The Implications of Military Intervention in the Central African Republic

(Originally published 15 April, 2014)

In April the United Nations authorised the intervention of a further 10,000 soldiers to the Central African Republic. Alongside the 2,000 strong French force dispatched in late November 2013 and the 6,000 African Union troops code-named MISCA (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine) this will come to form some 18,000 men positioned in the Central African Republic (CAR) which is beset by violence. Since  February 2014 the violence has been defined by some as ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence. The question is will this military intervention work? 

Military interventions in Africa have become increasingly prudent since the disasters of the 1990s in Somalia and Rwanda which proved a shameful experience for the United States in the former and the latter for French foreign policy.

The increase in military muscle on the ground indicates a number of negatives and positives. A criticism would be that it was clear that 8,000 soldiers alone would be insufficient to contain the violence in a country similar in size to Ukraine and larger than France.

The military interventionists while possessing significant military capabilities and control of Bangui were unable to prevent the anti-balaka (the ‘Christian’ militia) and Seleka (the rebel Muslim faction removed from power in December) from committing crimes against humanity and mass-atrocities in the countryside.  Killings have continued between Christians and the increasingly isolated Muslim communities despite the presence  of foreign troops while the numerous members of the intervention force have already been killed.

This isn’t Mali where air-power could be decisive against the Islamic militants. The backstreets of CAR’s capital Bangui and the thick bush of the country’s interior mean susceptibility to ambush is high and difficulty in rooting out the perpetrators of extremist violence complicates matters. The African Union peacekeeping mission is trying to fill the gap left by neighboring Chad, which withdrew its 850 troops following allegations some of its soldiers had indiscriminately killed thirty-two  unarmed civilians in the marketplace. This coincided with an attempt to put down the anti-balaka now branded a terrorist organisation by the foreign interventionists.

The introduction of substantial reinforcements is welcome and a brave move given the uncertainty in Europe and the Middle East and highlights the determination of Ban Ki Moon to not let CAR become the Rwanda of our time. However there is one problem in this deployment, the operations that were to commence in mid-September are still under-capacity and still struggling to contain violence hampering a peaceful transition of governmental power.

How many civilians, particularly Muslims, lives will be lost in this lengthy process of logistical preparation and how effective will the expanded U.N and MINUSCA forces be in containing continued violence?

It is also important to note that the Central African Republic is not Rwanda. The situation on the ground is more chaotic, the lack of an effective government means that coordinated genocide is highly unlikely against the Muslim community. Ethnic cleansing however can be carried out by groups and the anti-balaka has succeeded thus far in driving the majority of the Muslim population from the country and slaughtering thousands. According to the United Nations, the proportion of Muslims in the overall population has shrunk from around fifteen percent to two percent since the bloodletting began.

There are chilling similarities to the Serb units in Bosnia in 1990s who conducted ethnic cleansing through systematic sexual violence, seizure of Muslim land, the destruction of their cultural heritage and legacy and massacre of innocent men, women and children. In many cases  they carry out murder in front of or in close proximity to foreign troops; the latter have been found wanting in protecting civilians from perpetrators of violence.

They are however up against overwhelming numbers and geographical stretched in terms of distributing troops. Thus the introduction of more troops will lift the strain on the low numbers of peacekeepers who are boxed in trying to protect the remaining pockets of the Muslim population. The objectives of the anti-balaka will largely be complete.

What concerns should concern onlookers is the evolution of the violence, the nature and purpose of the violence and the imprint it will leave on the country for future generations. Civil war is one thing, ethnic cleansing and sectarian division is opens up a damaging rift between the communities in question.

In a country like CAR lacking in effective educational, political and economic infrastructure and beset by socio-economic inequalities these social divisions cannot be healed quickly and the twist in the violence based upon religious identity will leave a deep impression upon the population now divided by religious hatred and intolerance even if the campaign lacks coordination amongst the perpetrators.

An indicator of  success can be the restoration of peace in Sierra Leone in 2000 by the British troops who successfully put down the rebellious and bloody Revoultionary United Front (who also had support from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia), restored order, maintained order, and ensured a peace that has lasted after a decade of civil war (1991-2002). This only required 1,200 soldiers allied with government forces and since then Sierra Leone has encountered little difficulties. This is remarkable considering the resumption of civil war in countries afflicted by both economic weakness and civil strife is more likely than in a modernised country.

Simply ending the conflict isn’t the only challenge facing the intervention forces, it is re-building the socio-political and economic fabric of the Central African Republic so that it may prosper whilst maintaining and imposing security so that it narrows down a repeat of the bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing or worse genocide.They can be mediators on the political scene and can restrain the more violent elements of the local militia and armed forces. MINUSCA must impose order. The question is can they impose peace and stability while being hampered by chaos, crime, and violence?

Matthew Williams