Cyclical Chaos: The Central African Republic’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future

DENISE RIVERA

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African Union peacekeepers from Rwanda search a suspected Anti-Balaka fighter in Bangui.

In March 2013, the President of the Central African Republic, François Bozize, fled the country to seek asylum in the neighboring countries of Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. When he seized power in March 2003, it was not through a presidential election. He was able to successfully orchestrate a coup d’état and seize Bangui, the capital, while then President Ange-Felix Patasse was out of the country. Since its independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic has endured five coups, indicative of the persistent instability and violence that the civilians have had to endure. Transitioning from one form of government to another can be politically and socially exhausting. With tensions plaguing an already unstable government, rebel soldiers were successful in taking control of the capital and the presidential palace in the spring of 2013. The brimming confidence that Bozize displayed when he assumed power was soon completely vanquished. While he succeeded in finding safety, this event would precipitate a bloody civil conflict.

A peace agreement was reached in 2008 to recognize the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity as a political party, and have its military members become part of the Central African Republic Army. It united with other groups who sought similar objectives to form a coalition called the Séléka, meaning alliance. The Séléka became increasingly critical of the Bozize presidency, as they protested against the inefficiency of his government, the postponement of elections, and his failure to meet the demands of the peace agreement. In retaliation, they raided and took control of villages and towns in the northern and eastern part of the country. In August 2013, the Séléka leader, Michel Djotodia, replaced Bozize as president, and tried to disband the Séléka coalition, but failed to do so. Soon, the Anti-Balaka, a Christian militia group, emerged in opposition to the Séléka, and eventually took control of the western part of the Central African Republic. At the same time, the Lord’s Resistance Army was moving into the southern part of the country. With a president not fulfilling his promises, an insecure government not providing for its people, and powerful rebel forces invading from all sides of the country, it proved to be a classic recipe for disaster that flung the Central African Republic into a brutal civil conflict that still continues to this day.

The Central African Republic is a country that suffers the stigma and vulnerability that comes with the label of being called a third-world nation. Despite being landlocked, this country does have some important natural resources. Like other third-world nations, the Central African Republic relies heavily on its agricultural sector, producing crops such as cotton, coffee, and tobacco. It also contains other valuable resources such as timber, gold, and diamonds. These valuable commodities are bound to attract some global attention. Yet who would want to invest in a landlocked country that is susceptible to abrupt and unstable changes in government? With a poor transportation system, high unemployment, opposition groups fighting the government, and groups within the government fighting each other, beneficial economic development is frankly invisible for this nation. The Séléka is currently in control of many gold and diamond mining areas, forcing workers to labor for little pay without any health insurances. It also illegally smuggles gold and diamonds to independent traders and other neighboring countries (Chad, Sudan, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the miners, being the most vulnerable, stand to lose the most if they dare refuse to comply to Séléka’s demands.

Outside actors such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have sought to address the Central African Republic’s vulnerable economic situation. Even France sought to give humanitarian aid in order to ameliorate the dire situation that Central Africans are currently living in. Whether it is out of true humanitarian devotion or the colonial apologist position that most European nations find themselves in, the foreign aid given to the Central African Republic never reaches those who need it. Not even the IMF and WB policies can assist in giving Central Africans some form of prosperity. Due to the current conflict, the national health care system of Central African Republic has collapsed. Doctors Without Borders consider the deleterious situation in the Central African Republic as a “crisis on top of a crisis.” Central Africans barely have safe access to health clinics, and even if they do, most of them have been closed down. Medicine is frequently looted, as reports indicate, thus making it impossible for many civilians to get treatment. The hospitals and healthcare clinics that remain open are in a grave position of exhausting their medical treatment supplies as hundreds of civilians seek medical attention. One of the most threatening diseases that Central Africans are disproportionately affected by is the human immunodeficiency virus, and it has been estimated that about 2.5 million Central Africans are in urgent need of medical assistance.

