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CAR, France, and Russia: The swords of discord resonate

By Pacôme Pabandji
Posted on Friday, 19 November 2021 10:07

Alexandre Ivanov, the “Russian instructors’ representative”, and Mathieu Simplice Sarandji, president of the Central African National Assembly, on 15 October 2021, in Bangui © AFP

The issue of managing customs revenue, which was once entrusted to the Russians, has poisoned relations between Paris and Bangui. However, the case may not yet be closed.

Are the Russians definitely no longer managing Central African customs? And does France have anything to do with it? At the beginning of October, after several weeks of controversy, Bangui informed the head of the Russian economic mission that its “technical assistance mission to the various Central African customs posts” had ended.

This collaboration, which began last May, was widely reported on and further strained the already tense relationship between Paris and Bangui. Officially, the objective was to better combat transit fraud and thus help the state collect more revenue. But many observers and diplomats immediately suspected that Moscow had gotten its hands on a real financial windfall (customs revenues represent almost a third of the state budget). Some even suggested that this was how the Russians were able to finance the costly presence of paramilitary groups linked to the Wagner company, called in to help fight the rebels of the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC), in the CAR.

“The Russians are seizing the state’s fiscal capacity”

This accusation was summed up by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign affairs minister, during a programme broadcast in mid-October by the television channel France 5: “When [the Russians] enter a country, they increase the number of violations, exactions and predations that occur in the country, so much so that sometimes they replace the state’s authority. The most spectacular example is the CAR where, in order to pay themselves, they seize the state’s fiscal capacity.”

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It is an understatement to say that Bangui did not appreciate this. “The Russians’ presence in the tax system [was] intended to help the CAR do without the suspended French financial aid,” says Frédéric-Théodore Inamo, director-general of Customs and Excise. However, a French source is keen to point out that “customs do not fall within [our] area of direct collaboration.”

In office since 2016, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s nephew dismisses the head of French diplomacy’s accusations. “What people may say does not reflect the reality of the situation. It is politics and does not concern me in any way,” continued Inamo. “We worked for five months [with the Russians] and there were no shortcomings. We even exceeded the fiscal forecasts that had been made. The Russians also helped correct the behaviour of some economic operators, and even some customs officers. Several of those who did not respect export procedures, for example, are now following them.”

In other words, even though the Russian representatives have been officially informed that their technical assistance has come to an end, Bangui has not expressed any dissatisfaction, quite the contrary. This is enough for the French, in particular, to suspect that the Central African authorities are now considering bringing Moscow back into the game, albeit in a less conspicuous manner, through advisors for example.

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