January 29, 2014

Central African Republic: A weak country with a long border

AFP/Scanpix

In many ways, the Central African Republic (CAR) resembles Mali and Afghanistan. As a result, the impending CAR operation will not be so much a stability operation as a nation-building exercise. It will be a long, costly and extremely complicated process.

29.01.2014, Erik Männik
Postimees
In many ways, the Central African Republic (CAR) resembles Mali and Afghanistan. As a result, the impending CAR operation will not be so much a stability operation as a nation-building exercise. It will be a long, costly and extremely complicated process.
Any description of the CAR should begin by mentioning that the country is in many ways like Mali and Afghanistan. CAR is only a little smaller than Afghanistan in area (623,000 km2), and has 5,200 kilometres long and largely unguarded border. Like Mali and Afghanistan, CAR is a very poor country, with per capita GDP well under 1,000 USD.
CAR shares borders with four unstable countries that are experiencing conflicts of varying intensity. These countries are Chad, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). History has shown that CAR’s long border has been no impediment to the influx of weapons and combatants from neighbouring countries. Criminal gangs from neighbouring countries and further off (from Nigeria and Uganda) have also terrorized CAR’s population.
Since the country gained independence in 1960 until the resignation of President Michel Djotodia, CAV has had seven presidents, of whom four were in power for more than 10 years. The country has had only one peaceful transfer of power, in 1993. Coups have otherwise been the norm, along with dozens of attempted coups. Furthermore, in the 2007 Human Rights Watch World report1, France, Chad, the DRC, Sudan and Cameroon have been mentioned to be deeply involved in the internal power struggles in the CAR. For years, the French policy known as françafrique was used to install friendly politicians and protect French interests in former colonies, sometimes through military intervention. However, President Hollande announced in Senegalese Parliament in October 2012 that françafrique was abolished, and that a new era of partnership had dawned in French-African relations.
Its history of violent regime change underlines CAR’s weakness as a sovereign state and is yet another characteristic it shares with Mali and Afghanistan. The CAR government has never had much influence outside Bangui, the capital, and its heads of state have been disinclined to strengthen the security forces out of fear of coup. The several thousand-strong CAR armed forces are stationed mostly in and around Bangui as the extremely limited infrastructure prevents their deployment countrywide.
The national police force is also small in number – in 2009, there were only around 1,400 police officers in a country with upwards of 4 million people, and most of them worked in the capital as well. Not that the police or military is any guarantee of security: the security forces have also been accused of crimes against civilians – looting, summary executions and the destruction of entire villages have occurred during quashing coup attempts and subsequent retributions. The police institutions have been plagued by corruption, weak discipline and human rights violations.2
CAR’s large land area, porous borders and the concentration of security forces in the capital are all factors that favour armed insurgencies. At first glance, the poverty, low security and vulnerability of the population might appear to be the main causes of the unrest and insurgencies. But that’s not the case – larger groups of armed rebels are a relatively recent phenomenon in CAR. The latter can be attributed to the growing awareness among the rebels that an organized struggle and ensuing reconciliation process could be quite effective ways to improve their situation.
So far, most of the coups and power struggles in CAR have originated from within the political elites and evolved out of the desire to seize power or retaliate for losing it. In the course of these power struggles, the politicians and military leaders have manipulated the tribes living in CAR, sown discord among them, and tried to strengthen their own supporters’ position. The ethnic and religious landscapes of CAR greatly facilitate such policies.
CAR’s population, which by now has grown to 5 million, consists primarily of seven major ethnic groups that make up 98% of all people living in the country. The overall literacy rate remains below 60%. By religion, the population is 50-60% Christian, 10-35% animist and 10-15% Muslim. CAR’s politicians have also emphasised the differences between the population in the north and south of country, whereas the Muslims mainly inhabit the north-eastern part of the CAR, adjacent to Darfur.
The International Crisis Group’s analysis from 20073 has captured very clearly the process of continuous political turmoil in CAR.  The country is embroiled in a vicious circle of coups typical of poor and underdeveloped countries. Poverty and lack of administrative capacity have created fertile ground for ensnaring civilians in the armed struggle. The pattern is that, when the rebels succeed in grabbing power, they redistribute the country’s wealth and create a new group of discontents, who join members of overthrown elite, take up arms and try to restore their economic well-being. The new rebels/previous elite then manage either to restore their power (often with foreign aid), or international intervention forces the government to start negotiations, share power and integrate the rebel groups into the country’s power structures. All the while, though, the scant few institutions in what is already a weak country continue to decay and lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the population.
