Fixing the army is key for CAR’s stability

Enrica Picco
By Enrica Picco

International Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director

Posted on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 18:13

Central African Republic's Presiden Faustin-Archange Touadera speaks during the annual gathering in New York City for the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, U.S., September 21, 2021. Spencer Platt/Pool via REUTERS

After a 2013 coup plunged the Central African Republic (CAR) into chaos, the country’s army fell apart before it was officially disbanded.

Transitional authorities progressively restored the army a few years later, and soldiers were finally able to regain a presence in the country’s main urban centres after the government ordered an offensive in early 2021 against rebels threatening to oust President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. As has been documented elsewhere, Russian instructors have played a key role in training the army and Wagner mercenaries often accompany soldiers on the battlefield.

Yet, the army’s opaque recruitment procedures, multiple chains of command, lack of training and poor budget management could compromise the benefits of this redeployment. The country remains extremely fragile and tensions are already mounting around President Touadéra’s succession. These issues should be addressed quickly. Failure to create an army that is representative of the population and financially sustainable could undermine soldiers’ loyalty to the state and push them to rise up or join a new rebellion, as they have in the past.

Opaque recruitment and accelerated training

Ethnic polarisation in the rank and file and nepotism on the part of heads of state in the capital Bangui have long hindered the creation of an army capable of securing the country. But in 2017, after a turbulent transition, the newly elected authorities committed to reinvigorating the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). Under the National Defence Plan, the number of troops was to be increased to 9,800, with new recruits notably undergoing background checks and following proper military training. The FACA were also to be restructured into a garrison army, and soldiers were assigned to permanent bases with their families.

Despite these commitments, the army’s presence in the hinterland remained weak until December 2020, when the Coalition of Patriots for Change rebel movement threatened to take control of Bangui because it saw the elections in progress at the time as illegitimate. The counteroffensive led by the FACA and allied forces – Wagner mercenaries and Rwandan troops – dislodged armed groups from dozens of towns, but these operations exerted a heavy toll on the civilian population and led the government away from the National Defence Plan’s objectives.

Five years after the launch of the Plan, the army seems once again to be falling into politicisation, with irregular and parallel recruitment processes becoming the norm. Between October and December 2021, approximately 3,500 new troops joined the FACA’s ranks without going through the legal recruitment procedure. In the capital, young people are reportedly willing to pay officers between 50,000 ($80.3) and 100,000 CFA francs to get onto recruitment lists.

While the FACA’s exact size and composition are unknown, international and independent national sources estimate that the army numbers between 14,000 and 15,000 troops, far beyond the 9,800 outlined in the National Defence Plan. In addition, according to several sources, each battalion is part of a different chain of command, answering either to the general army staff, the Defence Ministry or even the presidency.

The government argues that these recruitments are a necessary response to the December 2020 rebellion, which it claims forced it to expand the FACA. But while this explanation is certainly plausible, the way in which it is being done raises questions about adequate ethnic and gender representation within the armed forces.

The quality of training offered to new recruits is another source of concern. Russian instructors began training FACA soldiers after the UN authorised their presence in the country in 2018, while the EU ran a separate military training program. Since the EU suspended that program in December 2021 over concerns that Wagner was interfering with FACA’s command, Russian instructors have become fully responsible for military training. Their three-month program has now been reduced to between three and five weeks to speed up deployments.

A lack of financial resources

On the ground, these concerns translate into very real consequences. For soldiers, their lack of training has meant that they are ill-prepared on the battlefield, which is contributing to deteriorating relations with Wagner troops. Since their deployment in December 2020 to support the army’s counteroffensive, Russian forces have de facto assumed command of the FACA on the battlefield. Several observers described to Crisis Group the troops’ growing discontent with how Wagner mercenaries humiliate and physically abuse Central African officers and soldiers.

Further, the unchecked increase in FACA numbers and the lack of available storage sites have made it difficult to track arms and ammunition, with two important consequences. First, soldiers keep their weapons after they return home. Second, it prevents the military from keeping count of the ammunition used in authorised operations and therefore from ensuring that lethal weapons are not used against civilians. This situation is aggravated by the absence in rural areas of senior officers charged with verifying procedural compliance and initiating disciplinary sanctions as appropriate.

Beyond these issues, the Central African state simply does not have the money to maintain its current personnel, meaning unpaid soldiers prey on local populations through illegal taxation, extortion and robberies. Many other FACA members, meanwhile, choose to remain in Bangui, where their salary is paid in part by the prominent figures they protect. This, in turn, leads to a dangerous militarisation of the capital, while the under-deployment of the FACA in the hinterland means an over-reliance on unaccountable local militias and foreign forces.

Returning to the National Defence Plan

The CAR is at a turning point in its stabilisation process. To avoid a downward spiral, President Touadéra and the Central African government should urgently recommit to the principles established in the National Defence Plan, and ensure the security forces’ expansion within the state’s available financial resources. Troops should be properly vetted and trained, and senior army staff should pay them frequent visits to the hinterlands. In addition, setting up a Defence Council could put a stop to rival chains of command.

With the CAR’s stability hanging by a thread, the support of international partners, including Russia, will be critical to ensure that the FACA are equipped to deal with the country’s security challenges.

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