The current situation in the Central African Republic has been called many things over the past months, most prominently the “worst crisis most people have never heard of” by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. And indeed, since a coup in March this year plunged the country into chaos, a humanitarian catastrophe has been unfolding largely below the radar of the international community. With international attention focused on the Sudans and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN’s main approach to events in CAR for the longest time could best be described as inaction. That is, until reports about worsening sectarian violence between CAR’s majority Christian community and its Muslim minority finally forced the Security Council to abandon its “wait-and-see” strategy, and decide on a way forward for international engagement to prevent a full-blown civil war.
This week’s posts on The Global Present will focus on the Central African Republic and the many layers of the current crisis, which is a complex emergency in the truest sense of the term. We will argue that it is high time for a long-term international commitment to the Central African country that has been plagued by poverty and instability ever since it gained independence from France in 1960. While the most pressing concerns are security and full access for humanitarian actors, there is also a great need for institutional, economic, and social development, including reconciliation.
The Central African Republic has always been one of the world’s least developed countries, despite its extraordinary wealth in mineral resources. Located in a troubled neighborhood, CAR has a long record of government instability. The current crisis was triggered by the latest on a long list of coups and counter-coups. In March 2013, the country’s former President François Bozizé was driven out of the country by the Séléka, a loose rebel coalition that he had integrated into the armed forces only a few years earlier. Rebel leader Michel Djotodia quickly made himself CAR’s interim president, and officially disbanded the Séléka to re-integrate its members into the army. However, many fighters refused to disarm and instead set out to establish local zones of control by terrorizing the civilian population, driving tens of thousands from their homes. The rebels reportedly engaged in large-scale looting, deliberate killings of civilians, village raids, forced disappearances, and summary executions. So far, the transitional government has done little to stop them. While there is a transitional plan in place, which includes official elections envisioned for 2015, its implementation has quickly been brought to a complete halt.
The violence in CAR has now morphed into an explosive sectarian conflict. Many members of the ex-Séléka are foreign mercenaries from neighboring countries like Chad or Sudan, and most of them are Muslim. Their presence in the Central African Republic, and their attacks on CAR’s majority Christian population, have led to the formation of Christian self-defense militias, the so-called “anti-balaka” (which translates into “anti-machete”). Accounts of brutal retaliatory attacks against CAR’s minority Muslim population have raised international concerns that the cycle of violence and counter-violence, which has now gained a dangerous inter-religious momentum, may soon spiral out of control. On French TV, France’s Foreign Minister Fabius said that CAR was “on the verge of genocide”. Religious and influential community leaders have aimed to de-escalate the situation. However, they too are increasingly being targeted by extremists on both sides.
The Humanitarian Situation
The humanitarian situation is catastrophic. More than half the country’s population of 4.5 million is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 530,000 people have fled the violence, about 70,000 of them into CAR’s neighboring countries. The rest are internally displaced persons (IDPs), most of which have sought refuge in churches, religious sites, and the airport in the national capital Bangui. More than 6,000 children have been forcibly recruited to fight as child soldiers on both sides. International humanitarian response has been slow at best. The chaotic situation has rendered access to displaced populations highly difficult, and sufficient funding has been lacking. In an open letter to the UN’s chief humanitarian director, Valerie Amos, Médicins Sans Frontières accused the UN humanitarian system of an “unacceptable performance“ and “poor humanitarian leadership“ in CAR. The EU and individual countries like the UK, as well as the UN, have now stepped up their relief efforts. However, as long as the security situation remains unpredictable, full humanitarian access will remain restricted.
On December 5, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2127, authorizing the deployment of an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, which will be backed by a separate French force mandated to take “all necessary means” to protect civilians in CAR. The AU’s Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique, (MISCA) is set to take over command from an existing African peacekeeping force by December 19. Once it has reached its full operating capacity, MISCA will consist of 6,000 troops from CAR’s neighboring countries and other African contributors. Its most important tasks are the protection of civilians and the safeguarding of international relief efforts. The resolution mandates a deployment for one year, with a review undertaken after six months. The bolstered contingent of 1,600 French soldiers deployed in CAR has now begun disarming former Séléka rebels. However, violence between the ex-Séléka and anti-balaka reached a new level of intensity as armed members of both factions clashed in Bangui. Two French soldiers were killed during an exchange of gunfire near the airport on December 9th.
Confronting the militias and restoring order has not been as easy as hoped by the French and the international community. An estimated 159,000 people were driven from their homes only last week, as militia members on both sides went from door to door, looking for revenge. On December 13, in a direct radio address, UN Secretary-General (SG) Ban Ki-moon appealed to the people of CAR to end the violence and enter into a dialogue. He also told perpetrators that they should expect to be held accountable for the atrocities committed over the past months. However, with half a million people displaced and the entire population affected by crisis, it is unlikely that the SG’s appeal will have any substantial effect any time soon.