Foot Dragging and the CAR

The conflict in the Central Africa Republic has been festering since July. So why have international organizations been so slow to act asks David Hornsby.
By: /
January 9, 2014
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

To say that the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) is a tragedy is probably an understatement. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around what is taking place there with evolving reports of massacres, humanitarian crises, displaced people, political instability, ethnic/religious conflict, etc…  One thing is for certain: this is a conflict that is evolving quickly and apparently faster than the international community’s ability to address. 

To recap, the current situation is directly a result of the overthrow of the Bozize government back in July 2013 by the Seleka rebel group let by Michel Djotodia. Civil conflict of this nature has seemingly been commonplace in this former French colony since it achieved independence in 1960. Upon seizing power Djotodia promised to stabilize CAR and return to free and fair elections in the near future.

Despite concerns over the power grab, the international community, including the African Union (AU), was quick to accept this. Few wanted to dedicate the time, resources, and person-power to get involved.  Indeed, the former colonial power and traditional intervener in the region – France – committed only a small contingent to secure the airport.

Since that time, things have only descended into further chaos as Djotodia has been incapable of controlling the violence primarily led by his former rebel colleagues.  What initially started off a movement against a government with little known extremist or ethnic elements has turned into an all out ethnic conflict that has caught many by surprise.

The response to the crisis in CAR has been slow, particularly in comparison to the quick response and mobilization to the crises in Libya and more recently in South Sudan. At last count the following actors are still pondering what to do in CAR after months of instability and atrocities: France, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the AU, the EU, and the UN.  None have been able to take any discernable action to date that will stabilize this conflict-ridden country and prevent the ongoing human rights abuses that are taking place. 

There is real hope that the meeting of leaders from across the region taking place today in Chad and the announcement that the EU will meet tomorrow to discuss the conflict will result in some action. But much of the focus appears to be on whether or not Djotodia will resign rather than how to best stop the conflict. 

While important progress has been made with the recent commitment by France and the AU to deploy approximately 7,000 troops, the UN Secretary General has already said that at least 9,000 soldiers would be necessary to make any difference. To their credit, relief organizations like Medicines Sans Frontier, Save the Children, and the World Food Programme have be faster off the mark, but their work is being hampered by attacks and threats to aid workers.  

What is truly remarkable is the difficulty in coordinating an international response to stop the violence in CAR. Why does it seems like the UN, the AU, and the EU are all considering what should be done in CAR separately?  Perhaps this is another example of overlapping international institutions getting caught up in the uncertainty of who has responsibility and where. Or maybe its a case of conflicting perceptions of potential solutions.

Regardless, it is hard to understand why there seems to be so much foot dragging over what to do, particularly as this type of situation has been seen before. What’s more, this has been a conflict that has been festering and growing since the end of July. Why then, has it come as such an apparent shock and surprise to those in the international community as to only warrant action now?

What this moment highlights is the importance of having coordinating mechanisms between international organizations that would permit preventive action in precarious political situations. Instead of an increased international presence in the early stages of the political transition from one government to the next in CAR, we saw a minor exodus of groups who could actually do something. South Africa’s hasty retreat after public outcry at home over its presence was shameful.

The apparent lack of political will in African institutions to send a stabilization force in the early days only reinforces a sad trend where the adage ‘African solutions to African problems’ rings hollow. The French have been there throughout, but largely confined to Bangui and the areas surrounding the airport – leaving them incapable of preventing atrocities occurring outside of the capital.

It seems a common lament to wish a more proactive action had been taken to prevent conflict and human rights abuses before they occurred.  It is hard to understand why more was not done before it got to this stage.  Let’s hope that in the next few days the international community can come up with a more definitive plan.