Photo: UNHCR

Struggling for peace in the Central African Republic

Since March 2013 the small, land-locked Central African Republic (CAR) has seen four different presidents, each representing a different political party, and some staying as little as 13 days.

This constant change of leadership has left the country with a dangerous power vacuum and created what Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, called “a breeding ground for extremist and armed groups.”

And though current President Catherine Samba-Panza seems to be politically moderate, political extremists, both Muslim and Christian, have gained significant power during the tumultuous year.

On March 23, 2013 a militia of Muslim rebels called Seleka, meaning “coalition” in Sango, ousted sitting president Fancois Bozie. In his place the group installed Seleka leader Michael Djotodia.

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During Djotodia’s ten month rule, groups like Human Rights Watch observed ”deliberate killing of civilians” and “destruction of more than 1,000 homes.” Human Rights Watch also emphasized that these crimes were far from random and were rather targeted at the Central African Republic’s Christian majority.

These targeted crimes inspired the formation of “anti-balaka,” or anti-machete, militias comprised of Christian and animist fighters. These groups would benefit greatly from the disbandment of Seleka in September 2013. But the collapse of Seleka would also trigger the violent struggle for control of the Central African Republic which intensified and ultimately culminated in Michel Djotodia’s abrupt resignation on January 10, 2014.

Since this transition of power, retributive violence against Muslims has spiraled downward into ethnic cleansing. Nearly one million people, close to a quarter of the country’s population, are currently displaced, with close to half of the capital city, Bangui, being uprooted. Public lynchings of Muslims by anti-balaka militias have lead many Muslims to flee to neighboring Cameroon and Chad.

The mass uprooting of Christians during Seleka’s reign and the growing displacement of Muslims has created a food emergency in the Central African Republic. The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of the country currently eats just one meal a day.

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One third of the population, close to 1.3 million Central Africans, are currently in need of immediate food aid due to the departure of most Muslim traders.

Increasingly intense and frequent violence, along with these diminishing food supplies, threaten the Central African Republic’s political and societal future.

Peacekeeping forces in CAR

The violent clashed between Seleka and anti-balaka rebels has attracted the attention of multiple supranational organizations. In December of 2013, the African Union created the Mission internationale de soutiene a la Centrafrique sous conduit Africain, or MISCA. This peacekeeping force has been charged with stabilizing the country and neutralizing both the Muslim and Christian forces struggling for power.

With upwards of 5,000 soldiers from Chad, Gabon, Cameroon and Congo-Brazaville, monetary support from France, and endorsement from the U.N. and the EU, MISCA attempted to secure the capital city by disarming rebels, protecting refugees, and preventing violence. And though these troops took longer than expected to reach the Central African Republic, eventually, the added pressure from MISCA troops helped force Seleka politicians from power.

But, the departure of Michele Djotodia from power can only be considered a partial victory as the situation soon deteriorated after his resignation. Senior Advisor Donatella River attribute at least part of the current crisis to the peacekeeper’s acquiescence to violence by “allowing abusive anti-balaka militias to fill the power vacuum created by Seleka’s departure.”

The peacekeepers’ perceived complicity with anti-balaka groups presented problems for the peacekeepers themselves. Because both Christian and Muslim groups regard MISCA as a partisan rather than neutral force,MISCA began to experience casualties of their own after attacks by both ex-Seleka rebels and anti-balaka militias.

MISCA’s loss of control in the Central African Republic necessitated the addition of more peacekeeping troops.

France, the Central African Republic’s former colonial power, sent 1,600 troops to join the African Union’s forces in stabilizing the country. However, neither the initial force of 5,000 nor the additional French troops have proved to be sufficient to quell the sectarian violence and public lynchings, looting, and intimidation of Muslims.

Given the rising violence against Muslims in the western part of the country and the peacekeeping forces’ inability to secure both the capital city and the western territories, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned the international community that “the de facto partition of CAR is a distinct risk.”

Changing the plan

The increased violence and resulting “Muslim exodus of historic proportions” as described by Amnesty International, shows that peacekeeping troops have failed to either keep or foster peace in the Central African Republic.

To stop further ethnic cleansing from occurring in the Central African Republic, Ban Ki-Moon believes the peacekeeping troops must change in size, military capability, and management.

Firstly, Ban Ki-Moon has publicly acknowledged that the failure of the Central African Republic’s peacekeeping mission is due in part to the fact that the international response “does not yet match the gravity of the situation.”

To rectify this situation, the Secretary General “urged the deployment of at least 3,000 more troops to the Central African Republic” in an appeal to the U.N.’s Security Council. Ban suggested that the European Union’s proposal to send 500 troops be doubled, and that France increase its military presence to 2,500 troops.

Next, Ban argued to the United Nations Security Council that these troops, and all those currently in the Central African Republic should be consolidated under a single commanding body.

Attaining the peacekeeping mission’s goal of containing violence, protecting civilians, securing the environment for humanitarian assistance and laying the foundation for a peaceful future will require coordinated efforts by a large number of troops, rather than fractured, localized military initiatives.

The consolidation of peacekeeping management will not only allow for more efficient operations, but also help restore the forces’ reputation as a neutral, impartial actor.

Since MISCA became operational in December 2013 there have been multiple testimonies of collusion between Chadian peacekeeping forces and ex-Seleka rebels submitted to the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights.

The Chadian peacekeepers sent by the African Union reportedly killed twelve civilians over two days in January, leading Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch to declare “if the African Union is truly going to protect civilians in the Central African Republic, it needs to reign in the rogue activity of the Chadian peacekeepers.”

Moving toward a peaceful future

Moving forward, decreasing sectarian violence, avoiding de facto partition, and restoring political stability will depend on how effective anti-balaka and ex-Seleka fighters can be disarmed.

On February 12, president Catherine Samba-Panza declared war on anti-balaka forces, and though she denies the religious nature of this conflict, she has expressed a willingness to cooperate with UN, EU and French peacekeeping missions.

The atrocities committed by both ex-Seleka rebels and anti-balaka fighters have already caught the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC. stated that the court has already started a preliminary investigation into whether crimes against humanity have occurred in the Central African Republic, giving hope for long-term justice.

However, it is important to note that long term peace cannot be established through merely the cessation of violence. The Central African Republic operates in a regional system of conflict, and while the current violence does have more immediate causes, addressing the problems that have plagued the country since gaining independence in 1960 will be an important aspect of establishing lasting peace.

Interreligious dialogue will be an integral part of repairing Central African society. For years Muslims, even those who have Central African citizenship, have been referred to as Chadians or foreigners, creating the rifts in society that has caused the recurring sectarian violence.

While successful military efforts to reestablish peace in the Central African Republic are an immediate necessity, the importance of interreligious dialogue and reconciliation cannot be overlooked in the peacebuilding process.

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