A battle for influence in one of Africa’s most impoverished countries could tip it into further episodes of instability.
French attempts to hold sway in its former colony, the Central African Republic (CAR), has resulted in the social media giant Facebook accusing Paris of a disinformation campaign through the use of fake troll accounts.
Facebook removed accounts that it said had “links to individuals associated with [the] French military.”
Paris, however, was far from alone in the dissemination of disinformation to influence voters in CAR before the December 27 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Russia was also accused by Facebook of running a disinformation campaign which “focused primarily on the Central African Republic.”
The report went on to add that the activity of the Russian driven accounts mainly focused on news around Russia’s response to Covid-19 “the upcoming election in CAR, terrorism, Russia’s presence in Sub-Saharan Africa [and] supportive commentary about the CAR government.”
France, on the other hand, was engaged in a campaign highlighting “potential Russian interference” in the upcoming elections in CAR, and pushing “supportive commentary about [the] French military, and criticism of Russia’s involvement in CAR.”
Even though Facebook is no stranger to disinformation campaigns, the organisation said this was the “first time” that two-state actors were actively engaging one another by using similar methods.
More worryingly, this episode threatens to sap faith in the CAR’s fragile democracy.
So why is there a contest between France and Russia in CAR?
Despite CAR’s abundance of natural resources like diamonds and large deposits of uranium, it remains one of the poorest countries in Africa.
In recent years, French influence in CAR has waned, with Russia backing Faustin-Archange Touadera, the current president of the country who is seen as sympathetic to Moscow.
A French colony up until 1960, in recent years Russia has spotted an opportunity to loosen Paris’ weakened grip on the country.
CAR’s second president, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, had accused Paris of ensuring that the country was a resource provider for France in a bid to prevent it from becoming militarily and economically independent.
In the book Making Sense of the Central African Republic, France’s influence in the country was laid out starkly: “For its first thirty years, changes in executive office holders were spearheaded or otherwise facilitated by France, the country’s former colonial power.”
Few leaders in CAR have been able to stay in power without France’s nod of approval. The current president has therefore become an unusual aberration and a challenge to Paris.
Some of the French government-linked accounts that Facebook has blocked for disinformation, included one that warned locals “The Russian imperialists are a gangrene on Mali! Watch out for the tsarist lobotomy!”
Another post read, "The main distabilizer in the Central African Republic is Russian mercenaries! They are the real thieves!!!!"
The French disinformation campaign was possibly honing in on the long held sense that citizens of CAR have been robbed of resources by external state actors - be it French or now possibly Russian.
Moscow’s influence in CAR, however, has been far from benign.
In 2018, sensing an opportunity, the Wagner Group, a shadowy paramilitary outfit with connections to the Russian state, was deployed in CAR as a means of entrenching Moscow’s influence.
Since then, according to the report, the group has been engaged in a campaign of supporting, finding and empowering local allies that are favourable to Moscow’s interests.
The country’s disinformation campaign similarly focused on the damaging impact “French foreign policy” was having on the country.
Russia has backed up its influence campaign by selling and gifting military equipment to the CAR government. France, for its part, has responded by sending almost $30 million in aid and further deliveries of weapons to the country that has been plagued by civil war and periodic bouts of political instability.
French actions in West Africa have become hobbled by its colonial baggage and the impression that Paris is “Africa’s policeman” - an image that has been difficult to shake.
France has also been diplomatically outmaneuvered by Moscow which has sought to bring different warring parties to the table in a bid to cement its influence in the country.
Russia in 2018 chastised France urging it to put its “parochial national interests” aside and accept its peace efforts after Paris attempted to table a UN resolution that would have undermined Moscow’s proposals.