The new maelstrom of African crises

  • The violent mayhem between Christians and Muslims has plunged the Central African Republic into chaos.
  • 20% of the population is threatened by famine.
  • Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, is considering sending a hybrid peacekeeping force of 6,000 to 9,000 men.

Last December, France, along with its European allies, was targeting Mali. The Islamists that had seized the north of the country during the Tuareg rebellion had to be neutralized. In the meantime, the actual epicenter of the crisis that stretches across Africa, crossing though the Sahel and connecting the Somali coast to Mauritania, is actually located a little further south, in the Central African Republic.

Today, the U.N. Secretary-General finally gave voice to a widely shared concern: torn by clashes between Christians and Muslims and between former rebels of the Seleka and village self-defense groups, the country could become uncontrollable and inter-community unrest could spill into the neighboring countries of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Only the Oubangui River separates the Central African capital of Bangui from the province of Équateur in the DRC.

A year ago the rebels from the north, who formed the mysterious Seleka coalition, seized Bangui and ousted President François Bozizé. He seized power by force himself but has since managed to get elected twice. This reversal aroused little emotion except in South Africa, which lost 18 soldiers while defending the capital.

Few seemed curious about these extremely well-armed rebels’ origins, support and alliances. They are obviously backed by the Chadian army that was appointed to police the sub-region and was an ally of France in Mali. One year later in March, the Seleka political leader, Michel Djojota, toppled Bozizé. He became the head of state and is now hard-pressed to control his troops.

Seleka seems to have become a catch-all for all the region’s armed groups: Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, Chadians and Sudanese. It would be no surprise if some day “lost soldiers” from the Congolese M23 joined the Central African rebels.

Upon his rise to power, President Djojota attempted to restore state authority and officially proclaimed the dissolution of the Seleka. The more political members of the coalition  gained seats on the “Extraordinary committee for the defense of democratic gains” which quickly began acting as a parallel police force. The fighters, however, having neither means nor barracks nor station, quickly fell into banditry, robbery, looting and theft of crops. This has reached such a level that, according to the World Food Program, the crisis, which has already displaced 400,000 people, is now threatening 20% of the population with famine within the next few months.

Last September the city of Bossangoa was torn by violent clashes between members of the mostly Muslim Seleka and armed entities calling themselves anti-balaka (anti-machetes), eager to protect their communities.

This Central African Republic’s descent into chaos also demonstrates a certain African impotence. Last December, 400 South African soldiers proved powerless against 2,000 very well armed rebels. The International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (ISMCAR) subsequently experienced a great deal of trouble maintaining its role. The African Union, which is seeking to manage this crisis itself, dissuaded the United Nations from sending peacekeepers, but the ISMCAR ranks, which should have grown to 3,652, only got as far as 2,500 African soldiers, who were poorly equipped in weapons and ammunition, unmotivated and badly trained.

Now that the situation is on the verge of unraveling and spinning out of control, Ban Ki-Moon is suggesting the deployment of a hybrid force of 6,000 to 9,000 men – African soldiers financed by the U.N.

France, which since the country’s independence has always treated the Central African Republic as a virtual colony centered on the Bouar military base, is now taking stock of the dangerous situation. The troops it has stationed in the Central African Republic, numbering only 400 men, could soon increase to 1,200. France has also demanded free elections by 2015, which will bar the current leadership. This has done nothing to persuade Mr. Djojota to rein in the former rebels that carried him to power.

COLETTE BRAECKMAN

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