The Central African Republic (CAR) has intermittently been the backdrop for somebody else’s war.
Despite having a population of only 4.8 million people, it is approximately the same size as France, Denmark and the Netherlands combined.
That vast open space has been used as a venue for battles by different parties; former coloniser France, strongmen from Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious Ugandan rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army and a United States Special Forces unit.
The latest visitors are Russia, its army and the private military outfit Wagner, who, unlike some of those who came before them, have mostly been welcomed by the locals.
“A number of citizens here consider Wagner’s presence a good thing, especially since their operatives and our army pushed back an assault on our capital, Bangui in January 2021,” reports freelance journalist Fiacre Salabe from the city.
That month, rebels backed by a former president, François Bozizé, attempted to take control of the country after his candidacy for the presidential elections had been rejected by the Constitutional Court.
A standoff and fierce battles ensued but in the end, the rebels were held back, thanks in no small part to the contributions made by Wagner. That episode is the subject of an action-packed film, Tourist, which has been played in Bangui’s main stadium to capacity crowds.
Wagner’s defence of Bangui in January 2021 is seen as one of its very few success stories on the continent. It led to President Faustin Archange Touadéra, whose re-election Bozizé and his rebels were seeking to prevent, declaring Russian as the country’s third official language, after Sango and French.
The CAR was under UN sanctions at the time and the Russians were instrumental in having those sanctions partially lifted, so they could start selling light arms to the CAR.
With those arms came the instructors and thus Wagner, the outfit accused of being funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s close confidantes. Russia has also said its men there are military instructors but denied their participation in human rights abuses there.The Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019, also in Sochi, cemented the ties further and Wagner became central to the CAR security architecture, with its operatives working with soldiers of the FACA (Forces Armées Centrafricaines) in the field and its advisers collaborating directly with Touadéra.
But Wagner’s significance should not be overstated, argued Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“They have protected the elites in Bangui, fought back Bozizé’s rebels and they haven’t lost a lot of people doing that,” he told Al Jazeera. “But they are not getting a good return on investment other than some individuals profiting from access to resources they got in return for their services.”
These resources are mostly gold and diamonds, which they accessed through another Wagner-linked company, Lobaye Invest, which has free rein at several mining locations across the CAR.
The Russians are faced with a problem that has confronted all foreign powers that got a foothold in this large chunk of Central Africa: Having gained access, now what to do with that access?
In the last century, the old colonial power France mostly parcelled out concessions nationwide for exploitation by private companies. This model produced predatory systems of resource extraction that rivalled those of Belgian-run Congo for cruelty and disregard for basic human rights.
And this history feeds into the current strain of anti-French sentiment that Salabe regularly observes on the streets of Bangui.
“The appreciation of the Russians is absolutely tied in with anti-French sentiment, similar to what you find in Mali, for instance,” he told Al Jazeera. “France is considered dishonest and unhelpful. There are regular anti-French demonstrations, these are organised by people close to those in power here.”
These demonstrations simultaneously hail the new saviours, Russia and Wagner.
The qualifications “dishonest” and “unhelpful” not only apply to the poor French track record of development in the CAR but also to underwhelming French efforts to restore some semblance of stability there.
France was either in the driving seat, for instance during the 2013-2016 Opération Sangaris, its seventh military mission in the CAR since Independence in 1960, aimed at disarming rebels and restoring stability but tainted by accusations of sexual abuse of children by some French soldiers.
Or they were in a support role, helping national or regional missions achieve the peace that has continued to elude the country.
The estimated 1,200 operatives working for Wagner are there, ostensibly, for similar reasons. Writing for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a government-aligned think-tank, the Moscow-based geopolitical analyst Andrew Korybko used language to this effect in a January 12 blog post in which he referred to Russia’s help in “the rehabilitation” of CAR.
The message that Russia’s presence is a good thing is the central theme in Tourist, the movie. A slick production, all sound and fury, it tells the story of a Russian soldier, nicknamed “Tourist”, who arrives in Bangui and helps fight off the rebels trying to capture the capital.
The film is dubbed in Sango, the national language and lacks any subtlety in conveying the message of Russian heroes come to town.
A new film, Granit, glorified the exploits of Wagner in Mozambique and was played in the same stadium last January before an audience that, according to local reports, thought the film was again about the CAR.
Not far from the university in Bangui stood a monument that carried the same message: A large Russian soldier is the centrepiece for an ensemble that forms an armed shield protecting an African family cowering in the background. It was inaugurated last December by Touadéra.
But reality seems different from propaganda.