What’s Religion Got to Do with It? External State Engagement in the Central African Republic

By: Laura Collins

August 25, 2023

The Central African Republic (CAR) and its internal political machinations have been of little immediate foreign policy relevance or strategic significance to major international actors with the exception of France, CAR’s former colonial ruler. More recently, however, the 2013 rebellion and post-rebellion violence contributed to an increase in external engagement. A wide range of disparate global players with stakes (both rumored and real) in CAR have been accused of acting both from afar or in-country through state and non-state proxies. What separates these external governments from CAR’s European interlocutors is the persistent and, at times, influential role religion plays in their contemporary foreign policies.

Upon closer examination, however, support linkages seemingly grounded in a shared religious identity between external states, CAR’s government, and non-state armed actors respectively turn out to be motivated more by conventional political interests than by shared faith. External states’ influence on domestic political dynamics and (in)security reveals that the real and rumored signs of external governmental involvement in CAR have not significantly altered but rather reinforced and, on occasion, exacerbated existing tensions around how religious groups, and Muslims more specifically, are framed within domestic political discourse.

The CAR case is a cautionary tale about how we understand the effects of external state influence on local conflict dynamics and the relevance of transnational linkages based on a common religious identity. CAR illustrates the dangers of assuming the relevance of religion as a driving factor when more nuanced explanations lie elsewhere.

Capturing the State: CAR’s Armed Groups and Suspected Qatari Support

Prior to the 2013 rebellion that precipitated sectarian violence throughout CAR, external state involvement in this little known Central African country was believed to extend all the way to Gulf countries. At the time, many from CAR’s Christian majority subscribed to the rumor that Qatar—known for its association and ties with a range of Islamist actors—was supporting and funding the rebels. Known collectively as the Séléka, the rebel forces’ perceived linkages with Qatar stoked a discourse of fear among the country’s non-Muslim majority. Underpinning this discourse was a belief that a larger agenda to Islamize CAR fueled the rebels, despite the Séléka couching their rebellion largely in political rather than religious rhetoric.

Chief among the Séléka’s grievances were claims of deep-rooted state neglect and the political marginalization of CAR’s peripheral regions in the extreme northeast, where this short-lived coalition of disparate armed groups emerged. Anchoring their grievances was a more fundamental belief around their sense of belonging—more specifically, the idea that their Muslim identity functioned to exclude them from access to the state and associated benefits.

Notwithstanding the Séléka’s ethnic diversity, the predominance of Muslims within their ranks and the presence of mercenaries from Chad and Sudan overshadowed the rebellion’s local (political) origins. So, too, did the knowledge that Séléka leaders traveled to several countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council region to secure funds for their domestic political objectives, up to and including seizing control of the state. Séléka leader and self-appointed former president Michel Djotodia was also believed to have written to the Organizations of Islamic Conference in 2012, leveraging a shared Muslim identity in exchange for material assistance.

Although CAR elites have long looked beyond the country’s borders as a means of both capturing power and safeguarding their political interests, it was these transnational linkages that bolstered the narrative among CAR’s non-Muslim majority that the Séléka was an external threat. In response, an armed counter movement known locally as the “Anti-Balaka” emerged, ostensibly to defend CAR. Largely comprised of non-Muslims, including members of CAR’s state security forces, they claimed to be the “true” Central Africans.

Safeguarding the State: The Government of CAR and Russian Assistance

Despite the Central African state’s so-called laïcité (secularism), the social proximity of Christianity and political power has long been a hallmark characteristic of the political order in CAR. The Séléka and their links with Muslim-majority states—both real and perceived—challenged this status quo. In contrast, even though the religious dimensions of Russia’s contemporary foreign policy have been largely absent in CAR, Russia’s visible linkages with the incumbent government under Faustin-Archange Touadéra have nevertheless reinforced CAR’s conventional political order.

Russia has expanded its influence politically and economically in CAR since 2018, leveraging its paramilitary resources via the Wagner Group to bolster the CAR government and, by extension, the Central African national army. To do so, the Kremlin has openly sought to exploit domestic frustrations with bilateral and multilateral external efforts meant to quell violence, including an enduring arms embargo and a UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA).

By drawing on local discontent, including among the current regime, with the country’s longstanding ally and intervener, France, as well as its multilateral partners, the Kremlin has worked to promote a narrative of “dependability” around CAR-Russia bilateral relations. This has translated to a deepening military-security cooperation agreement between Moscow and Bangui, which has lent the government a veneer of much needed stability and military power in CAR’s fractured security landscape. In return, the Kremlin continues to expand its influence politically to secure Russian economic interests in CAR. All the while relations between Touádera and CAR’s liberal allies (and donors) increasingly fracture as a result.

Absent from the narrative underpinning Russia’s hard power engagement in CAR is overt reference to religion. Elsewhere, Putin has capitalized on his strategically close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), “sharpening” the traditionally non-coercive power of religion to justify interventionist policies. In doing so, Putin has sought to position himself as a protector of both Orthodox Christians and Christians more generally, as well as traditional Christian values. In CAR, however, religion has only recently appeared as a non-coercive source of influence (among other elements of Russian cultural soft power) that the Kremlin has deployed to expand Russia’s sociocultural appeal with Central Africans. The ROC took steps in July 2022 to establish a presence in CAR through its newly created Patriarchal Exarchate of the ROC in Africa, a move that has inflamed tensions between Orthodox patriarchates and their counterparts in Moscow but has so far elicited little to no domestic reaction in CAR.

Wagner mercenaries and CAR’s state security forces have been accused of operating in tandem and perpetrating human rights abuses. This violence included targeted attacks against Muslim civilians and their places of worship, which was likely influenced by their perceived linkages with several of CAR’s armed groups due to a shared religious identity.

Domestic criticism of Russia’s expanding politico-military and economic influence has gained ground, including among prominent community figures such as the former Catholic archbishop of CAR’s capital Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga. However, much of their condemnation has been framed around Russia’s neo-colonial exploitation of CAR’s resources, while Wagner-linked civilian abuses, particularly against Muslims, that implicate the state have been denounced in general terms.

How, if at all, the religious soft power of the ROC is directly leveraged remains to be seen. How receptive prominent Christian religious leaders in CAR would be to Kremlin overtures via the ROC is likely to be conditioned by several factors, including their ongoing relationship with CAR’s traditional allies and the government, as well as how any religious soft power play is framed. Irrespective of whether the Kremlin seeks to engage CAR’s politics and security more directly through religion or religious actors, the CAR government’s choice of security partner has already come at a cost for certain local communities, which risks strengthening existing feelings of exclusion.

Editor's Note: This article was written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective authors.

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