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CAR b000Silence in the Heart of Africa Amidst the Collapse of the Central African Republic


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a rank-and-file system of accountability within the militia-imposed government has led to a situation where order has been replaced by chaos and the rule of law is virtually non-existent.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.



Cattle_JongleiDeciphering Murle Identity: Peacebuilding and Conflict Mitigation in Jonglei State


The politics of ethnic and cultural identity are of major concern to peacebuilders and policymakers when understanding how to stem the risk of armed conflict and mass atrocities in regions plagued by intercommunal violence. According to Diana Felix da Costa at the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, one such place is Jonglei State, South Sudan, where ethnic cleavages that divide tribes are a major focus for international and national policymakers seeking to specifically target and contain such risk factors. Jonglei State represents a setting where tribal groups are defined by multiple identities but marginalized as a whole for the actions of a few. These inter-group distinctions are significant as the cattle-keeping Murle, who are endemic to the lowlands of Pibor county, embrace a distinct identity compared to the agrarian Murle living in the Boma. Although the Murle share an overarching ethnic identity, it’s hard to view or treat them as a unified group. As the risk of violence and mass atrocities has been escalating in Jonglei recently due to fresh SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), Yau Yau rebel and Lou Nuer militia fighting, comprehensively understanding the scope of ethnic and tribal identities, specifically within the Murle culture, has never been more crucial to both Juba, the UN and international actors. Doing so may be a crucial ingredient in formulating responsive solutions to both inter-Murle violence and the more widespread fighting between Yau Yau rebels and SPLA/ Lou Nuer forces.

The Murle are an ethnic group that originally migrated from Ethiopia to southeastern Jonglei hundreds of years ago, before moving further north and settling around Pibor. They are a largely pastoralist group that live in the flat open lowlands of Jonglei, while a smaller group of farmers inhabit the Boma Plateau and surrounding areas. According to Diana Felix da Costa’s fieldwork in Pibor County, although these Murle enclaves associate with a larger collective ethnic identity, they are known to associate and dissociate selectively in situations where it may be advantageous or when their collective security is in jeopardy. This makes sense when understanding the differences in lifestyle from the lowland Murle, which is oriented around cattle, and in Boma, where Murle people live an agrarian lifestyle and have no cattle. While cattle raiding lies at the core of much of the violence occurring in Jonglei state, there is no evidence that the largely agrarian Murle near Boma are involved. Regardless of their guiltlessness they are vengefully targeted by rival clans simply because of their Murle identity. Thus, amongst the Boma Murle a new term of self-identification, “Ngalam”, meaning “without cattle”, has been increasingly used as a means of dissociating themselves from the cattle-raiding Murle. The fragmentation and inter-group violence within the Murle community is even more pronounced as Murle from Boma often report incidents of child abductions and rape on behalf of their Murle neighbors from Pibor. On the other hand, Murle from Boma have aided their fellow in-laws from Pibor and Maruwo Hills when these sub-groups faced conflict from rival groups in their areas. Diana Felix da Costa postulates that this may be an example of in-group survival, especially given the sense of marginalization and insecurity the Murle feel within South Sudanese society.

From these examples it’s understandable why da Costa believes that Murle identity construction is both situational and interactive. Murle identity seems constructed relationally and is subject to changes according to specific interests and circumstances according to da Costa. The Murle also negotiate, accept and challenge identities that are projected onto them by others. On the other hand, there is evidence that Murle identity can also be fixed, as a Ngalamit is viewed, by the Murle, to always be a Ngalamit. These crucial micro-level idiosyncrasies make it hard to view them as an unified ethnic group. Likewise, it’s important to differentiate between the lowland and highland Murle, but also more specifically between the minority of lowland Murle behind the raids and the majority who are not, according to da Costa. Furthermore, not all Murle support cattle raids, child abductions and violence, just as all Lou Nuer or SPLA forces don’t support raids, child abductions and indiscriminate violence against civilians.

Deciphering Murle identity is doubly important given the context of both intercommunal violence and the more widespread militia based combat between the Murle backed Yau Yau movement and the state backed Lou Nuer youth rebels. It is important to note that amongst the three main forces fighting in Jonglei, major ethnic and tribal affiliations lay at the core since much of the rank and file of the SPLA is made of Lou Nuer, a historic rival of the Murle. Recent news out of Jonglei indicates that local Murle leaders are planning to convince Yau Yau, who is also a Murle, to end his rebellion against the government in Juba because of their shared ethnicity. This potential leveraging of Murle identity to promote peace comes at an important juncture where SPLA soldiers are indiscriminately targeting Murle civilians on the assumption they are Yau Yau supporters. There is both a strong incentive and ripe opportunity for the Murle and the international community to capitalize on ethnic and tribal affiliations to help assuage the violence that has wreaked havoc on Jonglei. Doing so would reverse the recent history of unsuccessful negotiations, porous peace agreements, botched local disarmament campaigns and a failure to enforce and follow-through with community driven recommendations for peace.

