The United Nations special envoy to the Central African Republic called on Thursday, September 27 for transparency on the flow of arms into the war-torn country and urged diplomatic “coherence” as Russia’s role in the country grows.
In an interview with AFP, U.N. Special Representative Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, whose term expires at the end of the year, said he felt “a measured, but definite, hope” for Central African Republic even as armed groups covet its natural wealth.
Despite reserves of diamonds, gold, uranium, copper and iron, Central African Republic is one of the world’s poorest countries.
President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s weak government controls around a fifth of the country and relies heavily on the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Minusca, for support. The rest is controlled by at least 14 different militia groups who often fight each other for control of revenue from extortion, roadblocks or mineral resources.
Arms embargo ‘weighs’ on CAR’s army
Touadera, addressing the annual U.N. General Assembly this week said that the government is “working to restore the authority of the state by continuing the work of progressive deployment of the administration and state services in our provinces and the restoration of basic social services.”
He reiterated a call for “the total lifting of the arms embargo that still weighs on our national army.”
A U.N. arms embargo imposed in 2013 was last year lifted by the Security Council to allow delivery of Russian weapons for CAR’s armed forces. The United Nations has verified, with the defense ministry and Russia, weapons deliveries from Russia.
The U.N. Security Council in January unanimously extended its sanctions against CAR until January 31, 2019, and in June, France, the United States and the United Kingdom put a hold on a request from Central African Republic for U.N. Security Council approval of weapons shipments from China.
France, Belgium, China and the United States have recently supplied equipment for CAR’s military, but that equipment is understood not to include weaponry.
“China, but also the United States, have proposed new quantities of weapons,” Onanga-Anyanga said. “It’s for a good reason.”
European trainers of Central African troops have themselves backed the increased flow of weapons, he said.
Touadera said that CAR’s government “has maintained the momentum of reforms in the security and defence sectors.”
He welcomed the commitment made by the E.U. “to support training and development in the power of our Defence and Security Forces,” as well as to “support the implementation of the national defence plan and the deployment of the Central African Armed Forces [FACa].”
In July, the E.U. extended its military training mission in the Central African Republic until 2020, pledging €25 million ($29 million) to help reform the country’s defense sector. The scope of the EUTM-RCA mission has also been modified to give strategic advice to the president’s cabinet, interior ministry and police, as well as the military.
On August 8, more than 600 officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers completed a six-month training program under the EUTM-RCA.
Touadera thanked the U.N. mission Minusca and highlighted the United States, China, Russia and France, for “material support to the armed forces of the Central African Republic.”
Our ambition is to see them truly operational and to contribute, alongside Minusca, to the immense effort of stabilization and return to a lasting peace in the Central African Republic,” Touadera said.
CAR’s need for weapons ‘undeniable’
Onanga-Anyanga said that the need for weapons was “undeniable” as the CAR central government builds its own armed forces, with the training around 1,300 troops annually through 2023.
On September 17, Touadera presided over a ceremony to mark the completion of training of the fourth group of FACa personnel by Russian instructors. More than 1,000 personnel have completed the Russian training.
Touadera said at the time that the Russian instructors teach soldiers how to use Russian weapons, after training provided by the EUTM-RCA. He said that CAR “is still under embargo, and the lifting of the embargo begins with the EUTM training.”
Russia’s Ambassador to CAR Sergey Lebanov said on September 17 that a second shipment of Russian arms and ammunition “is in preparation,” and will be delivered once it has been approved by the U.N. Security Council.
“It’s dangerous to have trained men loafing around all day. If they aren’t under supervision and put to use, they risk being drawn back to the demons of the past and returning to predation,” Onanga-Anyanga said.
He also acknowledged the “need for the clearest transparency.”
He said that the head of the U.N. sanctions committee would travel on October 2 to Bangui to “examine the needs and make sure that these transactions are in line with the positions of the Security Council.”
Risking diplomatic ‘cacophony’
Thousands of people have died in CAR, 700,000 have been internally displaced and another 570,000 have fled abroad in fighting since 2013, when the Seleka coalition of mainly Muslim rebel groups toppled longtime leader Francois Bozize, a Christian, who himself seized power in a coup.
Seleka was officially disbanded within months, but many fighters refused to disarm, becoming known as ex-Seleka. Many others joined the mainly Christian anti-Balaka militia to fight the Seleka, leading to a spiral of violence between groups along both religious and ethnic lines.
Russian advisors work with the CAR’s military and provide security and advice to Touadera. Moscow also recently signed a military cooperation agreement with CAR offering the possibility for Central African officers and NCOs to be trained in Russian military schools.
Touadera welcomed the Facilitation Panel of the African Initiative of the African Union’s meetings with armed groups, where they agreed demands later presented to the government.
“I would like to remind you that the African initiative is the only frame of reference” for dialogue, Touadera said adding that CAR’s friends can help by “supporting the efforts made by the African Initiative Facilitation Panel, whose already achieved results must be capitalized upon.”
“My most ardent wish is to allow my compatriots to resolve their differences once and for all and in good faith, and tighten the ancestral links that unite them,” he said.
However, Russia has also been mediating with rebel groups in CAR separate to the African Union initiative.
Russia and Sudan hosted talks in August between some of the rival militias. In Khartoum, rival ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka armed groups signed a declaration of understanding which said they had decided to “create a common framework for dialogue and action for a real and lasting peace.”
Russia’s foreign ministry has said Moscow “plans to continue its mediation efforts for the beginning national reconciliation process in the country,” adding that it will act in coordination with the A.U. and U.N.
Former colonial ruler France has rejected the Russian initiative, saying that there was “no alternative” to the process led by the African Union.
“There must absolutely be coordination among partners,” Onanga-Anyanga said of the political mediation.
“For it to be constructive, everyone needs to have the same vision and approach,” Onanga-Anyanga said. “Solitary, non-coordinated moves could create a real cacophony.”
He supported Russia’s decision to join as an observer in the African Union mediation mission along with France and the U.S.
The U.N. stabilization force in Central Africa has around 12,000 troops and 2,000 police officers. Nearly a year ago, the U.N. Security Council authorized boosting the number by 900 military personnel, although Onanga-Anyanga, who is also head of Minusca, admitted that the level had not yet been reached.
He said that troops from Rwanda and Nepal had arrived but did not yet have equipment in place.
Since its establishment in 2014, the U.N. peacekeeping force has witnessed the deaths of 70 soldiers.
With reporting from AFP, including an interview by Philippe Rater