Central African Republic Conflict: Short-Term and Long-Term Solutions Required

(Originally published 9 February, 2014)

The stories emerging from the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui (and the rest of the country) suggest that an inferno, long ignited, is consuming the country in horrific and appalling violence.

The mass-violence is well-known, the question is where next for a country being torn apart? The history of the Central African Republic is riddled with coups, dictators, and civil war. However what must be considered is even if the violence is halted for now, is that in the long-term divisions between the religious communities will remain, not to be forgotten nor forgiven by the hard-liners in the near future. The difference between this war and the previous one is the sectarian violence, and religious violent is often the most potent in conflict, the horrifying nature of individual deaths and injuries have stirred the passion of not only militia, but the civilians turning them against one another.

As seen in South Sudan (though ultimately an entirely different scenario) and on a more horrific scale, the masses can be plunged into religious, political, and ethnic violence all too easily and with alarming speed in the Third World. The scars often deep-seated can irrevocably changing the fabric of a society.  In November 2013, the UN warned the country was at risk of spiralling into genocide and said it was “descending into complete chaos”, while France described the country as “…on the verge of genocide.” The increasing violence was largely from reprisal attacks on civilians from Séléka’s mainly Muslim fighters and Christian militias called “anti-balaka”.

How do the African peacekeepers, French forces, and U.N peacekeepers approach this? France deployed 1,600 troops there in December to try to stem violence between Christian militias and largely Muslim Seleka rebels who ousted President Francois Bozize last March. French troops intervened alone for the second time last year after ousting Islamist rebels in Mali, another former African colony. Certainly they are overstretched, with ‘French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggesting on Thursday the United Nations would probably have to renew a French mandate for their troops to restore order in Central African Republic when it expires in May.’ 

This suggests the challenge of restoring order was underestimated by those involved. Similarly the peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic appear to have been ineffective thus far, critics pointing out maintaining control of the capital, Bangui, does not necessarily a guarantee for control of the country (Mogadishu in Somalia, a prime example).

Already Seleka fighters who fled the capital Bangui have regrouped in the northeast and begun attacks on civilians, and in the current circumstances it is unlikely they will lay down their machetes with the FACA (Armed Forces of Central African Republic) lynching ‘rebels’ and hardly seem to be convincing the international community that they are controlling the anti-balakamutilating and immolating Muslims on a weekly basis. (contains graphic content)

It is a very precarious situation, how do the peace-keepers approach the deteriorating situation? Ultimately they have the ability (particularly the French) to put down the radical segments including the militia, and in some circumstances have done so at the cost of casualties to the peacekeepers (including two French soldiers) in December 2013. The extension of France’s mandate is welcome, however the extension suggests they haven’t dealt with the violence, particularly in countryside, effectively.

For example, the very public lynching and mutilation of a young man accused of being a rebel by FACA soldiers was not halted by present peacekeepers from the tiny African nation of Burundi who surrounded the wounded man to protect him from the growing crowd. He lay wounded on his back and still alive for about five minutes. But as the crowd moved closer, the peacekeepers withdrew, not even firing warning shots.

Such a lack of backbone illustrates the lack of resolution to act in the face of extreme violence by peacekeepers and harks back to a day when violence was merely watched by U.N forces from a distance (the best example in Rwanda in 1994). This exemplifies how important France is to enforcing order and that they remain even if it costs them more men and ensure that the U.N has effective punch on a military level until the peacekeeping forces are increased to a higher number.

However if they were to withdraw the ability of the remaining peacekeepers to control the violence would come under scrutiny, the African peacekeepers, in comparison to Somalia’s peacekeepers, have appeared thus far ineffective. The priority is to protect the Muslim communities (the minority religious community) from the wrath of the Christian militia and civilians thirst for vengeance after the ruthless, but so far short-lived, rule of the Seleka’s  Michel Djotodia.

The 2013 coup ushered in months of turmoil and bitter hatred toward the mostly Muslim rebels and has left anyone accused of collaboration vulnerable to reprisals. The rebels’ 10-month rule was marked by human rights abuses and from this the the anti-Balaka was spawned, which also has been accused of atrocities, most recently witnessed in the early months of 2014.

Should the situation escalate, the best solution would be the deployment of troops against rebel units, and militia refusing ceasefire and damaging the civilian population. It has proved effective thus far in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the U.N intervention force freedom to go on the offensive against clear threats to the peace. This initiative has paved open a unique window of opportunity to salvage peace in the war-torn land. The problems remain deeply complex, but a similar approach in the Central African Republic could prove decisive to preventing the country collapsing as the Democratic Republic of Congo has done.

Direct engagement will be difficult though and must be done very tactfully, as seen by the disaster of Somalia in 1993, working with the regional leaders and understanding the issues and functions of the communities of the country are more crucial than ever.

The last thing the French and U.N would need is a dent to its prestige if the rebels or militia slaughter many of their troops and force a withdrawal if they fight with disregard and naivety to the needs of the country. Unilateral action by France could undermine the U.N mission.

More importantly the civil war in CAR must as an important security threat with the existence of cross-border refugee camps, a spill-over of violence into inherently unstable countries (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, war-torn South Sudan, Chad which is plagued by political violence) and the pressure refugees will inevitably place on fragile socio-economic structures on such countries could potential ignite regional instability. Refugee camps are sources of potential chaos and if mishandled can remain for an extended period of time. This can lead to tensions between locals and refugees, who are often desperate for both revenge and right of return.

With the rise of Islamic extremism across parts of Africa, a displaced and ethnically cleansed Muslim population can be exploited by extremists and militias such as Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and others who might want to exploit the short-term and long-term discontent to recruit followers. A failed state can also be a potential haven for terrorists and militia groups to wreak havoc, seize power and harness resources (of which the Central African Republic has plenty in the form of mineral wealth).

Even when peace is restored the problems of re-housing hundreds of thousands of refugees, re-establishing order, healing the wounds inflicted on both communities, not to mention the destitute poverty and development problems that have gripped the Central African Republic before and most certainly more severely after the conflict will be the bigger challenge for the new government. Economic collapse, a mass exodus of the foreigners, and the inability of the any government to control their militia are particularly ominous short-term challenges for the politicians should peace descend. This will not be helped if the newly elected government proves to be as corrupt or as violent as the previous governments.

This is Africa though so necessarily victory for any side promising change has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Central African Republic is already a mess, should it go wrong, should the international community not continue to commit attention to its short-term and long-term problems, it is likely a religious community could face displacement and annihilation. The ingredients are there for a failed state, and in the unimaginable extremes, the mass-slaughter of the Muslim or Christian population. Deep-seated wounds are not forgotten easily. 

Matthew Williams