From left to right: Valery Zakharov, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The three top faith leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR), who have won international recognition for efforts to end its conflict, have pledged to work with Russians to foster reconciliation in CAR.

On 23 August, they attended a one-day meeting organised by Valery Zakharov, a Russian diplomat and security advisor to CAR’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

During the meeting, the three – the President of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and the President of the Islamic Council, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama – reiterated that CAR’s crisis is not primarily an interfaith clash; instead, they said, its roots lie in the struggle for political power.

Zakharov said he shares this view. “The root causes of the crisis are criminal and political, dictated by outside influences,” he said, as CAR’s RJHD reported.

CAR has been under a UN arms embargo since 2013, when Séléka rebels overthrew President François Bozizé. But Russia earlier this year obtained its partial lifting, paving the way for it to supply CAR with light weapons, but also instructors to train the newly restored army. Russian forces now also provide security for President Touadéra.

Russian presence in CAR has polarised opinion in the former French colony. Despite CAR’s independence in 1960, France has kept its strong influence and sees it as one of its main zones of influence in central Africa.

Central African Republic has witnessed an upsurge of violence in recent months, notably with attacks targeting churches and clerics in Bangui, the capital, and Bambari, the second main city. Since January, four Catholic priests were targeted, with three of them losing their lives in separate attacks. Security remains the key issue in CAR. The involvement of Russia in CAR has raised hope of seeing the national army being deployed across the country, which is largely occupied by armed groups.

Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou is somewhat optimistic about Russian involvement, as he told World Watch Monitor:

“If Russians are willing to cultivate frank relationships with [us three], we will use our relations to speak with the armed groups – Séléka and Anti-balaka [vigilante groups] – as we have always done, in order to raise awareness and get them to lay down their arms, to embark on a path of reconciliation and pacification.”

He recalled the role played by the three’s “religious platform”, which led to the deployment of UN peacekeepers in 2014. But he denounced the inertia and even complicity of certain UN contingents in the current crisis.

Guérékoyamé-Gbangou welcomed the first actions by Russians: their instructors have facilitated the deployment of units in Bangassou, Dékoa, and Kaga Bandoro, towns which used to be controlled by armed groups – and where they didn’t face any resistance.

The President of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou (right) with Valery Zakharov, a Russian diplomat and security advisor to CAR’s president (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Russia is now involved in social and humanitarian activities: restoring and equipping hospitals, notably in the northern town of Birao, a predominantly Muslim town near the Sudan border. (This acted as headquarters for Séléka rebels, where they grouped before their offensive towards Bangui at the end of 2012. Séléka eventually overthrew the government in 2013.)

Russia has fostered a new peace agreement between three ex-Séléka groups and one Anti-balaka leader, Maxime Mokom, in Khartoum on Tuesday, according to AFP.

The three Séléka groups are the Popular Front for the Rebirth of the Central African Republic (FPRC), led by Noureddine Adam; the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), led by Ali Darassa; and the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC), led by Mahamat Al-Khatim.

The meeting in the Sudanese capital unfolded in conjunction with an official mediation effort led by the African Union.

Guérékoyamé-Gbangou commented: “We have arrived at a time where our relationships must benefit each other. Previous experiences have shown that some partners who pretend to help us are interested only in exploiting the natural resources of our country, but are not ready to intervene even when people are dying before their eyes … We should give a chance to the Russians.

“If my house is burning, I won’t ask about the origins of the one who comes to help me to extinguish the fire … If other partners who were there before them think they can do better, they have to prove it.”

Rev. Guérékoyamé-Gbangou favours a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, so as “to echo the suffering of the Central African people”, as the three did with several countries, including France and the US, but also at the UN and in the Vatican.

In 2014, the three clerics sent a message to Putin via its Bangui embassy, to plead for CAR.

So cooperation between CAR and Russia is not new, he added, recalling that after independence a number of CAR graduates trained in Russian schools to then return and serve in its administration. Russian was taught in secondary schools. Cooperation was only ended in the 1970s by former president Jean-Bédel Bokasssa.