A New Authoritarianism in the Central African Republic? Interview with Roland Marchal

Russian mercenaries provide security for the convoy of President Faustin-Archang

Roland Marchal, renowned specialist of the African continent, is the author of the recently published and thorough Etude du CERI, entitled Centrafrique : la fabrique d’un nouvel autoritarisme (Central African Republic: The Making of a new Authoritarianism). In this study, Marchal analyses the conditions in which the Central African Republic (CAR), a failed state emerging from an existential crisis, is able to play on its own weaknesses and a particular regional and international configuration to coerce the political arena. Roland Marchal answers our questions in the interview below.

What is the situation in the Central African Republic today?

My text looks at events that took place up to the beginning of 2023, but the logic I set out has hardly changed since then. A new Constitution that strengthens the powers of the President and extends his term of office was adopted in appalling conditions after a coup de force against the Constitutional Court. A new government has just been appointed, much the same as before, albeit with a few new figures who will not play a significant role: it was necessary to punish those who had hesitated to campaign for the new constitutional text and to integrate a few members of the opposition, not the most important, who had taken advantage of the referendum campaign to rally to the regime. There is no real political openness here, with the prosecution of opposition MPs being the clearest indication of this.

The main issue lies elsewhere. Insecurity in the provinces, the huge scale of humanitarian needs, and the widespread impoverishment of the population are still worrying, but the President of the Central African Republic has learned only one lesson from these challenges to resume talks with France and the United States in order to restart budgetary aid and regain the support of the Bretton Woods institutions and the European Union. The country's coffers are empty. The regime is afraid: afraid of its security forces, and afraid of armed groups who have essentially been reduced to road cutters, diggers, or mercenaries who sell their services to neighbouring Sudan. The regime is afraid and, as I describe in my study, terrorises its population. President Touadéra fears for his life, distrusts the tribunes of his own party, and lives in style in Bangui and abroad, as if to forget that he has failed.

The CAR thus retains its role as a political laboratory for a French policy that is straining to find new friends, for want of rethinking its action: Paris wants to get into the good graces of Kigali, which has big ambitions in the CAR. The increase in Rwandan influence in the CAR is described as a mechanical weakening of the Wagner militia, which remains well established in the CAR despite internal adjustments following Yevgeny Prigozhine's death. After some hesitation, Washington has pushed a private military company, Bancroft, to gain a foothold in the country and train Central African soldiers to protect mining sites, hoping to prove that the United States can do as much or better than Wagner.

There are doubts about the feasibility of these goals and, above all, concern that Paris, no more than Washington, does not care about the fate of the people. But let's be clear: seen from these two capitals, the CAR does not have the strategic value of Niger and the other Sahelian countries. Above all, political disinterest in Africa runs deep in both France and the United States, despite the Pavlovian reflexes triggered by Wagner's presence.

With the presence of the Wagner militia in the country, is it fair to say that Russia now has a firm grip on the CAR? When did this Russian presence begin and how did Moscow establish itself in the Central African Republic?

As I explain at length in my study, Russia and Wagner have used the CAR as a testing ground for a policy that has been implemented elsewhere with great success. This success is first and foremost economic, because since 2019 Wagner has financed its military operations in the CAR and then elsewhere in the Sahel from the profits it has made. It should be remembered that the South African private military company Executive Outcome, which was called in by the Freetown government to confront the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, failed in this respect in Sierra Leone in 1997, despite British support.

The current situation, in which Russian military intelligence has regained overall control of Wagner, should not obscure the fact that a presence in the field implies personal links with Central African political and security operators. As a result, Wagner's employees may be having second thoughts about their future, but their day-to-day activities in the CAR are continuing despite the heavier atmosphere, with everyone having to assess the sincerity of the Presidents' commitments in Moscow and Bangui.

From an ideological point of view, the CAR has demonstrated that it has the strength to combine the expert manipulation of social networks and public messages with the conduct of targeted security operations. Criticism of France in the CAR (as in many Sahelian countries) has its own origins that Paris struggles to acknowledge, but control of social media remains a valuable asset for mobilising the population behind the regime and for identifying ill-intentioned critics.

It is this "model", built little by little in a dialectic between the survival of the regime and the dependence sought by Moscow, that is now at work in the Sahel with the same crippling consequences for democracy, the rights of expression, and the construction of national reconciliation.

Don't be fooled. Western countries have never excelled in their staunch defence of democracy in Africa, but their support for authoritarian regimes has taken different forms, even if it has produced the same effects. Modernity, from this point of view, is now on the side of the Russians: this is what makes the Central African regime so important for the analyst and so worrying for the population that this regime is supposed to represent.

You show that the Wagner militia is no longer alone in the African market, and that it faces competition from many other groups. Can you tell us a little more about this?

The arrival of a private military company (under the guise of an NGO) like Bancroft in Bangui may indeed come as a surprise to the uninitiated. To cut a long story short, we're at a double juncture that is bringing about major changes in the field of security.