The crisis that is currently escalating in CAR started with yet another iteration in the above cycle. After General Francois Bozizé seized power in 2003, forces loyal to overthrown President Ange-Félix Patassé retreated to the northwest of the country, where the joined local self-defence units, forming the APRD – the Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy. Captain Abakar Sabone, the man in charge of president’s security who had fallen out with Bozizé, retreated to the Vakaga province, a Muslim area in the northeast, where he formed the Movement of Central African Liberators for Justice (MLJC), which was part of the largest rebel group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity /UFDR). The UFDR was led by Michel Djotodia – a former foreign ministry official, whose rise up the ranks in the foreign service had allegedly been stymied by Bozizé.4
The armed struggle culminated in a peace accord signed in Libreville, Gabon, in 2008 between the CAR government, the APRD and the UFDR, in which Bozizé agreed to a power sharing arrangement and integration of rebel units into the armed forces. The third rebel organization at these talks, the FDPC, withheld its signature and violence broke out again two months later.
It is questionable whether President Bozizé really had national reconciliation and stabilization in mind when the accord was signed. On the contrary, he has been suspected of wanting to pardon his allies who committed war crimes, and his unwillingness to give up control of key government functions.
In any case, widespread military conflict erupted again in 2012 and this time, Muslim rebels formed a larger organization called Seleka, which in March 2013 overthrew Bozizé. The country’s new and first Muslim president Michel Djotodia was not able to disband the rebel units and re-integrate them into society, and this led to increasing violence perpetrated against the civilian population.
As could be expected, a predominant part of the victims of marauding Seleka have been Christians and other non-Muslims. In August 2013, Christians began to assemble their own armed groups and bands under the name ‘anti-balaka’, which means ‘against the machete or ‘anti-machete’. As a consequence of the escalating and increasingly indiscriminate violence, several thousand people have been killed and close to a million people have left their homes. Half of the CAR’s five million inhabitants are in need of humanitarian assistance. Armed clashes with CAR’s rebels have taken place already at Cameroonian border.
At a meeting of heads of state held in Chad’s capital N’Djamena on 10 January 2014, President Djotodia was forced to resign and Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui, became next head of state. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt aptly described the present situation in CAR as follows: “/…/ there might be a state structure left in Bangui, what goes on outside of Bangui, we don’t know – or know very little about.”5
To sum up, the history and development of the CAR indicate that the operation now about to begin is not so much about the stabilization of a country as it is about nation-building. It is hard to imagine that there could be any kind of stability for any considerable period of time without strengthening CAR’s institutions, and extending their influence beyond the capital. The huge size of the country and its low urbanization level (40%) strongly suggest the need to deploy stabilization force to the countryside to initially freeze and then de-escalate the sectarian conflict. It all means that the international efforts ought to start within the capital, and gradually expand to the rest of the country – a very long, very costly and excruciatingly complicated operation on a very complex human terrain.
Moreover, strengthening the state institutions of CAR could and should serve as a means to prevent the hijacking of the conflict by al-Qaeda or any other group of Islamic radicals. It is safe to assume that deepening confrontation between Muslims and Christians, evolving humanitarian disaster, and unravelling of state structures of CAR have caught the attention of some radical groups already. Fortunately, so far the presence of Islamists within Seleka ranks has been very limited.
All these considerations suggest that the 6,000-strong peacekeeping contingent envisioned by the UN last year may already be too small to stem the violence in the Central African Republic.
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1 Central African Republic. State of Anarchy. Rebellion and Abuses Against Civilians. Human Rights Watch. Vol.19, No.14(A). 2007 (www.hrw.org/reports/2007/09/13/state-anarchy-0, accessed 22.01.2014).
2 Yoshida, Y. Understanding the 2013 Coup d’état in the Central African Republic. Peace and Conflic Monitor. 17 January 2014 (www.monitor.upeace.org/innerpg.cfm?id_article=1026 accessed 22.01.2014).
3 Central African Republic. Anatomy of a Phantom State. Africa Report No. 136. International Crisis Group. 13 December 2007, p.22.
4 Ibid. pp. 23 -28
5 EU cautious in Central African Republic military mission. Deutsche Welle. 21.04.2014

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