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Central African Republic: A Mixed Bag of Foreign Peacekeepers to the Rescue?

Foreign forces may be CAR's only hope, but international peacekeepers bring with them many risks, and the country's experience with intervention in the past has not all been positive.
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Machetes are confiscated by FOMAC troops as those displaced by the fighting between anti-balaka and Seleka forces enter the FOMAC compound for safety. Photograph by Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch.

With the Central African Republic (CAR) descending into further chaos rather than slowly normalising as many had hoped and expected, international peacekeeping forces have been entering the country in ever greater numbers this month.

France has now deployed 1,600 troops to the country, while the African Union has authorised its force in the CAR to increase from 2,500 to 6,000 soldiers, with the first batches of additional Congolese and Burundian peacekeepers arriving last week.

Since March, when the rebel Séléka alliance overthrew then President François Bozizé, the CAR has endured rising sectarian conflict between elements of the Séléka and the anti-balaka, a mushrooming vigilante assortment of rebels, farmers and bandits.

The international response is aimed at putting an end to the spiralling violence which has left a trail of corpses and burnt villages in its wake, and the patrolling of foreign forces has so far brought greater stability to many parts of CAR, with the rebels are now trying to negotiate an amnesty in return for laying down their weapons. However the threat of a resurgence in violence remains high, and foreign forces will have to tread carefully if they are to avoid inadvertently exacerbating tensions rather than calming them.

French fears

CAR has plenty of experience of international peacekeeping operations on its territority, but this history is unfortunately chequered. The French have bungled operations in the past, and although previous UN missions have helped calm instability, they have never managed to completely contain conflicts in the north.

This time round, the French will hope that they will be able to restore order fully, but foreign armies in CAR are faced with several challenges and even run the risk of inflaming tensions if situations are not handled correctly. Indeed, while the disarming of Séléka rebels has progressed steadily, the French are in danger of creating new grudges and hardening attitudes against them in CAR's caustic environment. Already, the killing of an ex-Séléka general and his two bodyguards in a bloody battle last week in the capital, Bangui, has provoked an angry reaction from the rebels, with the Séléka vowing to avenge the general's death. A former rebel official within CAR's transitional government has also criticised the French mission as a failure.

For now, Séléka’s threats of fighting the French are just menacing words and disarmament is continuing, but if there are more altercations, there is a real risk the rebels' words could turn into action.

France has tried hard to shirk off its Françafrique legacy of interfering in Central African affairs and broker a new relationship with the current transitional leadership under Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye. The intervention of the Sangaris, as the French soldiers are known locally, has brought some relief to people, but their zero tolerance policy in disarming the rebels could face resistance from militias.

From FOMAC to MISCA

The UN resolution that authorised additional French troops also paved the way for the African Union to add 3,652 peacekeeping personnel to the International Mission to Support CAR (MISCA), to be deployed on 19 December. MISCA, a UN and AU initiative formed in July, is expected to take over CAR peacekeeping operations from the current regional unit, the Multinational Force of Central Africa (FOMAC), which was established in 2008.

The US has helped out MISCA by flying Burundian forces to CAR in two of its military jets and committing $60 million to the force, while France has also announced financial assistance and called on European partners to provide further help. These extra funds are needed to help boost the capacities of a regional force which has for far too long been too small and ill-equipped to rein in the rebels. The current FOMAC troops – made up of contingents from regional states including Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon – have lacked the numbers to take on the thousands of armed militia.

This lack of capacity has already cost CAR dearly. As 2,000 Séléka fighters advanced on the town of Damara when Bozizé was still fighting to survive, FOMAC troops simply fled. The next day, when roughly 3,000 more men marched on the town, FOMAC again failed to stop the rebel columns. Eventually, 200 South African troops attempted to halt the rebels, but after a gruelling nine hour battle with several deaths, the Séléka marched on Bangui and seized power.

It is therefore encouraging that CAR's peacekeeping brief has been passed on to the AU, and FOMAC's 500-strong force is transforming into a 6,000-strong mission with a more robust mandate. However, beyond an increase in numbers, the dark clouds that loomed over FOMAC’s reputation could still hover over MISCA too.

For example, FOMAC has worked with the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) to try to maintain order, but both armies have routinely been drawn into CAR's conflict as aggressors instead of peacekeepers, with the lines between different sides blurring. After Bozizé was overthrown, some FACA members left the army to form pro-Bozizé militias, while many Séléka became integrated into the army as part of reintegration programmes after the coup. Many units within FACA still loyal to Bozizé have been accused of committing abuses in confrontations with the Séléka, while some members of FOMAC have been accused of taking up arms with the rebels.

Soldiers from Chad, for example, have shown ill-discipline and, as the Security Council acknowledges, collaborated with Muslim rebel units within the Séléka. Earlier this year, a regional commander told Amnesty International that least 30 Chadian personnel had been expelled from the mission after being implicated in human rights violations during joint patrols with the rebels.

If MISCA is to be credible and successful therefore, discipline has to be enforced. It has taken too long for MISCA to get off the ground, but when it is officially deployed, it cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of FOMAC in such a volatile situation.

The only hope?

Looking forwards, human rights observers have recommended that the African-led force eventually be transformed into a UN peacekeeping mission, but that will take months of review and negotiation. The UN and France seem to favour a quicker transition, while the AU and Central Africa bloc ECCAS seem to prefer a slower transformation of MISCA into a UN force.

Other than military challenges, CAR's peacekeepers also have several other urgent priorities in restoring order and security, including ensuring free access to transport routes and safe access to health centres. In past months, Séléka groups have set up checkpoints all over the country on major roads which have helped them seize towns and contain communities as well as kidnap, rob and kill travellers. International NGOs in CAR have long called on the transitional government to secure roads to allow humanitarian workers free access to all areas, but without the effective means to control the Séléka, the transitional government has been unable to do so.

Indeed, foreign forces seem to be the country’s only hope of restoring some semblance of normal life for CAR's population, though there are many reasons that they will have to tread carefully. A toxic climate of sectarian hatred and roaming armed militias still prevails in CAR, creating a tinderbox in which any spark – whether from a domestic actor or from one of the country’s growing population of foreign elements – could re-ignite.

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