Firstly, the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which many military functions were privatised, are coming to an end. We know, for example, the extent to which the Afghan army was disorganised when the private American operators who managed military air traffic decided to leave their posts and return to the United States with the last soldiers. Many of these companies then rushed off to Africa, to Somalia and the Sahel, with the same operating logic and so on. At the time of its formation, Wagner had been able to draw on the experience of these private Western companies in the security sector. These companies are trying to sell their services and are popping up all over the place, in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere. In this respect, we need to redouble our efforts, because we know how selective leaders in the West and Russia are when it comes to denunciation.

Then there are the new state players, from China to Turkey and the Gulf States, who have economic or more political reasons for developing this kind of presence on the African continent. Chinese companies feel they need better protection and their security companies are more visible, even if for the time being they are not acting like their Western counterparts. Turkey also put in place a multi-faceted intervention during the Libyan crisis and did not confine itself to the presence of soldiers. The Gulf States, as they did in Yemen, have created local armed forces which they finance and equip.

What is important to understand, in order to avoid a certain retrospective discourse on the "terrible people" (aka mercenaries) of the independence period, is that African regimes have an essential role in consolidating this presence, as the CAR so clearly shows.

You refer to a "new authoritarianism" in which the Central African state uses Russia to consolidate its power. Could you elaborate on this concept?

First of all, a little modesty: I don't think it's a concept, at least not based on my work. A number of authors have tried to believe that by adding a “neo” you can transform a concept, such as Jean-François Médard's neo-patrimonialism or Michel Camau's neo-authoritarianism in relation to Tunisia. I don't belong to that tradition.

In my work on authoritarian societies or societies at war, the CAR is the first regime to make use of repressive technologies that are well known nationally, with new sets of practices that require analysis: the offensive or defensive control of social networks (which goes far beyond disinformation), disappearances orchestrated by the militias Wagner works with, the absolute disregard for the separation of powers, doubled by a formidable legal arbitrariness (despite self-congratulations on pseudo-transitional justice), the mobilisation of sovereigntism, which also relies on cryptocurrencies, and so on.

This modernity can be observed at a time when the material culture of the state is limited, because of the war that destroyed what little there was, but also because of the trajectory of its construction, which is undoubtedly a more important causal element than the Russian events. Beyond the extreme forms of evasion or plundering by its elites, we need to consider other dynamics that are undoubtedly linked to the evolution of the (transnational) formation of Central African elites over the decades and the power of localism. This question, perhaps not adequately addressed here, will be the subject of my next work on the history of this country.

More generally, what do you think about the growing influence of authoritarian and undemocratic foreign powers in Africa?

Nothing! I don't think there's a direct causal link, although intuitively you might think there is, because you learn a lot quickly when it comes to suppressing dissent and staying in power excessively. Western states have had the upper hand for decades, and it is difficult to argue that this has been an advance for democracy in African countries. Many other international and local parameters have to be considered.

More importantly, there is a real crisis of democracy on the continent, as elsewhere in the world, and the (relative) prosperity of certain authoritarian states suggests that they are a response to this failure. The world's new praetorians, for example, talk only of sovereigntism and no longer even mention the projects of social transformation that their counterparts championed a few decades ago. We are clearly experiencing a backlash, the causes of which are well known, but the solutions to which are still too complex for the stereotyped visions of decision-makers in Africa and elsewhere.

The Western states (and France in particular) bear a great deal of responsibility in this regard, since they have allowed double standards to flourish (particularly in the evaluation of procedures that directly express democracy: voting, the right of expression, the right to demonstrate, etc.), of which they are now to some extent the victims. Dismay at the policies pursued in Africa by the developed democracies is undoubtedly one of the most widely shared feelings among social scientists on the African continent, whatever their differences.

How do you see Russia's future in Africa? Is Moscow capable of establishing cooperation in the same way as Beijing or Ankara? Is Russia interested in such a relationship with the CAR?

We must avoid falling back into Cold War thinking. Apart from the arms trade, Russian cooperation is still very limited, but Russia is and will remain on the African continent, just as it will remain a neighbour of Europe. This does not mean that we should be satisfied with the annexations in Ukraine or the massacres perpetrated by Wagner in the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Above all, it means that the weakening of norms and international law that we see in Ukraine and Gaza will not help Russia and others to cooperate more constructively. Who cares if Bancroft replaces Wagner if the people of the Central African Republic continue to live in the same way?

Is it fair to say that Africa has become a battleground for the great powers, China versus the United States, Russia versus Europe?

The purpose of my work on the Central African Republic is to show that to ask the question in this way, as politicians and journalists do, is to take an anachronistic look at Africa through the lens of the 1960s.

Even if the major powers find it difficult to admit it, African decisions, good or bad, carry more weight than they used to. It is only on the basis of this recognition that Western states may be able to rebuild new relationships with African countries.

Interview by Corinne Deloy

Cover picture: Russian mercenaries provide security for the convoy of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in February 2022. Copyright: Clément Di Roma/VOA.
Photo 1: Bangui, Decembre 2014. Copyright: Alllexxxis.
Photo 2: Cover of Roland Marchal’s Etude du CERI

Read the Etude by Roland Marchal, Centrafrique : la fabrique d’un autoritarisme, Les Etudes du CERI, n° 268-269, October 2023.

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