The Central African Republic (CAR) is in the throes of an extreme political crisis that exploded in early December with mass killing in the streets of the capital Bangui. Despite a French military intervention under UN auspices, an increase in aid funding for the CAR, and the accession of a new president committed to national reconciliation, the situation is still dire. UN officials warn that there is a “high risk of crimes against humanity and genocide,” and the French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud has emphasized that the 6,000 peacekeepers currently deployed are insufficient to quell violence between Muslim Seleka fighters and Christian anti-balaka militias.
Given these events, it is perhaps time to revisit the idea that the CAR is a success story for conflict prevention. Some writers, most notably Hayes Brown of the popular liberal news platform Think Progress, have celebrated the rapid international response to the surge of violence in early December. According to Brown, President Obama’s Presidential Study Directive-10 on atrocity prevention and the creation of the Atrocity Prevention Board to coordinate interagency responses allowed the United States to lead a masterful conflict prevention effort. Thus, Brown credited the international community for learning the lessons of Rwanda and moving quickly to prevent genocide in the CAR, in sharp contrast to its inaction in Rwanda in 1994.
Certainly, the international response to atrocities in the CAR has been far superior to the total inaction during the Rwandan genocide that now US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power detailed so brilliantly. Still, this analogy in fact serves to mask the reality that the international response in the CAR has been too late and insufficient. Only compared to the Rwandan genocide is it possible to label the international response a success story in a country where nearly half the population have difficulty finding food, one fifth are displaced, security has fully collapsed, and ethno-religious tensions have dangerously risen.
In fact, the international community paid scant attention to the deteriorating security situation in the CAR from the Seleka takeover in January 2013 until December 2013. While the Security Council did meet to consider the crisis several times, it largely failed to take decisive action. Meanwhile, then-President Michel Djotodia was unable to control his Seleka rebel fighters, who rampaged throughout the country raping, killing, and pillaging. While arms exports from the United Kingdom and elsewhere flooded the country, hardly any states contributed to a fund to complete the disarmament process. As a result, state institutions and health and education infrastructure collapsed, the agricultural sector broke down, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. In July 2013, Medecins Sans-Frontiers even warned that the CAR had been “abandoned to its fate.”
Moreover, even the much-celebrated international response in December has fallen short in several areas. French President Francois Hollande deserves great credit for contributing 1,600 French troops, which together with 4,000 African Union peacekeepers has made some progress, but it is evident that they have been unable to restore security to the vast expanses of the CAR. Despite their best efforts, peacekeepers have proven unable to quell the sectarian violence by anti-balaka militias against Muslim civilians as Seleka rebels withdraw. In remote areas of the country, anti-balaka lynch mobs have driven tens of thousands of Muslims to flee. Moreover, peacekeepers are unable to ensure food deliveries, as evidenced by a World Food Program convoy escorted by African peacekeepers that was blocked by militia groups and forced to turn back. Recently, the EU offered 500-600 troops to secure the airport of the capital Bangui, but this still falls short of the 10,000 peacekeepers that Ambassador Araud said were the bare minimum.
Certainly, the picture in the CAR is not all negative. President Catherine Samba-Panza promises to pursue reconciliation, and the country’s top religious leaders Archbishop Nzapalainga and Imam Kobine are working hard to promote the peace process. In addition, the UN Security Council has continued to stay engaged, and on January 28 authorized the EU force and imposed targeted sanctions on atrocity perpetrators. UN officials and leading NGOs also deserve credit for mobilizing the fear of genocide and “never again” rhetoric to spur a rapid international response in December.
However, if the CAR is to avoid becoming another Somalia, it needs not just a short-term military intervention to halt mass-killing. Only long-term assistance with security, development, and building effective state institutions will effectively prevent future violence. Peacekeepers must secure remote areas so that the UN and NGOs can provide aid and displaced peoples will feel confident enough to return. The state must restart education programs, lest more of the 70% of children not currently in school join militia groups as many already have.
If these actions are not taken, the CAR conflict could well draw in neighbouring states and non-state actors, a strong possibility given that the CAR borders unstable states such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Moreover, there is a real risk that the Seleka fighters could regroup and the influence of radical Islamists in their leadership could grow. In short, instead of congratulating themselves for a job well done, international actors must dramatically step up efforts to extend security, improve aid delivery, and foster political stabilization to prevent future conflict.
Misha Boutilier is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com