By: ANTHONY DiROSA
Central Africa is not known to be the most politically stable region in the world, but the events seen in recent years from Bangui to Nairobi have been extremely worrisome, especially for those in the mass atrocity prevention community. As militia-based violence in the DRC shows no signs of abating, the South Sudanese security apparatus is deteriorating, and ethnic tensions in Kenya remain virulent, the Central African Republic is following this trend of divisive internal conflict. In March 2013, its government was sacked by a rebel group, prompting a condemnation from the UN Security Council, fueling a growing belief that the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) might pose a “serious threat” to regional stability. Since then, the situation in CAR has deteriorated massively: over 100,000 children now face sexual abuse and recruitment into armed groups in the country, the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) has further entrenched themselves into unpatrolled CAR territory, and over 200,000 people have fled their homes, with many now living in the bush. Politically, the country is being run by Michel Djotodia, who seized power from President Francois Bozize when fighters from the Seleka rebel coalition marched into the capital, Bangui, in March 2013. Although Djotodia pledged to hand over power after elections, currently scheduled for 2016, the absence of legitimate leadership in Bangui is a major obstacle that is impeding external efforts to reduce the threat to civilian populations. The lack of a rank-and-file system of accountability within the militia-imposed government has led to a situation where order has been replaced by chaos and the rule of law is virtually non-existent. It’s an understatement to say the situation in CAR is spiraling out of control.
Furthermore, the political crisis in Bangui has worsened the already dire absence of an effective state-security apparatus. As a result, the country has experienced widespread looting, sexual violence and ransacking of hospitals and pharmacies, which has compounded the humanitarian situation immensely. Currently, about a third of the country’s 4.6 million people need assistance with food, shelter, health care or water, according to UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who has recently returned from a visit to the country. The rapid deterioration of stability in the Central African Republic is occurring despite the presence of the recently deployed 3,600-strong African Union peacekeeping mission. The Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States also has 350 soldiers based in Bangui, with a limited role and capacity to act. While the Central African Republic’s instability has been an issue since its independence in 1960, the current peacekeeping forces and international humanitarian efforts haven’t been sufficient to effectively restore order to towns and villages across the CAR. Opining on possible modifications to these efforts, Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, warned the AU force alone would not be enough given the current situation in CAR. Šimonović believes that “a much larger and nationally diversified force is needed to provide security and protect the population; such a force would also prevent foreign rebel groups, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army or Islamist extremist groups, from finding a safe haven in the country.” Whether Šimonović’s warning of the potential for CAR to be an extremist haven was an attempt to draw more attention from an otherwise indifferent international community remains to be seen.
Regardless of whether there were multiple motives behind his statement, it’s important to note that Central Africa’s long-standing troubles haven’t been afforded the attention and action-based responses they should be given the current level of insecurity and lawlessness. Just imagine the potential response to a militia-based coup in the heart of Europe or oil-rich lands in the Middle East–the headlines would be hard to ignore. Getting involved in CAR is a simply a hard sell. The country is one of the poorest in the world and is largely off the geopolitical radar of many of the world’s capitals, in spite of the staggering figures and estimates illuminating the humanitarian situation since serious fighting erupted last December. It’s important to note that human rights abuses and crimes against humanity had been occurring for years under former President François Bozizé; this latest iteration is nothing unfamiliar to CAR’s citizens. Aside from lacking international attention, funding remains a problem for UN humanitarian agencies and their partners working in the Central African Republic. Currently, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ $195 million humanitarian appeal for the Central African Republic is only 32 per cent funded, having received $62 million so far (of which 23 per cent was carry-over from last year). In addition to CAR’s low international profile, several foreign donors have withdrawn aid to the country out of fear that their money would end up in the wrong hands. Most of these losses have been concentrated in development aid, an area often seen as less pressing than humanitarian aid. Furthermore, 30 project proposals submitted this year by NGOs to improve vulnerable people’s access to safe water and proper sanitation did not receive any funding from UN member states. These funding problems have limited the capacity of local activists and institutions to act. Joseph Bindoumi, president of the Central African League for the Defence of Human Rights (LCDH) recently stated that, “at the moment we’ve reached a very high intensity in terms of human rights violations, [but] we have no means to support ourselves.”
