Peacekeeping: The CAR Is Stuck


December 11, 2014: A year after the French led peacekeepers first arrived, the chaos and violence in the CAR (Central African Republic) has died down. Back in July it looked very different and it appeared that the country was partitioned between Christians and Moslems who would be constantly at war. While there is less mixing of Christian and Moslem populations now, the three peacekeeping forces (French, the UN's MINUSCA and the European Union's EUROF-RCA) now total over 8,000 troops and have eliminated all the large scale and most of the small scale violence. But there are still many rural areas where bandits and warlords are a very real danger. Moreover the fresh memories of religion based atrocities is still fresh and a lot of hostility remains.

The French “Sangaris Force” is the most effective and aggressive peacekeeper outfit and gas been used to good effect to go after the most threatening violent rebels and bandits. Most locals credit Sangaris with eliminating the most violent and feared groups and discouraging others from becoming enough of a nuisance to attract a visit from Sangaris. Although less than 2,000 troops, the Sangaris Force has a reputation for coming in fast and hard and shooting to kill. The UN and EU peacekeepers are more conventional in their approach and provide a daily presence that can shoot back if they have to. The main objective of the peacekeepers now is to make it possible to hold national elections in mid-2015 and then help the elected officials establish a stable government (so the peacekeepers can leave).

Meanwhile the country remains divided in many ways. In the northeast the Moslem Seleka rebel coalition sustains itself via gold mines it controls. In the southwest Christian militias and what passes for the official government gets by via cash from “taxes” on improvised diamond mining operations.

In July 2014 Seleka reorganized and renamed itself as PFRCAR (Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic).  That changed nothing and Seleka continues to be a failied organization. In the southwest the Christians control the capital and the national government. In short, not much has changed in over a decade of tribal and religious strife and chaos.  The peacekeepers are slowly disbanding the militias and their local “governments.” This still results in occasional firefights, which the peacekeepers tend to win nearly every time.

France was iterated at the inability of the EU (European Union) to send additional troops and special equipment (like helicopters) as quickly as promised. But of all the EU members only France and Britain are really able to do this sort of thing in a hurry. France, and the African peacekeepers could see that the CAR situation was getting worse as the situation turned into a religious war with Christian militias in the southwest seeking to expel all Moslems from the area. Ethnic cleansing is not the sort of thing peacekeepers like to have happen in their presence. Initially peacekeepers mostly worked to protect some 600,000 refugees. It’s got so bad that the AU (African Union) both accused the Moslem rebels and the Christian militias of being terrorists.

Most of the current mayhem is in the largely Christian south and especially in and around the capital, where most of the few Moslems in the south live. This all began when the capital was captured by Moslem rebels in early 2013. That was followed by rebels engaging in extensive looting and other crimes. Most of their victims were Christians. This included some deliberate attacks on churches. That resulted in Christians forming militias to fight the Moslem rebels. Since early 2013 over 3,000 people have died, most of them in 2014. In early 2014 the few Moslems remaining in the south began arming themselves and fighting back against the local Christians and Christian militias. This caused the number of refugees in and around the capital to go from 20,000 to over 200,000 in March and over 600,000 by July.

The Christian militias were angry because the peacekeepers failed to curb rebel violence against Christians in 2013. The general chaos began in early 2014 and grew. This year over a million people (a quarter of the CAR population) fled their homes although many have since returned. Foreign aid groups had a hard time getting food and other supplies in since rebels, militias and bandits are looting aid supplies and convoys. Peacekeepers had to be used as armed escorts for the convoys and provide protection for aid workers distributing food.

For the French this is all a big disappointment. CAR was supposed to be the kind of classic emergency peacekeeping France has been doing in this part of the world (former French colonies) for decades. The main problem in CAR was that the Seleka government was not been able to deal with the chaos and lawlessness unleased by the March 2013 overthrow of the elected government. The Moslem rebels from the north ousted a largely unpopular, but Christian government in a country where 85 percent of the population is Christian (50 percent) or pagan (35 percent). This caused more friction and violence.

The Moslem rebel leader resigned as interim president at the end of 2013 and tribal leaders elected a Christian woman as interim president. She was to organize nationwide elections for a new president and parliament. In the meantime she selected 20 new ministers from all factions (Christian, Moslem, Moslem rebel, tribal leaders and so on). The problem is that there are too many freelancers with guns out to steal what they can while they can and there are not enough peacekeepers to restore order.

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 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 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 northern CAR which was always a lawless place, made worse by years of civil war in nearby Chad and heavy poaching activity from nearby Sudan. Things never settled down after that. Until 2012 (when it was destroyed) the CAR Army had only 4,000 troops, who were poorly paid, led, trained, and equipped. CAR soldiers usually fled when confronted by the Seleka rebels. By early 2013 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. Now the northern rebel government is gone and there is a new coalition government. No one expects this to solve a lot of problems.  France wanted to pull its troops out in 2014. At the moment the French appear to be stuck, along with the other peacekeepers.




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