Peacekeeping: Another Central African Catastrophe

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September 26, 2013: In CAR (Central African Republic) the new rebel government has not been able to deal with the chaos and lawlessness unleased by the overthrow of the elected government earlier this year. As a result, some 230,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and about 28 percent of those have fled to neighboring countries (Congo, Cameroon, and Chad). The major problems are UN relief operations being hampered by the lawlessness from all sides inside CAR. There are believed to be 500,000 people in the country desperately needing food and other aid. What is required to make this happen are more peacekeepers, but the UN is having a hard time gathering together the money and troops for CAR. The most readily available African peacekeepers are still tied up in northern Mali and southern Somalia and new ones are not there. 

Meanwhile, the rebels have controlled the capital Bangui (population 700,000) and most of the rest of the country since March 24th. The rebels still plan to implement the peace agreement signed earlier in the year. The former government’s prime minister (Nicolas Tiangaye) was asked by the rebels to stay on and help form a new government. This he did, and this was meant to create an interim government that will rule until new elections are held by 2015. All this did nothing to end the violence and lawlessness as the police and military dissolved and various rebel and bandit groups went on a looting and raping rampage.

In response to this, the rebels have agreed to fix things. Bowing to international pressure (from nations providing emergency food and other aid) the Seleka rebel leader (interim president Michel Djotodia) agreed that the Seleka rebel coalition be dissolved. This does not seem to have made much difference as members of Seleka continue to be the main offenders in the crime wave that has swept the country this year. Seleka rebels have been accused of murder, kidnapping, rape, and looting throughout the country and there seems no way to halt this sort of bad behavior.

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.

About half the CAR population is Christian and 15 percent Moslem (mainly from the north, where many Seleka men come from). Thus it’s no surprise that there’s been an upsurge in violence against Christians down south, especially in the capital. Clergy and churches have been attacked. The government says it will 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 government has already been told by the EU (European Union) that $200 million in aid would be held up until law and order was returned to the capital and the rest of the country. Other aid donors are threatening to do likewise. CAR desperately needs this aid, not just for over 200,000 refugees from the current unrest but also to address a long list of economic and social problems.

BINUCA (UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic) is running the peacekeeping effort in CAR. The thousand CAMF peacekeepers from ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States) arrived earlier in the year and initially cooperated with rebels to halt the looting and other violence in the capital. That effort did not really end the violence. ECCAS is still soliciting troops to expand its CAMF force into a 2,000 man rapid intervention force. ECCAS wants these troops to serve not as peacekeepers but as peacemakers and be able to move rapidly to shut down any threatening rebel or warlord force that shows up. The money and troops have not been forthcoming.  

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 (who got away due to the bravery of 200 South African troops sent to protect him). The rebels became much more formidable in the last year, by forming a new rebel organization (Seleka, a coalition of five rebel groups) and that made it possible to advance from northern CAR (near the Chad border) to the capital (on the Congo border in the southwest).

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 had 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 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.

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 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.

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. 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. This threat did not dissuade the rebels, who tended to ignore the peacekeepers and move past them to whatever the objective was.

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 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 commonly used by 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.

 


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