While the Central African Republic’s troubles have long been on the periphery of news cycles and international intrigue, due to the events of recent months some are finally starting to notice. On August 5 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to impunity for serious human rights abuses in CAR, including the consideration of sanctions. Meanwhile, in August, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued her second warning that the crimes being committed may fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction while hinting at a looming prosecution. Much of the noise being generated has come from the United Nations, who has experienced firsthand the effects of the escalating conflict. According to Amy Martin, head of office for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN offices “have been looted and pillaged to a point where we have to start from zero, and [it] takes us a long time to mobilize the resources to do that.” Aid organizations are also seeing the effects of CAR’s insecurity firsthand, as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the Red Cross have largely retreated to the capital Bangui due to increasing security risks. Civil society groups and international organizations have been at the forefront of humanitarian efforts on the ground, but without further international backing it’s hard to imagine the situation turning around. CAR’s problems remain a low priority for an international community still tangling with the crisis in Syria, Islamist extremism in Mali and other more politically dynamic conflicts. “Without a strong response from the international community there is no future”, warned the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Central African Republic, Margaret Vogt. As the situation grows more dire by the day, there are actionable steps that the international community can start to put in place.
The first and foremost concern is restoring security and the rule of law as well as ensuring that more humanitarian assistance is brought in to deal with the massive internal displacement and basic concerns like food, shelter and access to medicine. In the longer-term, the international community should work to create a stable government in Bangui, working alongside neighboring countries and the wider region in order to avoid a spillover effect that could further jeopardize security in the region. Besides the humanitarian crisis, regional security concerns that stem from the LRA’s active presence, as well as the potential for safe-havens for extremist militia groups, are real and legitimate. If the international community’s response to CAR’s current crisis remains slow and ineffective, perhaps the mass atrocity/genocide prevention community should play the best card in their hand: the LRA. The threat of the LRA has proven to be an extremely powerful rallying call for action-based responses in the region. Even those outside the field would remember the cloud of hype and cynicism surrounding the Kony 2012 campaign. While Invisible Children were successful through emotive storytelling and viral social media campaigning, the issues that lay at the heart of their campaign sold well. The looming threat of the LRA led to policy responses in both the US and EU, millions of dollars in pledges from governments, and military and humanitarian support to those on the ground in Uganda and the DRC, among others. What occurred was simply the illumination of a storyline that had been underreported on, unattended to and underfunded for far too long. What didn’t occur, to the extent that it produced effective policy-specific results, was a clear and deliberate effort to link the region’s atmosphere of insecurity with the harrowing humanitarian situation that preceded it.
With the LRA currently terrorizing local towns and villages in CAR according to Human Rights Watch and the LRA Crisis Tracker, there is a new sense of urgency to shed light on this in order to attract more international attention. On the ground, armed forces have adopted few measures to protect civilians who live in the areas where the LRA operate. In fact, only around 100 CAR soldiers are deployed to the vast eastern region where Kony is believed to be roaming in. US military advisors sent to CAR for counter-LRA operations have had their work there suspended recently and the impact has been devastating on civilians who rely on external security assistance. Given the level of desperation in CAR, coupled with the lack of international attention, the international community should be leveraging the LRA issue in order to attract more substantial interest from major international players. Collective messaging should not only be continuously channeled towards Western powers, but also regional/sub-regional actors and organizations who have a major stake in forging a stable Central African Republic. Given the relative silence in the last several decades concerning CAR’s instability, if the mass atrocity prevention community can package the importance of a rapidly worsening humanitarian/political situation (and its effects on civilian populations) with the more magnetic LRA issue (and the security concerns of Central Africa as a whole), it might represent the best strategy to get necessary assistance to those on the ground who need it now.