Three freelance Russian journalists travelling through the Central African Republic following a story on the activities of a private security company with reported connections with the Kremlin were murdered in an ambush on July 31, 2018. Russian state media largely avoided reporting on what the journalists were researching since the Kremlin had publicly denied the existence of any private security contractors in the country.
The case highlighted Russia’s increasing presence in the Central African Republic, a country that has become a staging point for Moscow’s latest geopolitical ambition. The mysterious activities of the paramilitary mercenaries allegedly concern the protection of mining fields and other facilities under the secret control of Russians in exchange for arms deals and cash. The Central African Republic is a landlocked country that covers an area of about 623,000 square kilometers populated by 5.6 million people, of which more than 40% is below the age of 14 years. This was a French colony until 1960. Since its independence, it has been ruled by a series of autocratic leaders, including an abortive attempt at a monarchy. In more than one instance, they were unable to prevent the country from descending into bloodshed between various ethnic and religious factions.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that despite its significant mineral deposits and other resources, such as diamonds, gold, uranium and graphite, as well as significant quantities of arable land and lumber, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of 700 US dollars, despite a real growth rate of 4.7% per annum.
According to the CIA World Factbook, only 3% of the total population has access to electricity. That means that about 4.5 million people live without any form of power, resulting in one of the lowest electrified countries in the world. The World Bank reports that the Central African Republic is among the bottom ten countries for ease of doing business – meaning that it is almost impossible to establish a firm in accordance of the rules. The UN Human Development Index classifies the country as that with the lowest level of human development in the world, second only to Niger. UNICEF indicates that although public education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 14, approximately half of the adult population is illiterate.
In addition, the Central African Republic is characterized by a high mortality rate and low life expectancy that are attributed to preventable and treatable diseases including malaria and malnutrition, an inadequate healthcare system, precarious food security and armed conflicts. The country also has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous for humanitarian operations as more aid workers are targeted each year on its territories than in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Syria.
The list of figures can go on and on, indicating that the country is on its knees, and therefore an easy target for political manipulation, be it internal or external. Decades of fighting between different armed groups have stunted economic development, despite the country’s rich natural resources which are well supplied with at least 470 mineral occurrences. Mining, however, still does not play a significant role in the economy as the only minerals of economic importance today are diamonds and, to a lesser extent, gold.
The latest report published by the US Geological Survey in 2012 shows that the country is 12th amongst the world’s leading producers of rough diamonds by volume and 10th in terms of value in dollars per carat, which are not irrelevant quantities for such a difficult land. However, according to Antwerp’s International Peace Information Service, the actual diamond production figures are considerably higher than the official ones. Several sources, such as the Kimberley Process secretariat, the World Bank, as well as the local authorities, estimate that 30% of the country’s diamonds leave its territory secretly. The value of these diamonds might even represent a higher percentage of the total value, as the biggest diamonds are more alluring to smugglers than the smaller ones.
On the other hand, less than 100 kilograms of gold are produced annually in the country, a drop in the ocean when compared to the 2,700 metric tons of gold produced in the world per annum. For gold there are even less reliable data than for diamonds. Roughly estimated illegal exports might even represent more than 95% of the country’s actual gold exports.
The uranium exploration, which started since 1947, has not yet been able to progress to allow the country to join the list of producer countries. The door for a new producer is unfortunately very narrow. Its unique sedimentary Bakouma site of uranium mineralization is known. A European multinational group specializing in nuclear power suspended the completion of the research for internal reasons few years ago. Expectations are that the uranium deposits may see the beginning of extraction in the future, but it is very unclear which foreign country will take control of this strategic deposit and what it will exchange with a regime that asks only for arms and military services deals to defend its power from rebels that control more than 80% of the national territory.
External actors are paying attention to what happens in the country. As the observer Thierry Vircoulon at the International Crisis Group said, Russia is the best suited aspirant as its strategy mixes business, diplomacy and arms sales – more so than China, the other main contender.
There is apparently a shift in the West’s relations with Africa as Western governments’ policies are now primarily centered on migration and security. Faced with an ongoing crisis, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the President of the Central African Republic since March 2016, was forced to look elsewhere for help. It was a good time for new foreign entrants to make their mark in Africa, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia saw the opportunity as the right time to step in. Russia’s involvement formally began in December of the same year when, after winning an exemption to a UN embargo in 2013, Moscow sent to Bangui a team of military instructors and 170 civilian advisers to train the country’s army and presidential guard along with large quantities of weapons and ammunition in a period of restructuring of its armed forces. Russia cannot offer cheap consumer goods like China, but it can offer arms and cash either in exchange for access to oil, minerals, strategic bases and rare earths — materials vital to modern electronics but a market almost entirely dominated by China.
The crucial question is whether Russia aims to be solely the supplier of small arms and boots in exchange for new sources of minerals; or if it aspires to also be a mediator between the Central African Republic and the rebel armed groups to negotiate access to diamonds, gold and uranium in rebel-controlled areas – which is unsettling to Western countries that have supported the country for years.
It is fair to say that the Central African Republic is at the epicenter of a regional network of primary minerals and potentially holds a key position on the African chessboard. Yet, continued hostilities within the country between the government and the rebel groups, as well as inadequate governance conditions to attract large-scale mining operations, are likely to hinder the prospect of further developing ongoing gold and uranium projects. The successful development of these or any future mining projects will depend on the country’s ability to restore political stability, but the weakness of its economy does not allow the country to single handedly undertake work to highlight possible extensions of these mineral occurrences in depth. In addition, the underdevelopment of the country’s infrastructure, including transport and power supply infrastructure, constitutes a major impediment to foreign investment, making remote mining areas practically inaccessible as no internal rail service exists and the country’s road network is quite dilapidated.
It is time that Western countries, especially those in the European Union, join together in establishing political responsibility to remove instability and institutional weakness, clear the country of radicals and violence, prevent criminal warmongers from thriving, and above all ensure that the dream of many of escaping poverty comes true sooner rather than later – or that at least there is such a prospect.