Caught in the middle

CAR’s former prime minister Firmin Ngrebada was a victim of France and Russia’s power struggle

By Jeune Afrique

Posted on June 17, 2021 23:26

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-06-17T10-36-05.075Z © The CAR’s former prime minister Firmin Ngrebada in November 2019 in Paris. Vincent Fournier/JA
The CAR’s former prime minister Firmin Ngrebada in November 2019 in Paris. Vincent Fournier/JA

The handover of power between Firmin Ngrebada and Henri-Marie Dondra, the new CAR prime minister, took place on 15 June. We reveal the backstory of how Ngrebada got caught up in France and Russia’s power struggle.

The CAR’s former prime minister Firmin Ngrebada had hoped to hold on until the end. However, on 30 May, as he boarded an Air France flight to St. Petersburg, Ngrebada knew that things were not looking good.

Considered Russia’s man in Bangui, he had planned to attend the economic forum in the former imperial capital. However, his country is caught between France and Russia, and that the former took a dim view of the close relationship between the CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra (FAT) and President Vladimir Putin’s government.

French pressure

According to our information, French diplomacy – and particularly President Emmanuel Macron, who had called his counterpart in mid-April – then put pressure on the CAR’s President to replace pro-Russian prime minister Ngrebada.

On 7 June, the latter returned home from St Petersburg and was welcomed by Dmitry Sergeevich Sytii, the right-hand man of Valery Zakharov, President Touadéra’s advisor. Sytii has been placed under US sanctions because of his alleged links to the security company Wagner.

Ngrebada then called on his Russian ally to save his skin. For several weeks, he had known that France was threatening to suspend its military aid to the CAR. The information and sanction were then confirmed the following day, on 8 June. Under pressure, FAT decided to give Paris what it wanted and asked his prime minister to resign, which he did on 10 June. Two days later, Henri-Marie Dondra was appointed to succeed him.

Within the palace’s corridors, there were rumours that Touadéra’s wanted to sack Ngrebada, as the latter had started displaying personal political ambitions. In fact, FAT reportedly felt that Dondra was more loyal to him.

Internal rivalries

The choice of the former minister of finance and budget was not by chance. According to our sources, Dondra is a favourite within international financial bodies and particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a matter of fact, the new head of government was backed discreetly by former IMF president Christine Lagarde, now head of the European Central Bank. He also enjoys support from Paris, and his family lives in France.

One man, in particular, helped him to obtain this appointment, and that was former prime minister Mathieu Simplice Sarandji, now president of the national assembly. The latter is both close to Dondra and in conflict with Ngrebada.

According to our sources, this dispute dates back to February 2019: when Ngrebada took over from Sarandji, the latter had asked that his cabinet director, Ghislain Junior Mordjim, be allowed to keep his job. But he did not get his way.

A failed manoeuvre

According to our information, Sarandji, who was aware of the problems that Ngrebada had caused in recent weeks – including within the ruling Mouvement Cœurs Unis (MCU) – tried to get Mordjim, who had become his secretary-general at the national assembly, appointed as prime minister.

However, after this proved unsuccessful, Saradji then threw his support behind Dondra, a minister that he felt would be able to reassure the international community that the country was no longer caught in the middle between France and Russia.

Although FAT chose his former finance minister in the end, Obed Namsio, the head of state’s cabinet director, had also been considered for the position of prime minister. Appointing a man of Gbaya ethnicity – one who is considered to be a pure product of François Bozizé’s presidency, would have sent a message to Bozizé’s supporters, many of whom have joined the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement, a coalition of major rebel groups.

It is expected that Ngrebada, who was elected in the December 2020 legislative elections, will now return to the national assembly.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.