Analysts contacted by Lusa believe the case of suspected diamond trafficking by members from Portugal of a United Nations mission in the Central African Republic presents major obstacles and could “lead to the departure of the Portuguese contingent”
The suspected case of diamond trafficking, which is being investigated by police and prosecutors in Portugal, comes at a time of extreme tension between the Bangui authorities and MINUSCA – the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Mission for the Stabilisation of the Central African Republic.
A spokesman for the office of the president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Albert Yaloke Mokpem, told Lusa only that he was “aware of” the case concerning the drug trafficking case by members from Portugal.
“I am aware of the information, but I have no comments to make at the moment,” he said. “We have the same information as you: that there was a network of trafficking in diamonds, gold etc., in which Portuguese soldiers were implicated, in an investigation that goes back to 2019.
“I think that until everything is clarified, we do not want to comment,” the spokesman for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra went on. “We have not yet received any documents from the Portuguese authorities on the matter. The CAR presidency is not yet in possession of all the elements, and so we reserve making any comments for the time being.”
Paul-Crescent Beninga, a researcher at the Centre Centrafricain de Recherche et d’Analyse Géopolitique (CCRAG), in comments to Lusa, warned of the probable consequences of this case, recalling other scandals involving Minusca troops that resulted in the departure of the contingents involved, such as those from Gabon and Congo, and said he feared that the same could happen here.
“My opinion of the Portuguese troops taking part in Minusca is that they are effective on the ground,” he said. “And within Minusca, when there is an effective contingent it is quickly subject to accusations.
“The same thing happened with the Congolese contingent” he went on. “They were repatriated because of accusations of rape, but on the ground they were the most effective at the time. Recently, it was the Gabonese who were accused, they were also very effective, but they were withdrawn. Now it’s the Portuguese.”
Describing the Portuguese commandos as “very effective”, Beninga recalled that in the crisis involving the CPC – Coalition of Patriots for Change – one of the largest armed groups in CAR, currently led by the former president, François Bozizé, Touadéra’s main opponent- it was they who repelled the rebels’ action.
“Today we accuse them,” he went on. “When we accuse them, Portugal is obliged to withdraw its forces; Minusca is obliged to withdraw its forces. We have to be very careful with these kinds of accusations.
“We have to understand whether this is a desire to solve the problem of ‘blood diamonds’ or to diminish the effectiveness of the Minusca,” he concluded.
A diplomatic source in CAR, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Lusa that “the political consequences of this case are very important and this happens at the worst time.”
This diplomat also stressed the credibility of the Portuguese Minusca contingent, which he said had a track record of effectiveness in “fighting rebel groups and protecting populations” in the country.
“Portuguese troops are very famous in CAR for being tough,” he said. “I have no record of another Minusca contingent since 2013 that has taken part in as many direct military confrontations as the Portuguese. It reached a point where the rebel groups knew they had to leave wherever they were as soon as they knew of the arrival of the Portuguese.”
But this scandal brings with it several problems, the same source added. For example, Portuguese commandos intervened in Bangassou, in response to a massacre in which, “in one day, almost a hundred Muslim civilians were killed.
“The Portuguese arrived and saved many people,” he said. “The issue now is that there are many diamonds in Bangassou, so the question has to be asked: Is there a connection between one thing and another? This is the worst thing that could have happened because it discredits that and other interventions by Minusca. It is the worst part of this case.”
Enrica Picco, director for the Central African region of the International Crisis Group (ICG), also stressed to Lusa that the credibility of the Portuguese contingent in Minusca “was built, above all, on its capacity to intervene” and expressd doubt that the current scandal brings that into question.
“Frankly, I don’t believe that this case of diamond trafficking is going to weaken the credibility of the Portuguese forces,” she said, while saying that shed recognised that “the CAR government is in the process of taking every opportunity to attack Minusca, so it would not be surprising if they used this case, as they did with Gabon.”
Nevertheless, the ICG regional director concludes, “both the CAR government and Minusca know that they cannot do without the Portuguese contingent, which is the only remaining combat force, and at a time when Westerners are discussing a more robust mandate for Minusca to try to replace the Russian forces on the ground.
“It is clear that the Portuguese contingent is indispensable,” Picco concluded.
Mohamed Diatta, a researcher at the Institute for Securities Studies (ISS), knows CAR particularly well and says that he was not “surprised” when he read “the news about the Portuguese troops” being involved in trafficking contraband.
“I fully understand that it happened,” he said. “Others will have done the same and potentially even worse. This is not new and has been going on for decades.”
These revelations about the Portuguese contingent are, however, “just the tip of the iceberg”, in the view of Diatta, for whom “questions should be asked about how this was possible” in the context of the UN mission.
“If Portuguese soldiers who are members of Minusca were able to do what they did, shouldn’t we think that other contingents will have done the same thing?” he asks. “How does the Minusca chain of command work? Are other contingents controlled when they move into certain areas?
“Minusca and its troops enjoy privileges and immunities that allow them to enter and leave the country and go everywhere without being searched,” he noted. “How many have abused these privileges?
“For me, the focus should not be placed on the Portuguese, but on the entire operation” of Minusca, he said.
The ISS researcher predicted that the case in question would allow the CAR government to say something like: “we have been complaining about Minusca and this proves that we were right” and that it “has already begun to use the story, calling for greater control.
“But they should not go much beyond that,” he said. “I don’t believe that Minusca will leave CAR anytime soon, but I also think that if Minusca has the intention of being useful, it has to repair this act, as well as its relationship with the Central African authorities. Yes, Minusca has a lot of work ahead of it.”
According to data made available on the official page of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (EMGFA) of Portugal, 188 of the country’s military personnel are currently in CAR as part of MINUSCA. Another 20 military personnel are also committed in CAR, but as part of a European Union mission (EUTM-RCA) to train and advise the country’s security and defence forces.
On 30 September, Portugal’s 10th National Force deployed in CAR, consisting of 180 military personnel, departed from Lisbon, with a view to being operational from 15 November.
The commander of the force, Lieutenant-Colonel Jorge Pereira, leads a group composed of 169 men and 11 women, of which 91 are from the Commandos Regiment and three from the Air Force.
CAR descended into chaos and violence in 2013 after the overthrow of François Bozizé as president by armed groups banded together as the Séléka, which sparked opposition from other militias, grouped under the name anti-Balaka.