soldiers stand guard and man a 12mm machine gun. However, the unsettling window into CAR’s fragility is a few metres where RDF are perched on Toyota pick-ups in blue helmets. They patrol the 10-kilometre perimeter of the airport.
Boda boda on runway
If you stand there, in the distance you will occasionally see a very strange sight – a boda boda loaded with passengers, or some cargo – zooming very fast across the runaway. And, then, there are the local folks who also walk across the runway, carrying their wares on their heads to or from the market. The UN peacekeepers stand guard across the many panya routes criss-crossing it, and when a plane is landing or taking off, they block the paths so that a boda boda doesn’t end up under the wheels of a Kenya Airways or Ethiopian Airlines Boeing. It is some sight, with the vast airport ground strewn with peacekeepers.
There are members of the Central African Armed Forces (Faca) sitting in the shades along the paths, as the Minusca troops stand in the sun, but they are ineffective – and indeed part of the problem. Their connections to the local community mean they either will not stop them using the airport runway or, as is the more common case, they take bribes and let people move on.
There are also long-standing arrangements with airport authorities to allow local folks to farm in the airport area and, farmers being farmers, often burn the bushes to clear them. It’s not uncommon for planes to turn back and not land because the smoke from airport bushfires makes visibility hard!
But it gets more twisted. Within the vast airport ground is a semi-independent French base. Frequently, planes land, are towed into the base by tractors and off-loaded or loaded, out of prying Central African and Minusca eyes.
Now, the Russian Wagner mercenary group are building their own base enclave farther out in the airport, where they will land planes, tow them inside and offload and load them as the French are doing.
President Touadera has an unenviable job. He might fly the flag, but few leaders have as little sovereignty over critical corners of their lands and are beleaguered by an incompetent and corrupt state like he is.
A short distance away from the airport, there is a football match between the contingent and District 8 of Bangui. Before the match, every player is given a rapid test for Covid-19. Everyone is negative, and so they can take to the rough gravel playground for the game. The result is astounding, considering that all the Covid-19 hullabaloo largely passed by CAR.
Only 18 percent of its eligible population is vaccinated. There is no social distancing outside the UN peacekeeping camps, and there isn’t a face mask in sight. A peacekeeping officer sums it up rather dramatically: “Sometimes we have to take off our face masks to deal with the people, because it would be a barrier to communication, and seem like we are saying they are diseased and we aren’t.”
The largest crowd at the football field, though, isn’t watching the game. The medical tent where the players took their Covid-19 is there for a wider social goal — to offer free medical check-ups and basic care to the people. The queue is long. Nearly two hours later, there’s still a line. For many people in a Bangui still recovering from conflict, it is the only healthcare they can get.
The game ends, and the tent is folded up and the medical cars loaded. This was one the Rwandans didn’t win. They were trounced 2-0 by District 8.
CAR and the Touadera government would need to score more and bigger goals to recover the country and the economy. Touadera’s gamble on the Wagner private security contractors partly helped him keep power and forge ahead after the 2020 election, but he didn’t bet on Russian President Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine.
Entanglement with the Russians
Only the EU has been on board to write the cheques needed for the economic rebuilding, security sector reforms, and retraining the military that is needed to get CAR back on its feet. The EU is now demurring, given Touadera’s entanglement with the Russians. He is impaled on the horns of a dilemma.
Climate change outside CAR’s borders has also conspired to make his life harder. The all-important Lake Chad has, over the past 60 years, shrunk by 90 percent due to overuse and climate change effects. It has created a water shortage in the Chad Basin, spanning eight countries. The shortage has become a security nightmare, fuelling terrorism and the rise of Boko Haram in the region.
In this environment, CAR’s vast fertile and water-rich lands risk becoming a curse because it is now the region’s key water reservoir, increasing the possibility that its neighbours and the foreign interests congregated in the sub-region will meddle more in its affairs to secure water access, further imperilling its instability.
Heavily dependent on Cameroon, through which it exports and imports via the Douala port, very soon, landlocked CAR will be able to diversify and open up its economy more. The first phase of the Ouesso-Bangui-Ndjamena road, a key link in the Pointe Noire-Brazzaville/Kinshasa-Bangui-Ndjamena transport corridor, looks likely to land in Bangui soon. CAR would no longer be so dependent on the narrow Bangui to Beloko 600-kilometre road that ends at its border with Cameroon, and is the only one connecting the country to its six neighbours that is fully tarmacked.
Analysts say there’s a risk that Cameroon’s loss of its dominant logistics position with CAR, and some of the business siphoned off by the two Congos by the new route, could result in a backlash from Yaoundé, where the ageing long-ruling strongman Paul Biya soldiers on. There could be tears.
Should DR Congo join the East African Community, as it is widely expected to, within the next two or so years, then the EAC would claw half of the Central African Republic’s border: in the south along River Ubangi, through which it already imports 80 percent of its fuel, and to the west with South Sudan, which is a long pipeline for the trafficking of timber into Uganda and Kenya. There will, therefore, also be lots of new legitimate and illegitimate fortunes to be made.
It would give Uganda a more open and straight corridor to the border of CAR, where it still has to contend with remnants of Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
During the war in Rwanda and in the wake of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, many Rwanda refugees scattered. They moved incredible distances, through DRC, to Congo Republic, and on to CAR. Thousands went on to other parts of the world from there. A couple of thousands stayed.
When Rwanda first went to CAR as part of the Minusca mission, that diaspora was important in helping give them reach into the local communities as they had now mastered Sango, the main language spoken in CAR and also the official language of the country.
A new generation of East Africans is joining them. We went to an East African-owned hotel and restaurant that was only three weeks old. The stories of Kenyans, Ugandans and Rwandans arriving in increasing numbers to sniff for openings that haven’t been cornered by Cameroonian and Congolese hustlers abound in Bangui.
Some East Africans are already into farming, and Bangui wags quip that local folks laughed at a group that opened a 100-acre farm because they look ridiculous working from morning to evening.
At M’Poko airport, in the stressful exit lounge, it was all about Kenya Airways and RwandAir. The flight was full. The journey eastward from CAR seems to be rich pickings for the airlines.
But perhaps only for as long as that umbrella provided by Minusca and the Rwandan military remains. That can’t be forever. However, a Minusca police officer strikes up a very optimistic tone.
“To be honest, we have seen some progress,” he says, “the Central Africans are friendly folks, and we see that they can be brilliant when there is good leadership. They can turn this around.”
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]