In a year that has seen epoch-defining general elections, massive political rallies and the demise of an authoritarian former president, it is ... the death of kuduro artist Nagrelha that has most rattled Luanda’s social fabric and drawn what may be the largest crowds Angola has ever seen.
We were not able to meet with the head of state in his traditional office. However, this was not Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s fault nor that of the protocol. A piece of scaffolding, which involuntarily symbolises the CAR’s perpetual reconstruction, now blocks the entrance to Bangui’s Palais de la Renaissance. On the morning of 13 September, we held our interview a little further away, in the “ambassadors’ lounge”, the provisional headquarters of presidential activities.
Sheltered from the stifling atmosphere of the capital, which is under pressure from the international community, Touadéra spoke to us at length. The President even ended up being late for his next appointment, thus forcing the person concerned to wait in the backroom under the watchful eye of Rwandan peacekeepers.
A fervent Protestant, Touadéra is a man of few words. Criticised for his closeness to Russia, accused of having concluded mysterious agreements with the Wagner company, and shaken by accusations of abuse levelled against his army, he is aware of what his adversaries and partners expect from him. He manages to hide his wariness behind a broad smile.
You were re-elected in December 2020 when the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement [CPC], a rebel group that attacked Bangui the following January, had just been created. 10 months on, is the capital out of danger?
Faustin-Archange Touadéra: Thank you for putting this situation into context. Before the elections, peace was returning to the CAR. Central Africans only wanted to go to the polls and vote for their next leader. But this coalition wanted to prevent them from doing so. Worse, it set in motion a total destabilisation of the state, ended up marching on Bangui and arrived at its gates on 13 January, even infiltrating PK12 and PK9.
Fortunately, with help from our allies, we were able to repel the offensive and free the corridor that links us to Cameroon, which the CPC had blocked. The stranglehold has been loosened but, of course, the violence continues. The security forces are doing their job and carrying out sweeps in Bangui, to unmask all those who are illegally holding weapons. There is always a threat and we take it seriously.
Since January, you seem to have favoured, along with your Rwandan and Russian allies, an offensive and military option. How far are you willing to take this course of action?
Military action was thrust upon us by the CPC. I took it on to protect the population and institutions, but I did not choose this war. Because of our fragile state and economy, we simply don’t have the means. Our men are being trained, our army is being rebuilt and international missions are working to restore our military capabilities. Moreover, we are under a UN arms embargo.
I used the means at my disposal, in particular the agreements linking the CAR with other countries, such as Rwanda and Russia. It is important to bear in mind that if the CPC had entered Bangui, then this would have definitely led to a coup d’état and we would have gone back almost 10 years to 2013. We were obliged to wage war, but we prefer to attain peace by holding discussions.
In what way?
I have asked the ICGLR [International Conference on the Great Lakes Region] and ECCAS [Economic Community of Central African States] to come to our aid. The Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Angola’s President João Lourenço have responded to our requests for help and we continue to work with them to find a way to restore peace. I repeat: our first choice is not the military option and, according to our information, the CPC is breaking up. Some leaders want to return within the context of the 2019 peace agreements that were signed in Bangui. This is what we are working on.
So the 2019 agreements can still be implemented?
They remain an ideal framework for ending the crisis. 14 armed groups signed them and six of them left to create the CPC. Therefore, we must at least try to work with the remaining eight to enact them. Implementation is ongoing, particularly in terms of disarmament and demobilisation. As far as the other six groups are concerned, we hope that – after long negotiations with us – they will agree to return to the texts they signed.
Aren’t you afraid that people will think that you’re pardoning them?
When I say that we want to bring them back, it does not mean that we will just forget everything. Moreover, the 2019 agreements do not provide for amnesty. Both the Central African justice system and the International Criminal Court are investigating. We also have the Commission Vérité, Justice et Réconciliation. At the beginning of my second term, I said that no one would be given special treatment, and I meant it.
