By Matthew Mitchell
“French soldiers move a wounded man at Mpoko Airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)” Source
A Failed State?
French President, Francoise Hollande, warned in August 2013 that the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) was on the verge of “Somaliasation.” Current US ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Samantha Power, remarked during her visit to the CAR last year that Somalia taught the world what could happen in a failed state, Rwanda showed what could occur in a deeply divided one, and encouraged international action to prevent a descent into the abyss for the CAR. To date, close to one million civilians are classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and $59 million dollars have been allocated by the international community for protection of civilians, sanitation, food security, and health services. The International Crisis Group estimates that 2.3 million CAR citizens—over half the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. Death toll numbers vary greatly due to the dispersed nature of the conflict, but estimates range from the official five thousand to the tens of thousands. Over the course of two days in December 2013 alone, Human Rights Watch estimated that 1,000 people were killed.
Africa’s “Unholy War” began in December 2012, when Seleka militias launched an offensive against the central government in northern and central CAR. However, the seeds of the current conflict were sewn almost a decade before, when François Bozizé Yangouvonda came to power via a coup toppling the country’s first democratically elected president, Ange-Félix Patassé. This event ignited what became known as the “African Bush War,” when future president and Seleka leader, Michel Djotodia, led the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), in a prolonged uprising against the administration of Bozizé. The Seleka—renamed in June as the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic—is an alliance of predominantly Muslim militias without a centralized chain of command or ideology. Their brutal tactics sparked retribution attacks by the anti-Balaka (‘anti-machete’ in Sango), a predominantly Christian coalition that has targeted Muslims mercilessly without discrimination across the country.
News this week that six UN peacekeepers were wounded in a shooting in the capital city, Bangui, exacerbates the already devastating conflict. These UN peacekeepers are part of the new force deployed last month under the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Operating under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, MINUSCA’s mandate calls primarily for the protection of civilians. However, failures of past UN peacekeeping missions have demonstrated the vagueness of Chapter VII mandates which often lead to UN peacekeepers acting as nothing more than hapless bystanders. The failure of these missions is not only due to the limitations of Chapter VII, but also the commitment of troops and resources –or lack thereof – from developed nations. Developing nations constitute a disproportionate amount of peacekeeping forces and are consequently often not as well trained or well-equipped as the military forces of developed nations. For example, the current MINUSCA force is comprised of soldiers from Benin, France (former colonial power of CAR), Indonesia, Morocco and Rwanda. In his chilling account of the failure of the international community in Rwanda, Liteuenant General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the Rwandan peacekeeping mission, recalled receiving “assistance” in the form of flashlights without batteries or bulbs, inoperable and/or antiquated armored personnel carriers, and troops lacking weapons or training. Under the previous African Union (AU) led mission to CAR, reports surfaced of Chadian troops of indiscriminately killing dozens of unarmed civilians in early April 2014.
While MINUSCA is a step in the right direction, its implementation comes almost one year after the fiercest of the fighting began. The same political concerns that obstructed the international response to Rwanda prevented this mission from getting underway sooner. The UN was hesitant to involve itself in the conflict more actively due to a variety of factors. Budget cuts in the United States led to a 12% decrease in UN funding, hampering efforts to build a new peacekeeping operation on the continent. While the United States provided direct assistance to the CAR, it did not support a UN peacekeeping operation through UN channels. The UN already had missions present in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and found funding difficult to obtain. Inter-organizational rivalry between the AU and other regional organizations also hampered the ability to get a UN force onto the ground. At the time, many observers expected the UN to take on a more forceful role in the conflict. However, the UN wished to avoid direct intervention in the situation, opting instead to finance fact-finding missions, appoint Special Representatives, and financially support the African Union’s peacekeeping operation.
Just last week, interim President Catherine Samba Panza suggested the creation of a rapid intervention unit and CAR’s deputy army chief of staff called upon all Central African Armed Forces (FACA) members to return to their barracks. How realistic is this solution? The FACA only had 8,000 troops prior to being defeated by the Seleka in 2013. Reuters reports that few remain active duty – some have even joined the very militias FACA is supposed to defeat, and countless others, who have not been paid in over a year, have decided to stay home. Needless to say, this option does not strike me as entirely realistic. What needs to happen to resolve this conflict?
First, security has to be established and a true cease fire reached. It should be noted that countless ceasefires have been reached in this conflict, the most recent occurring in July 2013, but none have held. This is due in part to the disparate nature of the militias and a lack of legitimate spokespeople for the Seleka and anti-Balaka. In order to reach a cease fire, a robust force that is well equipped and allowed to truly engage the anti-Balaka and remaining Seleka groups must be deployed in the CAR. In theory, MINUSCA represents this solution. However, given the dismal history of UN peacekeeping forces in the region I remain skeptical. Events over the next few months will demonstrate whether this force has any teeth. Second, as promoted by special envoy Margaret Vogt, the international community needs to engage more forcefully on both a diplomatic and financial level “to pull CAR from the brink.” Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has requested the same level of attention paid to Syria, Libya, and Somalia be paid to the CAR. Despite allusions to genocide by UN officials and condemnation by world leaders, the humanitarian conflict in the CAR continues unabated with little international media coverage. CAR will continue its descent into chaos until the world takes notice and decides to decisively back robust international military and development assistance.
Matthew Mitchell is the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations and representative to the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy Board of Overseers. He is pursuing an MA in International Relations with a focus on Economic Development of Sub-Saharan African.