February 3, 2014:
Despite the presence of over 5,000 peacekeepers, the disorder in the CAR (Central African Republic) continues to worsen. Most of the mayhem is in and around the capital, which 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 rebels. In the last 11 months at least 2,000 people have died, most of them in the last six months.
The Christians are now attacking local Moslem civilians while many of the Moslem rebels from the north have left and gone home. The Christian militia are also angry because the peacekeepers failed to curb rebel violence against Christians. The general chaos of the last few months has caused over a million people (a quarter of the CAR population) to flee their homes. Foreign aid groups are having a hard time getting food and other supplies in since rebels, militias and bandits are looting aid supplies and convoys. Peacekeepers have 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 new rebel (Seleka) government has not been able to deal with the chaos and lawlessness unleased by the overthrow of the elected government March 2013. The Moslem rebels from the north overthrew a largely unpopular, but Christian government in a country where 85 percent of the population is are Christian (50 percent) or pagans (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 will 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.
The problem all began when Moslem rebels swept south in early 2012 and behaved like a conquering army rather than liberators. As a result of that about half a million of the 4.6 million people in the country were forced to flee their homes and over a hundred thousand fled to neighboring countries (Congo, Cameroon and Chad). About a third of the population nationwide desperately needs food and other aid. It was thought that more peacekeepers would make that happen. 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 in early December. It hasn’t been enough.
France was hoping that the situation in CAR would not be another Mali, were Islamic terrorists were a major factor. France hoped that it would simply be a matter of imposing order to the chaos that occurs after more than a decade of political and tribal unrest. The local militias that 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 didn’t want to be ruled by unelected northerners. Religion is less an issue 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. But 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 cash from businesses and travelers (via a lot of new “security checkpoints” on the main roads) and causing all sorts of problems. Many schools were closed and supplies of all kinds (especially medical) are scarce. Crime is more common, as is unemployment. Then there’s the violence against Christians. Clergy and churches in and around the capital have been attacked. The Seleka government said it would halt this, but Seleka has always had a hard time disciplining its members and that did not change when 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. In the last year over 2,000 have died and many more injured. Even more people 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 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. 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 wants to pull its troops out in 2014, as early in the new year as possible. At the moment the French appear to be stuck.