As Ukraine marks one year since Russia’s invasion, a 10-year war halfway around the world, in the Central African Republic, is providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with access to precious minerals that allow him to circumvent Western sanctions.
The Central African Republic (CAR) may seem remote from the war in Ukraine, but in partnering with Russia it has made itself instrumental to Russia’s ability to continue its war. CAR is a former French colony that for decades has been dependent on Western aid and military assistance, but it is now taking distance from its old Western allies, even at the cost of fueling the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group, currently active in the battle for the strategic Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, has for years developed a military partnership with CAR, even providing security to its president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Russia has, in return, gained access to the CAR’s plentiful gold and diamond mines through a company called Lobaye Invest, founded in 2017 and linked to Wagner. A US diplomatic cable released in January estimates that Wagner-linked mining operations in CAR could generate profits of $1 billion per year, profits likely to be used to recruit fighters, purchase weapons, and fuel the war in Ukraine. Other sources, such as IPIS, a Belgian research institute, put CAR’s mineral production, to which Wagner now has privileged access, in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Wagner’s 1,200 troops stationed in the Central African Republic have been accused of serious human rights abuses, as they have in Ukraine—including the murders of the prominent Central African journalist Jean Sinclair Gbossokotto in 2022 and three Russian investigative journalists.
CAR’s gold and diamonds are attractive to international pariahs like Russia seeking to evade sanctions because they can be traded outside the regulated banking sector. Similar strategies have been used in the past by Iran and Venezuela. The Wagner group is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, called “Putin’s chef” because he once ran a company that catered food at the Kremlin. Another Russian-owned company, called Diamville—short for “diamond city”—allegedly transports Wagner’s diamond and gold out of the CAR.
The European Union in February slapped sanctions on Russian citizen Dimitry Sytii, a founder of Lobaye Invest and alleged Wagner operative. But there’s little evidence that US and European sanctions are effective against Wagner or Lobaye for as long as President Touadéra gives Russia a free hand in his country. Russia, in return, offers Touadéra independence from the West, which has for long perpetrated crimes, orchestrated coups d’état, fomented corruption, and exploited valuable natural resources in Central Africa. Many Central Africans support Wagner’s presence in their country, despite evidence of Wagner’s human rights crimes.
CAR’s alliance with Russia began in 2017, when Touadéra met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Russian seaside city of Sochi to discuss how CAR might procure weapons, despite an international arms embargo, to end its war. The following year, Touadéra obtained a meeting with Putin, who helped partially lift UN sanctions so that Russia could sell arms to CAR. In a sense, Touadéra is repaying Putin’s favor by now helping Russia evade Western sanctions.
Russia was then able to build close ties with the CAR because many local groups wanted to push the West out. A mostly Muslim rebel force in CAR, called the Seleka—the “alliance”—initiated the country’s ongoing war back in 2013, with the goal, like Putin in Ukraine, to end Western dominance. Much of the world has forgotten about the powerful 19th-century Muslim kingdoms, such as the Dar al-Kuti, which ruled Central Africa prior to Western colonization of the continent. But hiding in CAR’s breakaway regions, some renamed “Dar al-Kuti,” some Seleka forces still seek to return to their old glory.
Though Seleka lost power in 2014, after a brief stint in power, through Touadéra it has succeeded in a larger postcolonial aim. France has withdrawn its troops from CAR, ending decades of influential military presence, and creating a political void into which Russia expanded.
Distrust of the West in Central Africa has deepened over decades because even as the extent of past Western crimes has become clear, Western nations have rarely offered formal apologies for the brutal ways in which they ruled over their colonial empires. Emmanuel Macron, president of CAR’s former colonizer, France, has acknowledged that colonization was a “grave mistake,” but he has refused to formally apologize. He instead points out that three-fourths of Africa’s citizens were born after colonization ended, as a signal for Africans to turn the page. But such refusals come across as patronizing, and they deepen grievances.
France has also perpetrated fresh crimes in CAR. In 2015, French soldiers stationed in CAR were accused by a United Nations whistleblower of running a child-trafficking ring. The UN whistleblower provided credible evidence of French troops exchanging food for sex from Central African children. The whistleblower, however, eventually resigned from his job, citing pressure for having broken a diplomatic code of silence, and no French soldier or official has been held accountable or responsible.
Humiliations by the West, unatoned for, have left countries like CAR hungry to promote a non-Western international order, and to seek military, financial and industrial partnerships with Russia and China. India, for example, is purchasing large quantities of Russian oil. China could be providing Russia with military equipment, through shell companies, as well as valuable military intelligence.
President Touadéra, a mathematician by training, has simultaneously sought financial independence from France, whose treasury—in a surreal arrangement—still controls the Central African Republic’s CFA currency and foreign reserves. So in 2022 Touadéra made CAR the world’s second nation to adopt the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which depends on no central bank, only on an algorithm.
CAR’s alliance with Russia show how countries large and small have found opportunity in the Ukraine war to move away from a century-long dependence on the West. These countries are driven by historic grievances for crimes that the West would do well to atone for, as a step towards forging balanced and rights-based partnerships better fit for an increasingly multipolar century.