April 27 can be considered a trailblazing day for the cryptocurrency industry in Africa, as the Central African Republic (CAR) approved bitcoin as its legal tender. This is the second country globally to move forward with such a bold move, after El Salvador, in September 2021, decided to adopt the prevalent cryptocurrency for internal financial transactions. This move might be seen by blockchain and cryptocurrency enthusiasts as the start of a revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa and, under certain circumstances, this might prove to be true, eventually. Nonetheless, in the current state of affairs, where CAR ranks in the 9th place in poverty globally and only 15% of its residents enjoy the perks that electricity entails, this move seems to be out of scope and not taking into consideration the actual issues that people in the Central Africa state are facing. In addition, the adoption comes at a very suspicious timing, where Russia, CAR’s main security guarantor, already 4 months into the war on Ukraine, is eyeing positively cryptocurrencies as a way to perform financial transactions. Combined with the overall conundrum in the region regarding cryptocurrencies and the urge of the Bank of Central African States towards Bangui to annul this decision, a strong geopolitical element arises. Hence, several questions are brought up, including the feasibility of such a decision and the impact it can have on the local communities, lessons that can be learnt from regions where crypto tokens are being mined, as well as threats and potential geopolitical implications for CAR and for the region.
Can bitcoin make such a big impact on the CAR community?
As mentioned, it would be safe to deem it impossible that a nation with less than 15% access to electricity, less than 10% access to internet and a highly problematic grid could, at the moment, support an energy-intensive practice such as decentralized finance and its broader mining process. President Touadera, a PhD holder and assistant professor in mathematics, is fully aware of that and hitherto resorted in the short-term move of establishing the mining company for the electronic currency in Dubai. Nevertheless, this kind of structure and arrangements are very unlikely to benefit the people in the Central African country on the long-term. If Bangui is willing to support this technology, major reforms are needed in the electricity sector to increase access and reliability. President Touadera can follow two paths with that regard.
The first one would involve power plants that rely on conventional fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, or hydropower stations. Currently, Bangui is mostly an oil importer, part of which is used to power the only thermal station in the country, located in Bangui. Imports come mainly from DR Congo($37.8mln), with France being also a significant oil partner($547k). A decision to build several conventional power plants to support digital currency mining would require, first of all, major funding. For a country that has around 45% debt-to-GDP ratio and has already resorted to the IMF for assistance 17 times and still has unresolved arrangements, seeking assistance to international financial institutions would face backlashes. Additional imports will also be needed. For both challenges to be overcome, another obstacle are the sustainability pledges in light of the Paris Agreement. Development banks, for example, are no longer funding such projects, even if they will actually change the macroeconomic landscape in a country. CAR will then need to involve global key players that still support conventional fuels, such as Russia and China. And while Moscow is in a financially weakened position amidst its isolations following the invasion of Ukraine, China is better situated. However, Beijing has also made several promises to participate in combating climate change. These promises limit the potential maneuvers it can make with regards to fossil fuel investments, but they certainly do not constitute a complete ban. These can be considered good news for Bangui and it can pursue support from the East Asian giant, but it is advisable that they do so with caution, as alleged debt traps are already starting to generate devastating results in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The second path would encompass broad investments in intermittent renewable energy units, such as solar and wind parks. This move has an acutely higher chance of attracting investment from key actors from around the world, both public, private but also international financial institutions with much friendlier arrangements. In this case, however, other issues come up. A grid that relies heavily on intermittent RES is a decentralized grid that requires modernization both of its infrastructure and its regulatory framework. Both will need resources, which translates to additional funding/potential debt, but also higher technical expertise, which is very challenging to be found within the country. A big impediment with that regard is expected to be put by the government as well. Reflecting on the fact that the government in Bangui scored solely 24/100 in the transparency index, place in the 154th position globally, modernization and unbundling of the grid is a tedious process that mandates transparency and hence a conflict of interest is projected to happen. Last, but not least, the ambitions of President Touadera to make CAR a blockchain hub could also backfire, converting it into a terrorist hub instead. Electronic currency mining hubs in a decentralized grid become an extremely appealing target, both to control energy resources and to make untraceable financial transactions. Considering CAR’s proximity to Lake Chad, where FACT rebels and Boko Haram have occasionally been active, and to the Great Lakes, where the ADF currently operates, making such reforms for a radical shift to decentralization ought to come with the respective security measures.
