By Anym Ngu-Muthi, in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR).
Over a year after the crisis in the CAR started, the road to recovery is still a long way away. Several mediations and transition governments later, the country is still marred by sectarian violence fueled by a vicious cycle of anger felt by both Muslims and Christians. The crisis in CAR is multidimensional with a huge impact on the political, humanitarian, economic, social and security sectors.
POLITICAL: Problems started for Ex-President Francois Bozize when he failed to adhere to the 2012 Libreville accord. Seleka, a coalition of several rebel groups finally captured Bangui and seized power on the 24th of March 2013. What everyone thought would be the usual violence-free transition from one authority to another in a country with a history of coup d’etats (4 out of the 6 previous leaders came to power through a coup d’état) was not to be. The difference being that the Seleka coalition contained foreign militias (mainly from Chad and Sudan) who were seeking to be rewarded when the mission was accomplished. And so in the months that followed the (new) Presidency of Seleka Leader Michel Djotodia, rampant looting and summary killings became the norm. The lack of control on the different factions that was Seleka combined with the lack of trust of the National Military (believed to be pro-Bozize) meant that the Seleka rebels were left to operate in a lawless environment with utmost impunity.
The continued atrocities committed by Ex-Seleka (the group was disbanded by Djotodia in September 2013) against the mostly Christian community, particularly in the area of Bossangoa (the birth region of Bozize) led to the creation of an auto-defence group known as Anti-Balaka. The evolution of this group from a self defence group to an outright rebel group with military-type offensive strategies adds to the deepening crisis that is the CAR.
In an attempt to curb the worsening violence in the CAR, ECCAS held a Summit in Ndjamena in January 2014 during which the then Head of the Transitional Government, M. Djotodia resigned in the hope that a newly elected transitional Government will be able to turn things around. Instead, what immediately followed was weeks of more instability. And so the current Government of President Catherine Samba-Panza, the first female President of the CAR (3rd in Africa), takes up the mantle in what is hoped will be an effective and ‘peaceful’ transition until elections are held in 2015.
The CAR has had 3 HEADS OF GOVERNMENT (2 TRANSITIONAL) IN LESS THAN A YEAR BETWEEN MARCH 2013 AND JANUARY 2014.
HUMANITARIAN: Events in CAR have generated a major humanitarian crisis with large numbers of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). As of February 2014, the United Nations reported that 2.5 million half of the country’s population were in need of assistance; over 1000,000 IDPs are in 115 makeshift sites/host communities; 413,094 IDPs in 60 sites in Bangui alone (almost half the population of Bangui); 250,000 Central African refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Chad, Cameroon and the DRC; 31,483 third-country nationals (mainly Muslims) have been evacuated as a result of the sectarian violence; The UN has activated its highest level (L3) emergency response in the CAR and although progress has been made a lot of challenges still remain. Unfortunately the difficult security environment in the country and the targeting of NGOs in certain areas, means that humanitarian work is either being delayed or interrupted.
Ethnic cleansing targeting the minority Muslim population has left them seeking refuge in IDP camps across the city or opting/forced to leave the CAR at the earliest opportunity. The withdrawal of Seleka rebels from certain parts of the country has also left the Muslim population vulnerable to attacks by the mostly Christian Anti-Balaka.
ECONOMICAL: The Central African Republic is a land-locked country, relying heavily on neighbouring countries, particularly Cameroon, for importation of both agricultural and non food items. Not only were Muslims targeted in reprisal killings but their homes and business were looted and completely destroyed. The majority of wholesale businesses are run by the Muslim community and this sector of the economy has all but collapsed with the mass exodus of Muslims from the CAR. During the heart of the crisis the border between Cameroon and the CAR at Beloko was closed resulting in several hundred commercial trucks, carrying vital supplies, stranded at the border. The result? A shortage of basic commodities and a hike in food prices. This vital transportation route between Cameroon and Bangui is now under the control of Anti-Balaka rebels, with movement by commercial trucks on this axis requiring armed escorts by African Union Peace Keepers.
The lack of economic activities and the breakdown of Government institutions means that the government is unable to generate much needed revenue and therefore not able to pay civil servants (3 months arrears owed as of February 2014). While Ms Samba Panza’s Government is trying hard to resolve this backlog of salary payments, the sudden release of cash into the market, (chasing fewer goods) could have a negative impact. Therefore, this process needs to be carefully managed.
SOCIAL: The Education and health care systems have not been spared in the crisis. It is often said that one should try not to fall sick in the CAR – at least not with anything more complicated than malaria or the flu. This is because there are no more than a handful of clinics able to treat but the basic medical conditions and the hospitals are poorly equipped. The standard of healthcare in is wanting at best. The ongoing violence is simply adding weight to an already struggling health system.
During periods of violence, schools shut down for extended periods and the school year has been disrupted. Many children have been out of school since December, although private institutions are slowly resuming as of February 2014.
SECURITY: Best described as volatile and unpredictable – a few days of relative calm are usually followed by eruption of violence. The sound of gunshots, sometimes with heavy weapons, is a daily occurrence. Both rebel groups have contributed to the insecurity currently being experience. Ex-Seleka rebels looted and committed grave atrocities in the months following their successful overthrow of the Bozize Government against the majority Christian population.
In December 2013, an attack against Seleka by anti-Balaka in Bangui saw over 1000 people killed in a few weeks of intense armed clashes between the two groups. This coincided with the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of AU peace keepers (MISCA) and French Forces (Sangaris) in the CAR. An outbreak of violence quickly followed throughout the country and saw the imposition of a country wide curfew from 6pm, later relaxed to 8pm in the February 2014. Sustained killings and looting targeting the Muslim population (and remaining Ex-Seleka elements) has resulted in the use of the word genocide in certain quarters.
The crime rate is on the increase by an unhindered Anti-Balaka as well as unidentified armed criminal gangs (claiming to be anti Balaka), taking advantage of the lawlessness.
February 2014 saw the withdrawal of a majority of the now weakened Ex-Seleka from Bangui (as well as the southern and western part of the country) to the North East and East. In the same vane Anti-Balaka are in control of the South and Western part of the country.
The presence of International peace keeping forces has been both positive and negative. While they have been able to mediate and quell very highly tense situations, they have also been in direct confrontation with the civilian population causing deaths. Insufficient numbers is the main reason for the continued and unabated widespread violence, some of which is as a result of anti French sentiments amongst the population and rebel groups. A timid effort at disarming the militia groups has been made although this has tended to concentrate on Ex-Seleka. According to recent reports, Anti-Balaka are showing a willingness to disarm if Ex-Seleka do the same.
The crime rate will continue to rise as rebel groups and other criminal gangs continue to seek dwindling resources in CAR’s battered economy with few goods available. Reprisal killings between Muslim and Christian communities are likely to go on for the foreseeable future.
The occupation of the North and Eastern part of the CAR (rich in natural resources) by Seleka is believed to be strategic and a partition of the country along sectarian/religious lines is a real concern. The possibility of launching another attack on Bangui cannot be ruled out.
The presence of other rebel groups (RJ – Revolution for Justice; FPR – Front pour le renouveau) in the North West of the country also changes the dynamics as their objectives are not quite clear. The involvement of extremist groups such as Boko Haram and AQIM has been mentioned although no evidence of their activities has been seen to date.
The UN Secretary General has recently called for an expansion of peace-keeping troops in the CAR. The expansion of Sangaris (600 more troops) and extension of its mandate, the proposed deployment of 1000 EU troops and the possible establishment of the DPKO mission proposed by the SG, will likely have a positive impact on the crisis and perhaps bring to an end this turmoil and persistent instability in the heart of Africa.