Former president François Bozizé has stayed in Chad on several occasions, while Noureddine Adam is believed to be based in Sudan. What are your relations with these two countries?
The CAR has always had very good relations with its neighbours. We strive for peace, we are in the same regional organisations and we work together within the framework of joint commissions. This is important because our borders are both long and very porous, which allows our enemies to move from one territory to another. We are working together to deal with the problem, especially with Chad and Sudan.
But why haven’t Bozizé and Adam been arrested?
These two names have been brought up during the discussions we’ve been having, particularly within the ICGLR and ECCAS. I also talked about Bozizé with my Chadian counterpart, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno. We hope to find viable solutions.
Were you disappointed when Bozizé took up arms again?
Yes. When he returned clandestinely [in December 2019], I thought he was doing so because he wanted to reconcile. That’s why we decided not to bring him to justice, even though he was under arrest. I spoke to him, gave him an audience and invited him to make peace. Then the Constitutional Court rejected his candidacy. He, a former president and guarantor of the Constitution, refused to respect this decision. I was really disappointed. And it didn’t stop there. He sabotaged everything we had achieved with the armed groups, everything that was being put in place. The rebels came to Bangui with their weapons, they killed shopkeepers and soldiers. Bozizé committed these crimes.
What do you think of the ICGLR’s solution, which is to find a place of exile for him so that he stays away from the CAR?
If we, as Central Africans, get ahold of him, we will ensure that he be held accountable for his actions before the courts. Now if, within the framework of the ICGLR and the ongoing negotiations, we decide that it is better to condemn him to life-long exile so that we can move towards peace, we will accept that. But he will have to be exiled to somewhere far away from the CAR’s borders.
You mentioned earlier that the CAR is still under an arms embargo. Do you understand why it is still in force?
It made sense in 2013. Today it is unfair. We have an army that is being rebuilt and an elected president whose mission is to protect the population. But I don’t have the means to do so. Today, the armed groups are better equipped than we are. They buy bigger calibre weapons, anti-tank mines and anti-aircraft equipment from abroad that even the national army does not have. It is unfair to deprive us of the means to use legitimate violence.
What is the point of the European Union [EU] training our army if it is then left unarmed? We have an elected president, an elected parliament, a democratic government and, yet, we are prevented from fulfilling our regalian mission. Are we supposed to just let bandits overthrow the state? The embargo is a call to all those who want to destabilise us, as it is letting our enemies know that there is nothing standing in their way.
For the past three years, you have received significant support from Russia but also from a Russian security company called Wagner. Why have you embarked on this unusual alliance?
Have you seen a company here in Bangui called Wagner that is well established?
Wagner has links with companies operating in the CAR, namely Sewa Securities in the security sector and Lobaye Invest in the mining sector…
As far as I know, we have companies in the CAR that have been set up in accordance with the law and that operate in liberalised markets. We do not have the means to investigate further. You tell me that some of them are linked to Wagner, but we need to be given the appropriate tools so that we can verify this. I have not signed anything with a company called Wagner. I challenge you to prove the contrary.
You are not aware of the links between Sewa Securities, Lobaye Invest and Wagner?
There are many private security companies in Bangui. Mining contracts, for instance, don’t have to go through me.
Not all security companies hire ex-combatants from Ukraine or Syria…
I repeat: there are texts in force in the CAR. If people respect them, within the framework of a liberalised sector, do you really want us to chase them away and say: “You are of such and such a nationality so we don’t want you”?
Lobaye Invest’s first manager was a certain Evgeny Khodotov, one of the Russian oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin’s collaborators, who was close to Vladimir Putin and financed the Wagner group. Did you also not know him?
I don’t know Mr. Prigozhin.
According to several sources, he organised and participated in meetings between the armed groups and your government before the 2019 agreements…
You are telling me a lot of things. I went to Khartoum and met the armed groups’ leaders. All this took place in a plenary session, in public, under the eye of our partners, like the African Union for example. It was on TV and radio. I don’t remember seeing any Russians in the pictures.
