Can Disaster be Averted in the Central African Republic?

The dire situation in the Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked country the size of Texas with a population of  over 4 million, has sparked fears of a possible genocide and international efforts underway have so far failed to effectively prevent a serious humanitarian crisis. There have been disheartening reports of mass killings, beheadings of children, and cannibalism.

Despite the presence of African Union (AU) and French peacekeeping forces, the United Nations (UN) estimates that 2.2 million people need humanitarian assistance and over 500, 000 people, including nearly half the population of the capital city Bangui, have been displaced by fighting between the largely Muslim Seleka coalition, which took power in a March 2013 coup, and the anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militias of the country’s majority Christians, backed by soldiers of the former government.

However, the media’s rather simplistic portrayals of the crisis in terms of religious polarization between Muslims and Christians have drawn criticism from local religious leaders. “Not all Anti-Balaka are Christians, and not all Christians are Anti-Balaka—it is the same with Seleka and Muslims,” a 10-member Catholic bishop conference said in a statement released recently. “The imprecise terminology which turns Anti-Balaka into a Christian militia must be corrected. This amalgam, propagated by the national and international media, gives a confessional slant to a conflict which is, above all, political and military,” the bishops added.

While the recent uptick in hostilities garners much needed attention, decades of domestic instability complicated by interference from neighboring states should have served as warning signs that CAR was at risk of state collapse and of the humanitarian consequences to follow. With a history of military coups and several rebellions since gaining independence from France in 1960, the March 2013 coup led by the Seleka rebels—a coalition of five rebel groups from the marginalized northern part of the country and backed by mercenary fighters from Sudan and Chad—ousted former president Francois Bozize without much effort.

A more robust, better-resourced international response is needed to stem the violence and provide immediate humanitarian aid, a necessary springboard as the new transitional leadership embarks on the journey to restore stability and foster reconciliation. This week, donors pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid and $280 million in development assistance, as the EU agreed to send 500 troops, but even more assistance is needed to ensure a positive outcome.

Unable to re-establish security and public order, interim President Michel Djotodia stepped down earlier this month, paving the way for the election of  Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui who was chosen as the country’s new interim president on Monday, becoming the first woman to lead the nation. Samba-Panza and the country’s parliament have the challenging task of ensuring that there will be free, credible and democratic elections.

However, the current instability suggests the most pressing issues must be addressed ahead of elections with the people of CAR playing a central role in the process. A successful transition and reconstruction can only be achieved if minimum security conditions are met. In the immediate term, the Security Council should authorize a UN Chapter VII (Obligatory on all member states) resolution, to allow the stabilization mission, MISCA, supported by French forces, to take all necessary means to restore law and order, protect civilians, provide humanitarian relief and document human rights abuses. AU-led forces under MISCA and French forces already on the ground should be reinforced to effectively support the stabilization effort.  Religious leaders in CAR have demanded that the participation of troops from neighboring Chad, whose government has been accused of backing Seleka, should be reconsidered. As conditions for peace, Christian and Muslim leaders have called on all factions to disarm and agree to work together to promote inter-religious dialogue, education and training on reconciliation and peacebuilding.