Geopolitical and Security Implications for a Conflict-Torn Region
Comprehending the myriad challenges that the Central African state will have to face, so that the adoption of bitcoin can actually have a substantial societal impact, many are contemplating on potential hidden agendas in Bangui. The action of Russian PMC’s in CAR to fight insurgents, such as terrorist groups, audibly delineate the status of the Kremlin as a security partner for the country. Considering the alliance of the two countries and the fact that, virtually simultaneously, both states started exploring the possibility of using digital currencies, this move can be seen as additional pressure from Moscow to exert influence to partners in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that Gazprom Neft decided to partner with BitRiver, the largest crypto-mining colocation services supplier, for the mining of bitcoin with flare gas, depicts that Russia sees another solution to break out of the isolation by the global community due to the war in Ukraine and that solution is decentralized finance. This means that, from now on, electronic currency from blockchain has the potential of being converted to a geopolitical asset, or even geopolitical weapon. This becomes remarkably alarming if one considers that the outreach of the Russian mercenaries spans across Sudan, South Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, Libya and other African states.
For Moscow and its security partners, this creates a fine line between strengthening their partnership and becoming a harbor for terrorists which will enhance instability and mayhem. On one hand, this will increase financial interconnection with Sub-Saharan Africa, which is something that the Kremlin is currently lacking and the situation is expected to get worse. Trade with Africa is projected to be heavily disrupted due to the sanctions and decentralized finance can function as a lifeline for Moscow, but also as a way to even enlarge its influence. On the other hand, a form of currency that is not able to be controlled by a centralized authority, in a terrorism-torn region, has a high chance of being used for financial transactions between terrorists. This can make the job of the Russian PMC’s orders of magnitude difficult and destabilize Central and Southern Africa. Combined with the effects of the pandemic and climate change over the past years, a mix of devastation that can wreak complete havoc has high potential of occurring.
As final, and obvious, potential geopolitical implications, Sub-Saharan Africa can easily turn into a fully fragmented arena based on each country’s stance on cryptocurrency. Countries such as Cameroon and Gabon have a clear stance against the actions of CAR and have audibly stood against the actions of Russia in Ukraine. This decision from Bangui comes as a means for additional polarization, leading to a decrease in collaboration efforts within the region. A further fragmentation can only be seen as a positive outcome for terrorist groups to expand their action across Central and Southern Africa. It can also lead to escalations and a replication of the battlefield in Ukraine. This would be a catastrophic scenario, as CEMAC has made colossal efforts and steps forward to maintain regional peace and stability. Other regional security guarantors, such as France, ought to pay a great deal of attention during the coming months and even play the role of the mediator, should any verbal disputes arise.
What does the future have in store for CAR and Central Africa?
Blockchain is a disruptive technology that can have an immense positive impact on the local communities, if circumstances allow and if used appropriately. This does not seem to be the case for CAR, as President Touadera made a bold move of adopting bitcoin as a legal ledger, but has done so without considering the current major limitation posed by the electricity grid nor the geopolitical implications for the region. Both internally and regionally this can create a chain of events that can have far-reaching ramifications for regional stability and can end up backfiring for cryptocurrency enthusiasts’ ambitions to increase the usage of decentralized finance. Combined with the current shift of the geopolitical world order and the influence of the Kremlin on Bangui, there are numerous signs that digital currencies might start being used as a geopolitical weapon. The international community, with EU being a key player, ought to pay more attention to the Central African region. Important state actors, such as France, but also international institutions both on security and on finance, such as NATO, the IMF and African Development Bank, need to immediately approach regional players that are willing to cooperate, such as Cameroon and Gabon, but also to approach CAR directly and engage with CEMAC as a whole to find a solution that is fit for everyone, before potential disputes escalate, something that might be used by Russia as leverage later on.