YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – When reports emerged that mercenaries from the Russian security company the Wagner Group were being sent to Ukraine, the people of the Central African Republic knew just what that meant.

Wagner Group mercenaries have been active in their country, and have been accused of gross human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, rape, and extensive looting.

President Faustin-Archange Touadéra recruited the mercenaries in his fight against armed militia groups that have plagued the country for nearly a decade.

The country went into crisis in 2013 following the overthrow of President Francois Bozize –a Christian from the South – by a Muslim rebel group known as Seleka. Christians make up about 80 percent of the population of the Central African Republic (CAR), and Muslims about 15 percent.

A pro-Christian group called the anti-Balaka rose in opposition to the Seleka, eventually driving them from the capital.

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However, the groups continue to fight each other to this day, and the central government has little control of the country outside of the capital, Bangui.

Authorities in Bangui have welcomed Russia as a preferred ally in its war against insurgents, using Russian mercenaries to help give the government a veneer of stability.

Russia has also provided the regime with AK47s, sniper rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers to help CAR fight off marauding rebels.

However, the UN says it documented over 500 incidents of abuse such as extrajudicial killings, acts of torture, and sexual violence linked to the mercenaries in 2020 alone.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a leading human rights group, says “the nature and seriousness of the violations reported and the targeting of civilians who criticize the actions of the Russian fighters threaten the very limited elements of peace and state control.”

“Moreover, the presence of FACA (the Central African Republic military) troops when the Russian mercenaries commit these grave crimes implicates the state and threatens to alienate citizens from their own government and army,” said CSW’s Kiri Kankhwende.

Following are excerpts of Kankhwende’s interview with Crux.

Crux: CSW has said it is “concerned by allegations of human rights and humanitarian law violations by Russian Mercenaries invited to CAR and supported by the government who work with the national army.” How serious are these allegations?

Kankhwende: The concerns are serious and persistent. In 2021, three UN working groups and a Special Rapporteur jointly expressed their concern at the actions of ‘Russian trainers’.  Subsequent reports indicate that these concerns are consistent and include arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, extra judicial killings, rape, extensive looting and the use of land mines and prohibited ordinances. The indiscriminate nature of landmines presents a significant humanitarian challenge and at times humanitarian organizations are unable to assist citizens in need due to the presence or suspected presence of the ordinances.

While the world has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was actually a support march in Bangui for Russia. How do you reconcile this support and the alleged rights abuses committed by Russians in the CAR?

Russian support has bolstered the current government, thus a march in the nation’s capital should not come as a surprise, given that a key presidential advisor is a Russian national.

Additionally, the war in CAR has been extremely difficult for multiple communities in the country. Speaking to our contacts there over the last nine or 10 years, there has been frustration that the security situation in the country was never effectively handled. Sources at the beginning of the conflict shared suspicions that it was Chadian peacekeeping forces that ultimately paved the way for the Seleka to take the capital by cutting the electricity supply in Bangui at a crucial point. Then there were the French troops, who were also accused of serious violations, and especially sexual abuse of children.

When the UN mandated a peacekeeping mission, its mandate included offensive use of force. However, the commanders understandably preferred to only use lethal force when attacked by armed groups. This led to accusations that the UN peacekeepers were assisting the various armed groups and not adequately protecting civilians. Around 2015/16 there was a strong sense that if CAR’s army, the FACA, was allowed to be rearmed and redeployed it would succeed in defeating the armed groups and restoring security in the country. CAR was under an arms embargo by the UN and the annual peacekeeping mandate had France, its former colonial power, as the UN Security Council’s pen holder. The feeling in the country was of frustration with France and its meddling in the affairs of the country over the decades, and when that lined up with Russia’s desire for growing influence in Africa, Russia fought to have included in the mandate trainers that would support the FACA.

For some in CAR, the redeployment of the FACA together with Russia presented an opportunity for the cycles of violence perpetrated by armed groups to come to an end. This may in part explain why there is support for Russia in some parts of CAR. Russia has also spent significant sums working on propaganda; for example, a film was issued a few years ago showing how Russian fighters went to CAR and delivered the nation out of the grip of violence into freedom.

For many, working with Russian fighters is seen as the way out, following interventions in the past that have failed. However, the nature and seriousness of the violations reported and the targeting of civilians who criticize the actions of the Russian fighters threaten the very limited elements of peace and state control. Moreover, the presence of FACA troops when the Russian mercenaries commit these grave crimes implicates the state and threatens to alienate citizens from their own government and army.

