Peacekeeping: France Declares Its Independence

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December 25, 2013: In early December 2013 France sent 1,600 troops into CAR (Central African Republic) to help restore order. This was classic emergency peacekeeping, something France has been doing in this part of the world (former French colonies). The main problem in CAR was that the new rebel (Seleka) government has not been able to deal with the chaos and lawlessness unleased by the overthrow of the elected government earlier in 2013. At the moment the biggest problem is that the rebels are largely Moslem, but 85 percent of CAR residents are Christian (50 percent) or pagans (35 percent). This caused more friction and violence. The Moslem rebels swept south a year ago and have behaved like a conquering army. As a result at least ten percent of the 4.6 million people in the country have been forced to flee their homes and about a third of those have fled to neighboring countries (Congo, Cameroon and Chad). UN relief operations are hampered by the lawlessness from all sides inside CAR. There are believed to be over a million people in the country desperately needing food and other aid. What is required to make this happen are more peacekeepers.  The ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States) and the AU (African Union) organized a 3,600 man peacekeeping force and France sent in 1,600.

France was quick to point out that the situation in CAR was not another Mali (where Islamic terrorists were a major factor) but simply the chaos that occurs after more than a decade of political and tribal unrest. Seleka is a coalition of the northern rebel militias who, because they all come from the north are, naturally, Moslem. But there is little or no Islamic radicalism involved here. The violent resistance Seleka encountered in the south was more a reaction to the raping and plundering than the fact that the Seleka men were Moslem. The local militias that soon confronted Seleka were largely Christian because there are few Moslems in the south. The northern tribes, like many Christian ones, have been hostile to the elected (via tainted elections) government. The southerners don’t want to be ruled by unelected northerners. Religion is less a factor than is the fact that tribalism is still such a major factor in CAR. The area has been a mess for quite some time and the French just want to help quiet things down. France has told the African states that long-term peace in CAR is an African responsibility and France wants more of the emergency peacekeeping handled by neighbors, not a former colonial power.  So the UN wants more troops from the West, who will bring in aircraft and more robust logistical and communications capabilities.

CAR is landlocked and surrounded by Cameroon to the west, Chad to the north, Sudan to the east, and Congo to the south. CAR has too many people (a population that has quadrupled to 4.6 million 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 get very ugly. There is not enough water for herds or irrigation for crops and not enough arable land for anything. 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 that goes with it.

CAR needs all the outside help it can get because the economy, especially in the capital, is a mess. The rebels and sundry criminals have been extorting more cash from businesses and travelers (via a lot of new “security checkpoints” on the main roads) and causing all sorts of problems. Many schools are closed and supplies of all kinds (especially medical) are scarce. Crime is more common, as is unemployment. There’s also been an upsurge in violence against Christians down south, especially in the capital. Clergy and churches have been attacked. The Seleka government said it would halt this, but Seleka has always had a hard time disciplining its members and that has not changed much since the rebels took control of the capital.

Outside the capital there has also been a crime wave, often caused by local Seleka groups (or armed men claiming to be Seleka) going on a looting and mayhem spree. So far this year hundreds have died and several thousand have been injured. Many more have been robbed, often in addition to women and female children being raped.

The rebels justified their takeover by accusing the former government (with some accuracy) of reneging on an earlier peace deal. This time the rebels got to the capital and overthrew the government of president Francois Bozizé. The northern rebels had become much more formidable in 2012 by forming a new rebel organization Seleka, a coalition of five rebel groups. That made it possible to advance from northern CAR (near the Chad border) to the capital (on the Congo border in the southwest).

All the rebels had a lot of grievances. Back in 2011, elections were held in CAR and it was obvious to foreign observers (and CAR citizens) that the process was corrupt. The electoral commission declared that president Francois Bozizé won the January 23rd vote, with a 66 percent majority. In addition Bozizé was accused to stealing money meant for the disarmament effort which failed to collect many weapons from the 6,000 rebels who showed up at disarmament centers. The rebels that were still active were frequently operating as bandits, often so intensively that civilian populations fled. Bozizé never provided all the benefits to rebels who accepted the amnesty, and these rebels threatened 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 Bozizé called on other nations in the region to help him out. ECCAS agreed to send “peacekeepers” but these troops were not able to stop the enraged rebels. There were never enough peacekeepers to cover the entire country and the rebels were now 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.

The rebels initially refused offers to form a coalition government and wanted Bozize and his cronies out. Bozize refused to leave until his current term was up in 2016. Peace talks ensued and a deal was struck in January, 2013. There was general agreement that Bozize could not be trusted and was a major thief. But he was 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. Soon there were a thousand peacekeepers in CAR and most of them stayed in the capital. The CAR Army had only 4,000 troops, who were poorly paid, led, trained, and equipped. CAR soldiers usually fled when confronted by the rebels. By March 24th most CAR troops had deserted and the rebels took control of the capital. Driving out the former government has, so far, proved easier than actually running a government.

In order to maintain good relations with neighboring countries and the UN, interim president Michel Djotodia reorganized the 34 member cabinet in June but his rebel organization (Seleka) still held most of the power but other groups were given more authority. Djotodia also denied that his rebel coalition (Seleka) had financed itself with diamonds. This use of illegal mining (for gold, gems, and other rare and valuable ores) is common with criminal gangs and rebel movements in Africa. Djotodia said the government would crack down on these practices. That won’t be easy as there’s an extensive underground infrastructure that supports this activity. In addition to the miners and the gangs that extract a share of profits there are businessmen who provide needed supplies and services and middlemen who will broker sales to foreign buyers. If the experience in the rest of Africa is anything to go by, Djotodia is more likely to be bribed into inactivity than he is to actually turn this unregulated mining into a legal operation.

The government issued an arrest warrant for former president Francois Bozize in May, accusing him of murder, sundry other war crimes, and corruption. Bozize is seeking, without much success, a country that will provide sanctuary and protection from being sent back to CAR for trial. Meanwhile he has parked his family in Cameroon. France is planning to pull its troops out in 2014, as early in the new year as possible.

 

 


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