(Photo Credits: Deutsche Welle; UN Photo/Mark Garten; Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
The announcement by the Secretary-General that the situation in the Central African Republic has descended into an organized state of chaos forbodes a chilling near-term future for the perennially-struggling African nation. What we are seeing, those of us who have looked beyond the ‘CNN factor’ of CAR’s news being drowned out by talk of the Olympics in Sochi, the situation in Syria, the Iran nuclear negotiations, and even the catastrophic ice storm (a hyperbole conflagrating a weather emergency to mass atrocities), is that the international community has yet again failed to live up to the motto of ‘never again’ and has resigned itself to a more passive statement of ‘oh, not again.’
What is so depressing about the situation is that every actor involved resides somewhere on the scale of bad to most bad. For starters, take the news of the first female president of the CAR assuming office, a feat many Western nations have yet to accomplish. Under normal circumstances, this laudable news marks a step along the road to greater gender parity among the upper echelons of global power. However, even this, the ‘good’ among the titular portion of this article, cannot be received with much enthusiasm when placed against the backdrop of poor institutional capacity among the CAR’s governing bodies, lack of regional buy-in to the presidency of a heretofore municipal leader, and a general lack of rule of law or even unified legitimate force.
Even if Catherine Samba-Panza were to unite all of the disparate forces once comprising the armed group that removed Bozize from power, she would still be confronted by the massive Disarmament Demobilization Reintegration/Security Sector Reform effort needed to transform the militia into an effective rule of law force. Not to mention she would also have to face down the deep division between Christians and Muslims now sowed in the country by the series of retributive attacks. Only transforming one side of the conflict would also run the risk of alienating the now frighteningly effective ‘anti-balaka’ armed groups.
If she and her team were to adopt the more realistic thinking of systems-based governance, she would also have to address the recurring water crisis her country faced even before this current political and military catastrophe (used in the more literal sense of the word here). To complicate the resource problems, the flight of many of the Muslim communities also means an evacuation of many of the food trading routes which have fed her country, leading to what many are stating as an impending food crisis. Additionally, Samba-Panza would need to adopt economic reforms to complete infrastructure projects to make the western and eastern portions of the CAR more interconnected and to create more jobs for her citizens, most importantly for the former soldiers she is trying to reintegrate. As national employment opportunities had been scant prior to the conflict, Samba-Panza has the even tougher job of building new sectors for the economic future to take hold. Last, but most definitely on even footing with the other reforms and programs mentioned here, a robust national system of justice, reconciliation, and trauma healing is needed, especially if she is to keep to her word of making the atrocity perpetrators answer for their actions. These are all very big ‘if’s’ for a regime which is seemingly crippled from the start.
Now for the ‘bad.’ An alarming number of reports and photojournalists’ catalogues have demonstrated that the international community, to date represented by the presence of French troops and a small African peacekeeping force, has been ineffective at stopping the commission of acts of violence, even with what could be deemed as a ‘robust’ footprint already established. It is possible to attribute the limited abilities of the intervention force to the small mandate permitted by the deploying governments and the hesitancy of the UN to use any proactive force outside of the DRC. But this begs the question: if we are able to fully recognize the looming and already committed atrocities, why are those who are responsible to act under the Responsibility to Protect (Pillar III, if you please) acting as if they are helpless bystanders? The distaste for intervention left by Libya has perhaps ruined for the near future any hope of robust international action, in crises like Syria and the CAR. One of the actionable items advanced by R2P-advocates is that UN Security Council members must forgo the use of the veto in the face of atrocities. It is important that Council members adopt this policy so that an organized international response can be put into effect.
What is truly ugly about the situation is that despite the lack of a central authority to command a civilian mobilization toward atrocity-level violence, a sort of ‘grassroots organized horror’ has taken hold. With the intercommunal perception of existential threats by Christians and Muslims alike, the country has organized into pockets of interreligious cleansing, with the result that any reported figure of the actual death tolls are best guesses. Indeed, the Secretary-General has indicated that the future of the country may default into a religious/political partition of the country, partially in response to the mass exodus of Muslim refugees into neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon. As a solution to a crisis, a potential partition of the country may be the best of the worst options, as the country has not historically been cleanly halved. It is not as if the west or east, north or south could be clearly delineated, with Bangui and say Bossangoa or N’Délé serving as the prospective capitals. Indeed, the reason some of the violence has been so striking is that neighbors have turned on neighbor, and survivors know who exactly killed their loved ones. Christians and Muslims, while pocketed in cities, live alongside each other, and have peacefully coexisted until the mainly Muslim Seleka fighters began fomenting interreligious resentment.
The mobilization of anti-balaka Christian communities into organized ethnic cleansing units portends a calamitous future for the Central African Republic. If the international community is to heed their own creed of never letting an atrocious situation occur again on the scale of what happened in the 1990s, it must read the warning signs as they are and imbue its peacekeeping force with the operational ability to quell intercommunal violence, in essence, a proactive force mandate. Under the current mandate, which could otherwise be seen as extensive, troops are tasked with the protection of civilians, stabilization, and security sector issues. It is obvious that the mandate is not sufficient. Greater intervention seems to be needed, through such actions like implementing a municipal curfew in order to lock down certain corridors for violence and confiscation of weapons of mass atrocities like machetes and small arms.
Of course, greater action on the part of the intervention force also requires a larger troop contribution, something unlikely given the current international political climate. Even then, it is uncertain that at this stage in the evolution of these atrocities that simply a larger force with an expanded mandate will be sufficient. The only hopeful news is that the presidential mission to increase national security institutionalization by Samba-Panza will accompanying a crackdown on communal violence which is driven by organized militias will bolster the international force’s ability to provide CAR citizens with a sense of security – a feat which would go a long way to discouraging the shared sense that violence is the only recourse to survival. In keeping with the motif, truly ‘a few dollars more’ is all that is needed to greatly affect the outcome of the crisis (of course, the dollar figure is more along the lines of millions and represents strong commitments to a large, stabilizing force on the ground and substantial support to the fledgling national government, but please forgive this particular artistic license). When faced with the knowledge that such a gruesome result waits at the other end of this particular rabbit hole, the more appropriate question is: how can we afford not to act?