CSW is also concerned that those guilty of crime are not being made to face the law. Why do you think the authorities would be reluctant to bring criminals to justice?

The specific case referred to in our statement was relating to a current government minister Hassan Bouba, a senior leader of the Union Pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) armed group, who subsequently became a political advisor to the government following the signing of the 2019 peace agreement, receiving political appointments.

The Special Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Bouba’s arrest, in relation to an attack on an IDP camp in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Aliando Town in November 2018, which was executed. However, shortly after his arrest in November 2021, Mr. Bouba was released from detention and continued his ministerial duties.

Mr. Bouba’s case has raised significant concerns over challenging impunity and ensuring justice for the victims of gross human rights violations. It highlights the challenges inherent in cases where high-profile individuals stand accused who have the power and influence to potentially interfere with the judicial process. This interference can be direct or indirect. In this case, if a witness were to give testimony regarding the role Mr. Bouba played while he was a leader of the UPC, but who is now a government minister with power and influence, they would have a legitimate fear of the risks and consequences.

The reasoning as to why Mr. Bouba has retained his position within the government is less clear. Unconfirmed reports suggest that he is no longer aligned with the armed group and since becoming a government advisor in 2019 he holds important relationships with the Russian administration. The Special Criminal Court and UN Independent Expert on CAR have asked for him to be rearrested, but this request is yet to be taken forward.

How do you react to the fact that Chad has actually handed over a former Central African Republic militia leader, Maxime Jeoffroy Eli Mokom Gawaka to the International Criminal Court on suspicions of war crimes and crimes against humanity?

It is a positive development whenever ICC arrest warrants are executed. Addressing impunity has been a challenge in CAR and seeing cases progressing through the ICC and the national Special Criminal Court is very important. We would encourage Chad to ensure that all individuals in its territory implicated committing atrocity crimes, whether they are associated with the anti-balaka or Seleka groups, are transferred to the ICC or the Special Criminal Court in Bangui to stand trial.

Based on your understanding of the security situation in the CAR, do you think there is a likelihood of peace in the next couple of years?

CAR has signed numerous peace agreements over the last decade; the fragmentation and reformation of armed groups and the competition to gain control over natural resources remain.

If the government is able to regain and establish the authority of the state over the geographical land mass and take forward the national reconciliation process in conjunction with opposition parties, there could be an opportunity for the implementation of a nationwide peace agreement. These interventions are costly and would need the support of the international community, especially to fund demobilization and reintegration programs for former militia members.

The conflict has very often been framed as a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga disagrees, and says it’s a struggle to control the country’s vast natural resources. Which, according to you, is the main driver of the conflict?

The conflict in the CAR had for a long time incorrectly presented as a conflict between Muslims and Christians. The conflict has been a struggle for political power and control over the country’s vast resources. The CAR has experienced political turmoil and coups in the past where political allegiances and ethnicity have been part of the conflict.

Historically, the CAR has had high levels of interreligious harmony and tolerance with members of the same family following different religious traditions. This changed in 2012/13 with the Seleka alliance’s advance on Bangui and subsequent takeover, and the first 24 months of the conflict saw religion used as a fault-line and recruiting mechanism for the conflict. Failures at the time to address the mass atrocities that were taking place and the successive cycles of violence by increasingly fragmented armed groups made it a precarious time in the nation’s history.

Though these religious leaders have worked hard to bring about peace, and encourage dialogue, they too have been targeted by armed groups. Catholic priests who have offered shelter to Muslim populations hunted down by the so-called Christian anti Balaka have also been threatened by the group. This is why it is accurate to say the main driver of the conflict isn’t religion, but religion has become a fault line in the structure of conflict and intercommunity relations that must be addressed.

Religious and political leaders have worked extensively to rebuild the social cohesion that is threatened every time there is renewed violence. Of particular concern are the reported violations being committed by Russian mercenaries working alongside the FACA and the potential that this will further erode social cohesion and interreligious cooperation.

The targeting of Muslims and reported mistreatment of the Muslim population will have consequences that far outlast Russian interest in CAR and it will be the people of CAR who are left to restore the trust that is quickly being shattered in an ostensible effort to secure peace and security.