Peacebuilding initiatives must take these initial steps to understand the dynamics of Murle identity on top of addressing the root causes of violence and mass atrocities in. These acts are fostered by an environment lacking basic state security assistance and free flow and access of humanitarian aid. They are also fueled by the weakening of traditional authority and dispute resolution mechanisms and the manipulation by local and national elites of local grievances and ethnic identities, according to da Costa. Since fighting began to intensify around March 2013, over 100,00 civilians have been cut out off from humanitarian assistance and 120,000 forced to flee their homes. As the international community turns its attention to South Sudan’s current worsening crises, it is indeed important to understand the outstanding grievances and deep-seeded motivations behind such violence and to work to ensure these issues are addressed. What’s equally important is that external policy prescriptions be crafted by first understanding the nuances of the Murle identity so that peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives can harness them for peace.


Kenya electionsThe following is the second entry in a three part series on Kenya’s 2013 general elections and their implications for similar mass atrocity prevention efforts moving forward. The peaceful Kenyan election this past March was hailed as a major victory for those working to prevent a repeat of the mass atrocities committed in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 elections. From the perspective of the mass atrocity prevention community, Kenya did a commendable job in upholding their responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The international community also succeeded in assisting national and local authorities throughout this process. Thus, both fulfilled their 1st and 2nd pillar responsibilities under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) framework, which are, accordingly: that a state must uphold its responsibility to protect its populations, and that if that state is unable to do so, the international community has an obligation to assist. Lessons learned from the 2007-2008 atrocities catalyzed both domestic and international momentum to proactively address the risk factors and causes of potential violence. But does the Kenyan case study represent a true shining example of successful R2P application, as well as a model for future applications in unstable democracies? Or were there unique circumstances germane to this case and/or a large overhype of the risks that make this atrocity prevention success not as generalizable a model as some may think? 

Technology, Crowdsourcing and Social Media

Also imperative to note was the use of technology in the Kenyan case study; mass data-mining operations, the utilization of mobile communications and monitoring SMS messages for hate speech are illustrative of the innovative technological platforms that are currently expanding the mass atrocity/conflict prevention toolkit. International partners like TechChange, who teamed up with domestic crisis-mapping tech company Ushahidi, helped fill gaps in conflict prevention capacity by diligently monitoring the Kenyan elections using social media. Ushahidi used Crowdmapping to produce crisis maps, or visual data fed by on-the-ground monitors posting live updates via Twitter, SMS or online posts, which would then be geo-tagged by the system to reveal potential risk areas. As this data was aggregated, monitors could sift through it to identify reports of violence, hate speech, corruption and voter suppression and coordinate responders on the ground. Ushahidi’s work is emblematic of how crisis mapping and crowdsourcing technologies can be used to encourage transparency and accountability in elections, and ultimately reduce the chance of violence.

Early warning/ early response systems across the country, specifically in the Rift Valley, were some of the more replicable conflict prevention mechanisms employed, in terms of best practices and lessons learned for future cases. The USAID-funded Local Empowerment for Peace (LEAP) led the coordination of early warning/early response (EWER) in the Rift Valley, as they trained nearly 600 peace monitors on how to observe, report, and respond to signs of early warning/early response. Monitors would report to a vast network of first responders, which included civil society groups and local administration officials, including police forces. LEAP, along with Mercy Corps, Uchaguzi and Ushahidi, with support from the Canadian International Development Agency, worked in partnership to established two early warning hubs designed to respond to alerts from the monitors. The hubs were operated by data analysts and dispatchers who monitored the Uchaguzi platform, a hate-speech data-mining operation, as peace monitors also fed them information via cell phone. This effective example of partnering humanitarian agencies, civil society groups and tech-firms in joint conflict prevention and early warning/early response initiatives is a model that ought to be studied and replicated in the future.

Kenya’s government, specifically the Communications Commission, also led the way through innovative measures requiring screening of  all short message service (SMS) texts for bulk dissemination by politicians.  Kenya’s National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring took charge of identifying and reprimanding blogs with hateful and provocative material. New measures called on mobile companies to intercept any mass texts that may provoke violence. These were seen as reactionary policy measures intended to avoid what happened in 2007-08, when ethno-political hate messages were spread by political groups, leading directly to inter-ethnic violence. The suspension or censoring of mass communication technologies in conflict prone settings aren’t unique to Kenya, as SMS texts were suspended in the DRC in 2011, as well as Kashmir in 2012 and Egypt last year. International, domestic and local level efforts to curtail one of the main catalysts for violence in 2008, indigenous language media outlets, were also laudable. The media, mainly radio stations, were largely broadcasters of peace this time around, as commercial and government run stations were deeply involved in educating voters on the issues, focusing on civic education, preaching restraint and tolerance, and avoiding any and all political incitement. International media training agencies were involved in advising journalists on how to report critically without stirring up ethnic and sectarian tensions. Religious leaders also played a large role as conveyors of peace with messages of tolerance and respect aimed at their constituents. Although there were widespread criticisms and accusations that Kenya’s media engaged in self-censorship and failed to fulfill its watchdog role, it’s clear that given the alternative, the result should be deemed a success.

The next part of this Case Study for GenPrev series will focus on how the Kenyan model can be used in future R2P cases, and what the implications are for future atrocity prevention efforts.

Photo: The New York Times

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