ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Thousands of foreign troops are traveling to the Central African Republic beginning this week in an attempt to stem a cycle of violence and retaliatory attacks that have escalated to catastrophic levels over the past nine months.
The Central African Republic, or CAR, is one of the most poverty-stricken countries on Earth despite vast mineral riches. A mostly Muslim rebel coalition called Seleka staged a coup in the capital city of Bangui this March, ousting president François Bozizé. But what began as a political struggle has spiraled out of control, threatening to devolve into a religious conflict pitting Muslims and Christians against one another. The ongoing crisis has displaced at least 10 percent of a population of 4.5 million and killed hundreds of civilians. A new transitional government led by former Seleka commander Michel Djodotia has failed to stabilize the country.
French troops first began deploying to CAR this weekend in accordance with a Thursday U.N. resolution authorizing the movement of French and African forces into the landlocked country. “This is an important and timely step that sends a message of international resolve to respond to the crisis,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement. “It is urgent that Resolution 2127 is now implemented with all speed so that the people of the Central Africa Republic can be spared further suffering, insecurity and violence.”
At another summit in Paris this weekend, African and European leaders decided that France would contribute 1,600 troops -- up from the 1,200 agreed upon at the UN on Thursday -- and an African Union force called the International Support Mission to the Central African Republic, or MISCA in French, would contribute up to 6,000, up from an original estimate of 3,500. About 2,500 are already in the country.
The mission will be led by the AU forces, said AU Deputy Chairman Erastus Mwencha after meeting with diplomats on Monday in Addis Ababa. “Following the meeting that took place over the weekend in which there was an assessment of the situation in Central Africa and an agreement to scale up the number of forces, we're meeting here now to see how we're going to implement that decision immediately,” he told IBTimes, adding that the next steps will include securing troop commitments from various countries, organizing logistical support and securing funding.
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The decision to scale up coincided with a sudden rise in deadly violence in Bangui. “We had attacks starting very early [Thursday] morning, coming from the neighborhoods that were a traditional stronghold of the former regime,” said Amy Martin, head of the Bangui branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, in a phone interview. “The armed elements of the current government went out to meet these groups, and there was heavy gunfire throughout the morning in many neighborhoods.” The Red Cross estimates that at least 400 people have lost their lives in Bangui since Thursday.
As peacekeepers move in, the transitional government is struggling to enforce any semblance of law and order. President Djotodia, who has agreed to hold elections by February 2015, has long aspired to political leadership; his history is tied up with the political chaos that has plagued CAR, a country where coups and conflicts have undermined governance since it gained independence from France in 1960. The new president was once a high-ranking member of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, or UFDR, one of the main rebel groups that fought against President Bozizé during a civil war from 2004 to 2007. “Djotodia was looking for a group to help him take power, and he latched on [to UFDR]," said Louisa Lombard, a CAR expert and anthropologist with the University of California at Berkeley. “It didn't work out -- Djotodia ended up in prison in Benin and the UFDR ended up back home without what they had been looking for.”
A peace agreement was signed in 2008 to integrate UFDR into the national army, offering amnesty for acts committed against the state. But unrest bubbled up again in 2012, and Seleka -- which means "coalition" in the local Sango language -- came together with the aim of ousting Bozizé. Djotodia had by that time traveled to Sudan, and the contacts he made there helped him to strengthen the rebels' offensive. Seleka, which is believed to include foreign fighters from Sudan and Chad, advanced across the country despite resistance from troops of the Economic Community of Central African States, or ECCAS, and a January power-sharing agreement meant to stem the violence. But since taking over the capital in March, Seleka has lost cohesion and Djotodia has failed to enforce law and order in Bangui, let alone across the country. He formally dissolved Seleka in September, and can only depend on the loyalty of a select few former UFDR members. “I think Djotodia has extremely minimal support,” Lombard said. “Read: none.”
Rather than bolster their new president after achieving their stated goal of ousting Bozize, many of the Seleka rebels have turned to looting and banditry; in turn, self-defense groups called anti-balaka -- "balaka" means "machete" in Sango -- have coalesced across the country, and escalating retaliatory attacks have turned much of the country into a war zone. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled to neighboring countries, and those who remain are facing increased food insecurity, dire human rights abuses, and a widespread lack of basic infrastructure including sanitation, health care and educational facilities.
The conflict has also worsened the relationship between Christians and Muslims, which could have long-term implications for stability. But religious antagonism was never at the root of this conflict, Lombard said. “Religious differences map onto a host of other divisions in CAR, principally 'foreignness,'” she said, noting that even Muslims native to CAR are frequently seen as foreigners. “So it's a real division in some ways, but people have been making too much of it, in my opinion -- it's not about religion in an ideological sense.”
Mwencha says the AU-led forces, which will be deploying piecemeal as soon as contributing countries are able to send fighters, will stay in CAR until a stable governing system can be established. That, according to Martin, will be key to getting the country on track toward stability. “Since the coup d'etat in March, there has never been law and order established,” she added. “We need to have support from security institutions to reinstate the rule of law and get people structured, organized and equipped to do their jobs inside and outside of Bangui. We need a return of the administration -- the governors, regional civil servants.”
But first, the ongoing deadly clashes will have to be subdued. French troops are now patrolling the streets of a capital city still nominally governed by rebel leaders, and the African forces that deploy across CAR in the coming weeks will face one of the continent's worst, and worsening, security and humanitarian crises.