CAR government powerless as militia fighting intensifies
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Fighting between armed groups in the Central African Republic has intensified in recent months with the state virtually invisible outside the capital and aid groups finding it increasingly difficult to work in the country.
During a visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) last year, then French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made a “mission accomplished” speech to French troops attached to Operation Sangaris in the capital, Bangui.
"You had three missions: To end the chaos, accompany the international forces and enable the holding of elections. These three missions are fulfilled, no one can contest that," said Le Drian.
The visit marked the end of a three-year peacekeeping mission to stem a deadly round of violence between rival Christian and Muslim groups that plunged one of the world’s most impoverished countries into a brutal civil war.
The country spiralled into conflict following the ouster of strongman François Bozizé in 2013, with fighting erupting between the mostly Muslim Seleka coalition and mostly Christian anti-balaka militias.
Back then, a French military mission did succeed in securing major towns and cities as well as strategic sites. Three years later, elections were held and a new government was put in place in Bangui.
But peace is still elusive. Barely 10 months after Operation Sangaris officially ended, the chaos in CAR is not over – it has simply shifted and spread to new areas of the landlocked nation.
Today, around 14 armed groups are operating across the vast, sparsely populated country, with militia groups splintering and morphing at a deadly, dizzying speed.
The conflict has since spread from the north to the central and southeastern regions, marking a new stage in the crisis.
"The armed groups are taking control of this area, which had previously been spared by the crisis, but which is now experiencing the same phenomenon as in 2014: a hunt for Muslims and clashes between factions," explained Thierry Vircoulon, a research associate at IFRI (Institut français des relations internationales), in an interview with FRANCE 24 from Bangui.
The recent upsurge in violence – including the targeting of unarmed, internally displaced civilians – has prompted UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien to warn of “early signs of genocide” in the crisis-hit country.
‘Appalling’ humanitarian situation
Tensions have been particularly high in recent weeks in the southeastern town of Bangassou near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fighting in and around the diamond mining town has claimed dozens of lives, including Moroccan and Cambodian soldiers from the UN peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym, MINUSCA.
Episodic and localised, the clashes are nevertheless deadly, affecting mainly civilians and even humanitarian organisations. On August 3, six Central African Red Cross volunteers, along with dozens of civilians, were killed in Gambo, a southeastern town located on the northern banks of the Ubangi River, which divides CAR from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"They had taken refuge in the health centre and were not armed. The victims included pregnant women who were delivering babies, and the head of the health centre was brutally murdered," explained Antoine Mbao Bogo, president of the Red Cross mission in CAR, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Still reeling from the shock, Pastor Mbao Bogo described a country consumed by "fire and blood". The humanitarian situation in the east was "appalling", according to Pastor Bogo, with civilians cut off from access to food and medicine.
Some places have turned into “ghost towns”, including the southern border town of Mobaye – where interethnic violence has increased since May – and Bria in the central region, where fighting has killed more than 100 people in June, according to the UN.
Aid groups are finding it increasingly difficult to operate in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for humanitarian workers. In Zemio, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was "forced to withdraw", according to MSF head of mission Mia Hejdenberg, leaving more than 20,000 displaced people at the mercy of armed groups.
As armed militias target defenceless civilians with impunity, thousands of displaced people desperately seeking security have taken refuge in hospital compounds. But even hospitals have come under attack in recent months. Hospitals in Bangassou and Zemio have been targeted, with armed men abducting two patients who were later found dead, and shooting and killing a baby being held by its mother, MSF said in a statement released last week. In Zemio, a Muslim family was massacred in the city hospital on July 11, according to aid groups.
Addressing a UN meeting earlier this month, aid chief O’Brien said he was horrified by a visit he made to a Bangassou Catholic church, where 2,000 Muslims took refuge three months ago, surrounded by anti-balaka Christian fighters who were threatening to kill them.
‘Firefighters’ that are ‘always too slow’
In a speech to the Central African parliament last year, Le Drian stressed that the end of Operation Sangaris did not mean “the end of military relations between France and the Central African Republic”.
A few French troops are still deployed in the country as part of a European military training and support mission.
But active international security operations have been handed over to 12,500 soldiers and policemen operating under MINUSCA. UN peacekeepers, however, have been hard pressed to maintain security in the vast, lawless country.
"The United Nations is helping to ensure that the government continues to survive, to prevent a general explosion in the country. It has a capacity for containment but cannot resolve the conflict," said IFRI’s Vircoulon. Comparing MINUSCA troops to firefighters that are "always too slow", Vircoulon explained that they are "never able to extinguish the embers", despite a budget of $800 million.
One reason for the renewed violence is the withdrawal in May of Ugandan and US troops initially deployed in the east to fight the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), a rebel group operating in the border regions of northern Uganda, CAR, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Vircoulon believes the departure of those troops created a "strategic vacuum" in the eastern part of the country that was exploited by ex-Seleka rebels and later by anti-balaka fighters.
The increasing insecurity prompted O'Brien to call for a beefing up of the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR.
In a stark warning to the international community, O'Brien told a UN meeting last week that: “The early warning signs of genocide are there.” Calling for a MINUSCA troop increase, O’Brien noted that: “We must act now, not pare down the UN’s effort, and pray we don’t live to regret it.”
The MINUSCA mission includes supporting the government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who was elected in 2016, fulfilling a precondition for the wrapping up of Operation Sangaris.
But more than a year after he assumed office, Touadéra’s writ barely extends outside the capital and the relatively stable western region. The government is virtually absent in conflict zones. The CAR armed forces, which were dismantled during the conflict and are being retrained by the EU, are not yet operational and, above all, still not armed.
"There’s no captain in the ship," concluded Vircoulon. "This fictitious government is not able to tackle the problem squarely. It is more concerned about a rivalry between the president and the head of the National Assembly (Abdoul Karim Meckassoua). The political elites are centred on Bangui and ignore the rest of the country.”
The Central African Republic today is a country split in two, with little or no prospects for peace in the future. "There is no solution to the crisis in the short term as long as the government remains fictitious and the UN is powerless," said Vircoulon.