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Chad/CAR: Escalating tensions against backdrop of France-Russia conflict

By Pacôme Pabandji
Posted on Friday, 4 June 2021 21:15

A Faca patrol, 14 March 2021 in Bangui (illustration). DR / Central African Armed Forces headquarters

According to Chad, six Chadian soldiers were killed by Central African armed forces - five were coldly “executed”. To try to ease tensions, CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra sent three of his ministers to N'Djamena. But the tug of war is playing out in tandem to growing hostilities between Paris and Moscow.

It all began on 30 May, when, in their “sweep against the rebels” of the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC), elements of the Russian-supported Central African Armed Forces “detected” a “suspicious armed movement” heading towards Bang, a town near the border with Chad.

Reported by a Russian reconnaissance drone, the position was attacked by the Central African military. “These were rebels who operated on Central African soil and who wanted to retreat to Chad,” a Chadian military source told us.

Central African and Russian soldiers were pursuing these “rebels” into Chadian territory, where the fighting continued. But this time, Chadian soldiers returned fire. One Chadian soldier was killed during the shoot out. Five others, were taken prisoner and were coldly “executed”, according to N’Djamena.

“Chad holds the Central African government fully responsible for the consequences of this aggression, which cannot be justified at a time when the two countries are seeking to pool their efforts to meet common security challenges,” reads a statement signed by Cherif Mahamat Zene, Chad’s foreign affairs minister, and dated 31 May.

Under the auspices of the Russians

Chadian authorities also categorically stated that the Central African Armed Forces’ operation was conducted under the auspices of the Russians. An assertion that Bangui does not deny.

“The operations to pursue the CPC rebels were essentially carried out by the Central African Armed Forces. The Russians only provided instructional support,” said a Central African military source. On 31 May, the government spokesman, in a statement dated 31 May, singled out the CPC as the main culprit in the incident.

Tensions quickly rose between the two countries. The Chadian army reinforced its military presence in the region and deployed several pickups equipped with heavy weapons. Moussa Mahamat Ahamat, the chargé d’affaires of the Central African embassy in N’Djamena, was also summoned by the head of Chadian diplomacy to explain himself.

Since then, Touadéra’s advisors have been trying to calm things down by holding talks with the Chadian authorities. On the front line, Sani Yalo, who is the Central African President’s “shadow advisor”, is manoeuvring to bring the two governments closer together.

“The President knows him to be meticulous in this kind of situation and has therefore called on his support,” said a source close to the Central African presidency. Well acquainted with the new Chadian authorities, Yalo met with both Souleyman Abakar Adoum, the Chadian minister of public security, and Brahim Daoud Yaya, the minister of defence.

“I reassured them that the Central African President has no interest in creating security problems between the two countries,” said Yalo. “President Touadéra supported Chad’s transition government. Our two countries are closely aligned. President Touadéra himself received Chadian envoys when they were in Bangui. It is a matter of making relations between the two countries even stronger precisely to stop the escalation of cross-border insecurity.”

“By fighting for the Central African authorities to be received, he managed to calm things down and open a channel for discussion” said an African diplomat based in Bangui.

Three Central African emissaries arrived in the Chadian capital on 1 June: Sylvie Baïpo-Témon, minister of foreign affairs, Marie-Noëlle Koyara, minister of defence, and Henri Wanzet, minister of public security.

The spokesman for the Central African presidency, Albert Yaloké-Mokpem, said their mission was to “demonstrate President Touadéra’s commitment to bring peace between the two countries.” “The President is following the matter from start to finish. There is a real desire on the part of both countries to pacify our borders,” said the spokesperson.

At the end of the meeting, the Chadian and Central African foreign ministers “recognised the seriousness of the situation” and “stressed the urgency to clarify the circumstances in which this attack was carried out.” The two parties agreed to set up an “independent and impartial international commission of inquiry”, which will include representatives of the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

Touadéra “hostage” to the Russians?

Relations between the two neighbours have recently become strained. Mahamat Idriss Déby – the son of Chad’s former president Idris Déby Itno, now president of N’Djamena’s transition government – is married to the daughter of Abakar Sabone, a CPC leader close to Noureddine Adam.

Tensions are further heightened by the strong Russian presence in the CAR. In March, on the eve of the CAR’s President Touadéra’s inauguration, the Russian ambassador to the CAR, Vladimir Titorenko, criticised Chad’s role in the country. During a meeting with the media in Bangui, he had called on the neighbouring countries of the CAR, including Chad, to secure their borders to put an end to the illegal circulation of arms and armed groups destabilising the country. Chad reacted very quickly and released a statement in which it condemned these “surprising” remarks.

France has invited itself into the debate, against the backdrop of the war of influence between Paris and Moscow. In an interview published on 30 May in Le Journal du Dimanche, France’s President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the links between the Central African President and the private company Wagner, which are considered to be close to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and which Macron accused of exacerbating anti-French sentiment in Bangui.

“This anti-French rhetoric legitimises the presence of predatory Russian mercenaries at the highest levels of the state, with President Touadéra now being held hostage by the Wagner group,” said Macron. “This group is taking over the mines and thus the political system.” While the presidency did not officially react, those close to Touadéra considered the statement to be “inflammatory.”

Relations between the CAR and Chad are subject to recurring tensions. In 2001, in search of support in the sub-region, François Bozizé fled the CAR and took refuge in Chad with arms and luggage. A few months later, he overthrew Ange-Félix Patassé with the support of Chadian fighters. In 2013, Bozizé was in turn overthrown by the Séléka rebellion from the north of the CAR, supported by a column of Chadian fighters.

“If the Central African army, supported by its Russian partners, rushed to secure this border with Chad,” said our Central African security source, “it would be because the CPC rebels, who threaten to overthrow the Touadéra regime, plan to use Chad as a support base to attack it.”

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