France to the Rescue (again) in the Central African Republic

The United Nations Security Council has authorized African Union peacekeepers, bolstered by French troops, to use force to protect civilians and restore order in the Central African Republic (CAR). CAR has been in chaos since a coalition of rebel groups toppled President Francois Bozizé in March. The violence has begun to take on sectarian dimensions, with tit-for-tat killings of Christians and Muslims. As Security Council members cast their votes in New York, news filtered in of an upsurge of fighting in the capital Bangui, between fighters loyal to the former president and those representing Seleka, the rebel movement which ousted him.  French paratroopers almost immediately fanned out across the city and begun to restore calm but the operation was too late to save up to 400 people whose bodies were counted by the French embassy in Bangui.

Q1: What led to the current crisis in the Central African Republic?

A1: CAR has suffered chronic instability since gaining independence from France in 1960. Francois Bozizé, the latest in a succession of military rulers, seized power in 2003 but never gained a firm hold on the state, following a well-trodden path of misrule which eventually provoked armed rebellion. His position became increasingly shaky following his declaration of victory in elections in 2011 that were widely seen as illegitimate. A collection of armed groups, mostly from CAR’s Muslim minority, formed a movement called Seleka, meaning alliance in the local Sango language. Sweeping south from their base near the border with Chad and Sudan, they grabbed power in the capital, Bangui, in March 2013 after President Bozizé reneged on the terms of an earlier ceasefire. Seleka leader Michel Djotodia became interim president but has never been able to control the armed factions who helped install him.

In September Djotodia attempted to distance himself from the abusive Seleka forces by announcing the dissolution of the movement and the integration of rebels into the state security forces. But Seleka fighters have continued to operate unchecked throughout the country, preying on the population and committing horrifying abuses. The violence has intensified in recent months due to the formation of vigilante protection groups called anti-Balaka by CAR’s Christian majority to oppose the mainly Muslim—and in many cases, foreign—Seleka forces. This has led to sectarian attacks in which civilians have been targeted by both sides. As a result of the nine months of instability and violence half of the country’s 4.6 million people are in need of urgent assistance and more than 400,000 have been displaced. While Bangui has experienced violence, looting and instability, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have uncovered evidence of mass killings, torture, and forced displacement in rural areas. These accounts are supported by the head of the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) who said that only a small fraction of those displaced and in need of assistance can currently be reached. 

Q2: What role have the French played in responding to the crisis? What has been the response of the international community as a whole?

A2:  A contingent of peacekeepers from the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have been present in CAR since 2008 but were unable to exert much influence on the crisis.  In July, the African Union decided to beef up the response by announcing the formation of an AU-led International Support Mission for CAR, known by its French acronym of MISCA. It is envisaged that the MISCA force will eventually be composed of 6,000 troops, but it has been slow to deploy and is not due to officially take over from the ECCAS force until later in December. Recognizing that the speed of the crisis was outpacing the response, France announced plans to increase its military presence of 400 troops to as many as 1,600. Following hard on the heels of its intervention in Mali, the news of another French military engagement has raised concerns among some African leaders, wary of France’s history of interference and opaque dealings in its former colonies (including seven military operations in CAR). The reality, however, is that France has been trying for some time to turn the page on its relations in Africa.  It is trying to play a more constructive role in Africa, and the CAR operation has less to do with protecting business deals and compliant rulers and more to do with protecting civilians and preventing the complete collapse of a country. If President François Hollande can boost his flagging poll figures at home by acting decisively abroad, that will be an added bonus. France’s status as a former colonial power and its track record of interference in the affairs of independent African states means that its motives will always be questioned.  African leaders tempted to complain about French neocolonial adventurism need to face up to the uncomfortable reality that Africa has yet to develop sufficient capacity to respond to its own security crises. 

The French-AU plan was given unanimous approval on December 5, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution endorsing the mandate of MISCA and authorized the French forces to temporarily take all necessary measures in their support of it. The resolution also paves the way for MISCA to become a fully-fledged UN peacekeeping mission and calls on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to provide recommendations for this transition within three months. The resolution places a one year arms embargo on CAR and calls for a special investigation into rights abuses.

Q3: What are the chances of success?

A3: The French and MISCA troops stand a reasonably good chance of restoring order to the capital city, Bangui.  But absent the authorization of a significantly larger and capable force, establishing control further afield will be much more difficult given the limited number of troops currently available and the fact that most of MISCA’s troops are poorly trained and not combat ready. Adding to their challenges is the fact that CAR is a large country almost the size of Texas, with very poor infrastructure that adds to the difficulties of moving around. Even if order can be restored, the bigger long-term task will be building the foundations of a functioning, accountable state which will help CAR escape its cycle of crisis and collapse.  This challenge will require international assistance far beyond the levels committed so far. 

Q4: Does the violence in CAR justify recent use of the word ‘genocide’ by some observers?

A4: Dire assessments have been issued in recent weeks about the scale of the crisis in the CAR, with the director of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, warning in November that the “seeds of genocide” were being sown. It is true that mass killings have taken place, some of which have targeted specific identity groups. In addition, the violence is increasingly assuming a sectarian pattern, which is a particularly worrying departure for a country with no previous history of religious tensions. However, the available evidence does not reveal a level of planning that would suggest that genocide is taking place, or is imminent. A key characteristic of both the Seleka groups and the so-called anti-Balaka groups set up to oppose them is their lack of central organization and coordination.  Discussions about genocide should not, however, detract from the fact that the situation in CAR is desperate and demands urgent attention from the international community.

Q5: What has been the U.S. response to date?

A5: The United States has paid scant attention to CAR in the course of its troubled history, and policymakers see little at stake in terms of national security interests. Unlike in Mali, where some of the armed groups which overrun the northern half of the country were linked to Al Qaeda, there is no proven terrorist link to the unrest in the CAR. The only U.S. military personnel in CAR are engaged in an unrelated mission to search for the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony. The pattern established for the Mali intervention earlier this year looks set to be repeated in CAR; with the French shouldering the burden of leadership and the United States providing back-up support to the contributing African forces. To that end, the United States has pledged approximately $40 million to the MISCA mission and will assist with training, planning assistance, and the provision of non-lethal equipment to African contributing forces. 

What is striking about this episode is that for the second time this year, France has proven to be the only external power willing and able to assume responsibility for responding to the collapse of an African state. France has made clear, however that it does not wish to become the continent’s policeman, and the political will and financial resources required for these interventions, as well as popular support, may quickly decline. CAR unfortunately is not likely to be the last situation of dire humanitarian crisis in Africa, and for future events of similar magnitude, there are big questions about how willing the international community will be to intervene. The United States should be prepared to offer robust support to the French and AU effort to stop the current escalation of violence.  But there is also need for a broader dialogue with international partners on how best to organize and manage interventions of this kind in the future.

Richard Downie is fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program. Mikenna Maroney is an intern with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Mikenna Maroney

Richard Downie