Were there any Russian allies involved in the negotiations beforehand?
I am not aware of any.
On Central African soil, Russian fighters are present, notably in Berengo, in a camp located around the former imperial palace. Is this presence intended to last?
The UN has authorised it. The Russian instructors’ objective is to train the Central African military on how to use the weapons – about 7,000 individual ones – that Russia sent to us free of charge and legally. This is not something that is being done in secret.
You mentioned instructors, but what about the fighters on the ground?
The situation changed with the CPC offensive. The population demanded that the army be present on the ground to deal with groups that were killing, setting up roadblocks and occupying administrative buildings. I asked that our forces be deployed alongside our allies, in particular, to prevent them from misusing the weapons that the Russians had given them.
Therefore, each unit had a small group of Russian auxiliaries attached to it, which reduced the number of those in Berengo. As a result, we needed to replace the instructors that had been deployed and so, with the UN’s agreement, new ones arrived. These are the facts. I have nothing to hide about the Russians.
Russia and the CAR’s increased understanding has affected the latter’s relationship with France. Is it calmer today?
Why focus on Russia, which has also graciously helped us? I repeat: our needs are enormous, both in terms of equipment as well as when it comes to training our police officers, gendarmes and forest rangers. We asked for help from all countries of goodwill and also from the EU. At the time, Federica Mogherini [former head of European diplomacy] told me that she had passed the message on to the EU member states. We did not get a favourable response. Russia, with whom we have a long-standing relationship, has responded. Another one might do the same. The CAR does not feel that the solution lies with France or Russia but rather with France and Russia. We have still not been given enough to fulfill our needs. Therefore, we will not refuse any outstretched hand.
Last June, a report by the UN experts for the CAR mentioned a number of abuses that had been allegedly committed by the Central African army and its allies. How did you react?
The press informed us of these allegations and I asked the justice system to open investigations, which are underway. If the accusations prove to be true, then we will have to take action accordingly, by identifying who is responsible and who is guilty. We are determined to get to the bottom of this.
Still on the subject of the UN, do you think the UNMISCA’s mission in the CAR should be changed?
Yes, it must be more robust. We have seen that Bozizé and the armed groups’ coalition was able to fight with shells and mines right up to Bangui’s gates. UNMISCA must be given the means to fight back. We have told the Security Council that we need combat troops. I believe that they heard us because the mission has received more resources, particularly airborne resources with fighter planes, to support our troops on the ground and prevent the armed groups from continuing to commit violence against the population.
You are planning to hold a national dialogue before the end of the year. What do you expect from it?
I am a man of dialogue. As soon as I took office in 2016, I started talking with the armed groups. Today, many political figures are calling for national consultation. I have asked that all the nation’s active forces be consulted and that an organising committee be set up to reflect on the event. The majority and the opposition will be in attendance, as well as civil society and the trade unions, and everyone is working to identify themes. We will be able to talk about everything and no one will be denied the right to speak as long as a republican framework is observed, and the Constitution and the laws in force are respected.
An investigation into alleged links between opposition figures, such as Karim Meckassoua – who decided to flee the country – and the CPC is underway. Is it wise to conduct such an investigation before this dialogue?
The law applies to everyone. It is true that some people who are being investigated may be opinion leaders. But no one is above the law. In Meckassoua’s case, the UN experts clearly state that he is linked to the CPC on pages 10 and 11 of their report, which was released in June.
The same report contains accusations of abuse leveled against the Central African army, which you described earlier as allegations…
Yes, here too, it is up to the justice system to do its job. It is a question of social cohesion and showing respect for the victims. Meckassoua was dismissed by the Constitutional Court, just like other members of parliament have been in the past. Even though he was president of the National Assembly, he decided to flee the country clandestinely. Why run away like this, unless you’re hoping to encourage violence and commit destabilising acts?
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