March 17, 2013: Peacekeeping is a lot more difficult than it looks. The main problem is that the peace the peacekeepers are there to keep is often a fragile thing that keeps falling back into more violence than the peacekeepers can handle. Case in point is the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR)
Despite a peace agreement signed two months ago in CAR, and the presence of about a thousand peacekeepers from ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States), fighting has again broken out. The rebels accuse the government (with some justification) of reneging on the January peace deal. On March 11-12 the rebels went on the offensive once more, capturing two towns in southeastern CAR. The rebels are also still angry about how the government failed to fulfill a peace deal worked out five years ago.
Meanwhile, the rebels have become more formidable. Last year a new rebel organization (Seleka, a coalition of five rebel groups) was formed and began advancing from northern CAR (near the Chad border) to the capital (on the Congo border). The rebels had a lot of grievances. Back in 2011, elections were held in CAR and things did not go well. The electoral commission declared that president Francois Bozizé won the January 23rd vote, with a 66 percent majority. Opposition groups cried fraud and the disarmament effort failed to collect many weapons from the 6,000 rebels who showed up at disarmament centers. Most rebels that were still active have been operating as bandits, in many cases so intensively that civilian populations fled. Bozizé never provided all the benefits to rebels who accepted the amnesty, and these rebels have been threatening to overthrow the government to get what they were promised. Bozizé thought he could keep the rebels quiet with double-talk and lies. That did not work, and now Bozizé has called on other nations in the region to help him out. ECCAS agreed to send “peacekeepers” but so far these troops have not been able to control the rebels. There were not enough peacekeepers to cover the entire country and the rebels were more numerous and determined.
CAR has been torn by a tribal conflict since November 2001, when former CAR Army Chief of Staff General Francois Bozize and his supporters fled to Chad after fighting broke out in CAR's capital Bangui. For two years Libya provided troops to help keep the new government secure. But in 2003, Bozize and his armed followers returned and the unpopular president Ange-Félix Patassé sort of fled. Patassé supporters, and people who simply opposed Bozize or government in general, got guns and adopted an attitude that they were a law unto themselves. Their bases were in northwestern CAR which was always a lawless place, made worse by years of civil war in nearby Chad and heavy poaching activity from nearby Sudan.
CAR has too many people (population has quadrupled in the last 50 years) and too many ethnic groups/tribes (over 80) to govern easily. Many of the tribes do not get along with each other in the best of times, and now with the overcrowding and the spreading desert in the north, things can get very ugly. There is not enough water for herds or irrigation and not enough arable land. Foreign aid keeps a lot of people alive, and that aid comes in via the national government, which steals as much as it can. That’s the prize for rebels, the capital and all those lucrative government jobs and income from foreign mining operations. CAR is also 80 percent Christian and only ten percent (in the north) Moslem. Because of the aggressive nature of Moslems in the region, the CAR government is accusing the rebels of being backed by Chad rebels and Islamic radicals from Sudan. It’s unclear if this is so. The problem is that no one in the government is sure exactly who the rebels are. They are from the north and call themselves the Seleka coalition and the group has been organizing since last September. Some of the known members are from northern rebel groups that have been around for a decade or more.
All anyone in the south knows is that these northern rebels are angry and willing to fight. The few clashes in which government troops resisted, the rebels quickly defeated the soldiers. Fleeing survivors told of very angry northerners with guns. In three weeks the rebels swept down the few good roads from the north, seizing 11 towns, mainly ones on key crossroads. The rebels halted 190 kilometers north of the capital, in the town of Sibut. There were apparently only a few thousand rebel fighters and they didn’t have a lot of ammo with them. They captured some weapons and gear from retreating soldiers and picked up food and fuel from towns they captured. Capturing the capital and its 700,000 residents would be an all-or-nothing operation. Bozize, with the help of some peacekeepers, had enough troops to defeat a rebel run for the capital.
The government massed forces in the town of Damara, 112 kilometers south of rebel held Sibut. There are also troops from Chad, Congo, and Gabon in Damara. The rebels refused offers to form a coalition government and wanted Bozize and his cronies out. Bozize refuses to leave until his current term is up in 2016. Peace talks ensured and a deal was struck in January. There is general agreement that Bozize cannot be trusted and is a major thief. But he is head-of-state and African countries tend to help each other out to preserve current governments. Several African nations pledged troops to help protect the Bozize government. By January there were 400 African (from Chad) peacekeepers in CAR that were part of MICOPAX (Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic). Most of the peacekeepers have stayed in the capital. But some were in Damara, and the rebels were told that if the peacekeepers were attacked that would be considered an act of aggression against the ten central African states that belong to ECCAS. Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, and Cameroon each pledged 120 troops to the CAR peacekeeping force. The rebels have tended to ignore the peacekeepers and move past them to whatever the objective was. The CAR governments fear that the rebels are making another run on the capital and that the peacekeepers might not be sufficient to stop them.
The CAR Army has only 4,000 troops, who are poorly paid, led, trained, and equipped. So far the CAR soldiers have usually fled when confronted by the rebels.