The Central African Republic (CAR) is, finally, in the center of attention – although for the wrong reasons. “The forgotten country” is in upheaval, many go as far to speak about “genocide” and a “Rwandan-like” situation. France, the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) dispatched some 4,000 troops to CAR in early December 2013. As François Bozizé, the country’s president and cruel military leader for ten years was ousted in March 2013, after his sponsors in Chad and Sudan left him alone. One month after the arrival of the troops more than 1,000 people have been killed and The New York Times reports that almost one million are displaced up from 400,000 in the beginning of December. The humanitarian situation is disastrous and it is hard for humanitarians to deliver aid in this “phantom state.”
CAR is a country where the government has only had minimum control over its territory. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been hiding out in the bushes of the CAR since it was driven out of Uganda in 2005. Both France and the AU, particularly South Africa, already had troops in the country as a result of previous peace-maintaining efforts dating back before the ousting of Bozizé. When the AU and Bozizé himself urged France to defend the capital Bangui in February 2013, the former colonial power declined. The Guardian at the time wrote about a double standard and that La Françafrique would only be used when the French national interest would be in threat.
The basis of this argument was the stark contrast to the French intervention in Mali in early 2012.Many argued that France was solely intervening in this western African country because out of national and economic interests due to the uranium mines in neighboring Niger that might have been attacked by MNLA rebels when they would have taken over power in Mali. At the same time, the CAR did not seem important enough for France, which runs three military bases in the country. However, the policy choice back in February 2013 was a tricky one for France, as they did not want to continue to support the discredited dictator Bozizé, who seemed to simply want to hold on power at any cost while enriching his family. As the French hold back, the Seleka, a reportedly undisciplined coalition of militia from Muslim minorities, took over the capital.
Michel Djotodia, with the support of Seleka, took over power and had apparently not much of a political agenda beyond seizing power. After the coup, communities have armed themselves, and a Christian militia, known as “anti-balakas,” attacked the Seleka in a reprisal in early December 2013. That has caused the current violence as local vigilantes have turned on one another. The country never experienced religious tensions on a violent scale, although market traders are mostly Muslim while the Christian majority dominated politics. Muslims constitute only 15% of CAR’s population and most of them live in the northeast, close to Chad and Sudan. Problematically, many news outlets speak today of an ethnic war although the fault lines are much more complex than a simple Muslim-Christian divide.
Despite the current tragic humanitarian situation it is importantly to note that there has not been large-scale or systematic massacres. The killings stem from fear rather than deeply nurtured hatred with the intent to destroy an ethnic group as it happened during the Holocaust or in Rwanda. The wrong use of the word genocide has helped France to gain domestic support and a strong UN Security Council resolution to back up their efforts. Now, it is the mission of the military intervention that the soldiers disarm the militias and hand over security to the African-led International Support Mission (MISCA) which the UN Security Council has charged with stabilizing the country over the next 12 months.
Renown Alex de Waal argued in an op-ed of the New York Times that France “did the right thing for the wrong reason.” When French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, warned that the CAR was “on the verge of genocide,” he was wrong. The country did not and does not face genocide but rather a mixture of state collapse and limited intercommunal killings. However, such an intervention is more than difficult as it is getting ever more clear what the absence of a state means: no order as the police or army is not working in a country that is itself bigger than France. The current intervention will be indeed a “long, complex and difficult” effort.
It is important and right that France is intervening in the CAR. it is important that the world shows that it cares about corners that have been forgotten by international media for too long. However, this was not due to genocide as it was claimed but rather because of state collapse. The ultimate aim needs to be that the whole country is rebuilt and trust mechanisms between the different ethnic and religious groups will reestablished to move this country forward, which is currently one of the absolute poorest on this globe.
The presidential elections which are planned this year will be an important formal step to select a democratically elected leader. However, it will need a bottom-up approach to restore confidence and construct state institutions, some of them who have never ever been in place for real. This will need to involve all levels, from the village to the national government. Importantly, confidence in towns and villages needs to be established, inter-religious dialogue can be put into place. Such a process will take time. In the meantime, short-term security should be guaranteed, including the planned disarmament process, thanks to international financial and military support. In the long-run, the restoration of faith needs to be the ultimate goal.