France has announced that it will remove all of its remaining soldiers from the Central African Republic by the end of this year, as diplomatic ties between Paris and Bangui hit an all-time low. While there has been no official reason given for the end of the withdrawal, this move is the latest in 18 months of withdrawals of French support for its former colony, as it accuses Bangui of colluding with Russia in anti-French propaganda campaigns, and of letting Russian mercenaries loose on civilians with total impunity. Non-european media outlets interpret the situation differently: emphasizing the right of sovereign states to choose their own allies, they insinuate that the French reaction is merely the disgruntlement of a neo-colonial power which is losing its privileged position in Francophone African politics.
The 130 French soldiers which remain in CAR are there in a logistic support role. The majority of French military support arrived on 5th December 2013 under Operation Sangaris to calm the civil war which had overwhelmed the country after the Seleka rebellion. This was the seventh French military intervention in CAR since it became independent in 1960. Sangaris was declared a success and officially ended in 2016, when a new Central African government had been elected. After this, France continued to provide military training, advice and weapons to the Central African government until 2021.
According to most sources, the Russian mercenary group Wagner first arrived in CAR in 2018, however Russian support became far more visible in late 2020 and early 2021, when a new coalition of anti-government militia nearly took control of the entire country. Having narrowly evaded expulsion, the Central African government led a forceful military campaign in 2021 to regain control of the country, relying on bilateral allies such as Russia and Rwanda. The former ambassador to the Central African Republic, who represented France during the Sangaris military intervention, believes that Sangaris ended prematurely, leaving space for Russia to get a foothold. While some called him the “Emperor of Bangui” at the time, he insists that the French mission was not neo-colonial, and only even supported the Central African government to implement its own plans.
In an interview with France24 in October, President Touadera spoke openly about cooperation with Russia, but denied making any deals with private military companies such as Wagner. He also rejected the idea that his turning to Russia was because he was frustrated with Paris. However, he did claim that he turned to bilateral allies because the UN and France could not, or would not, help in the urgent military situation of 2020-21. He said that in a time of war with the new rebellion he was forced to turn to all of his allies for support to bring peace to CAR. When asked about human rights violations by Russian soldiers, Touadera pointed out that Sangaris and UN peacekeepers had also been accused of violations, and that the Central African government has launched an inquiry into the conduct of Russian soldiers. However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and ACLED have reported that Wagner has committed proportionately more war crimes than the national government or anti-government militias.
So is France pulling out because it no longer has the political space to provide stabilising support to a country deep in a protracted conflict, or because it no longer “monopolises” political space in a former colony? In fact, the reason does not matter: what matters is the final comment of President Touadera: “all military interventions in CAR have led to violence against civilians”. Military support, no matter where it is coming from, may serve governing regimes, but it does not serve normal citizens. If France or Russia are truly interested in protecting and helping the Central African people, they should turn to non-military methods such as development aid. Perhaps Central Africans would be less likely to join anti-government militias if they had a job which could feed their families, rather than constant fear of which military group might arrive to “liberate” their town next.
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