The outcome of this civil conflict is irrevocably detrimental to the population. Central African women live under constant fear for themselves and their families. There have been eyewitness accounts of looting, kidnapping, disappearances, rape, torture, and murder. Children are the most vulnerable victims of this situation, especially when they are currently being recruited to become soldiers. It is reported that about one million Central Africans are victims of displacement. Most of them seek asylum in neighboring countries such as Chad and Sudan. Due to the atrocities committed by the Séléka, a vigilante opposition force, the Anti-Balaka, meaning anti-machete, came into being. What makes this a sectarian conflict is that the Séléka is predominantly Muslim while the majority of those in the Anti-Balaka are Christian. Muslims are considered a minority within the Central African Republic population. With the rise in political tensions within its government, this also lead to cultural tensions amongst the civilians enduring violent conflicts. Members of the Anti-Balaka seek vengeance against the Séléka by targeting Muslims, raiding villages controlled by the Séléka, and destroying mosques. It is easy to condemn the Séléka for terrorizing innocent people, just as it is to condemn the Anti-Balaka for committing the same atrocities as the Séléka. Yet the measures taken by the Central Africans reveal the anger and frustration they have towards a volatile government that no longer protects them and the rebel forces whose belligerence constantly endangers their freedoms.

The response from the international community in addressing this civil conflict has been unconvincing. The situation in the Central African Republic has barely received any coverage in the mainstream media. In April 2009, the United Nations Security Council agreed to open a UN peacebuilding office to monitor the civil insecurity prevalent in the Central African Republic. In May 2010, the UN Security Council sought to withdraw its UN force from the Central African Republic in order to address the unstable situation of refugees due to the conflict in neighboring Darfur – the UN force would return in October 2013. The African Union has also faced difficulty in addressing this situation. The AU’s Peace and Security Council is composed of African leaders, and operates much like the UN Security Council. Unfortunately, this young regional organization faces a lot of dissension amongst African leaders, even as they compromise and struggle to reach a consensus as to where to deploy the Standby Brigades (AU army) in order to effectively counter the civil unrest that plagues several African nations. Human Rights Watch has also reported instances of abuse by AU peacekeepers. The delayed responses from the United Nations and the African Union reveal the flaw in international and regional organizations pooling their resources to address a civil conflict in such a manner.

The most active engagement with the critical situation in the Central African Republic’s comes from France, its former colonizer. In April 2009, France deployed its troops to help regain control of Bangui from rebel forces. In December 2013, France initiated Operation Sangaris, which dispatched 1,600 more troops to assist with airport protection and medical aid. The French President, Francois Hollande, even pleaded with the European Union to provide more troops on the ground in the Central African Republic. In January 2014, Michel Djotodia resigned as president due to his failure to stop the sectarian conflict, and Bangui mayor, Catherine Samba-Panza, took over as interim president. Earlier this year at a UN Headquarters news conference, members of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic proposed to establish a war crimes tribunal to fully investigate and prosecute war criminals. Earlier this March, a delegation from the UN Security Council travelled to the war torn country to meet and collaborate with government officials and non-governmental groups in order to find a peaceful resolution to end the civil conflict and set up a stable government. International response appears to be gaining momentum, but at a gradual pace.

The Central African Republic is no stranger to bloodshed and mayhem. A campaigner on conflict resources named Manar Idriss stated, “Central African Republic’s history is marred by a legacy of political instability, weak institutions, and predatory rule.” Although it is no longer being governed as a colony, this country now appears to be governed by political disorder and confusion. The ethnic tensions between Central African Christians and Muslims seem to divide the population, revealing the lack of political will for popular sovereignty to unite and work together in deciding and forming an effective form of democracy. International responses to civil conflicts will always come under scrutiny as they seek to provide beneficial measures to have a struggling nation transition to democratization. This process will always be risky, as is evidenced in other countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than just focusing on pacifying this civil conflict, the international community should also discuss and provide resources for building schools and universities, providing access to education to all children, implementing job training programs, building hospitals and medical clinics, creating fair and objective economic developmental policies that will meet the interests and needs of the country, and prospects for infrastructural projects like bridges, sewage systems, roads, etcetera. Although this solution may be too optimistic, it may just help the Central African Republic to become acquainted with a stranger known as peace.

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