Pesky Neighbours

David Hornsby on how regional powers are reinforcing rather than helping resolve tensions in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
By: /
February 11, 2014
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

In recent months, I have examined the ongoing civil conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) and how interconnected it is with regional politics. In particular, I find it intriguing that as the conflict in CAR breaks out, we also see its neighbour, South Sudan, descend into civil war.  To be clear – these civil conflicts are not related and have very different roots, but what is striking in each circumstance, beyond the geographic proximity, is the international dimension of each with neighbouring countries appearing to reinforce tensions in each circumstance as opposed to helping resolve them.

For example, in the CAR crisis, the role that Chad has played and is playing needs to be interrogated. In the early days of the conflict, it was believed that Chad was acting as an agent provocateur having initially supported the Seleka rebels in ousting the Bozzize government in July 2013.  Since then, Chad’s forces have played an important element in the African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces despite wide-spread concerns and protests by Christians that Chadian soldiers share allegiances to former Seleka fighters. Indeed, Chad has seemingly led regional and AU responses to the crisis having most recently hosted an international summit in early January 2014. This conference virtually forced the resignation of CAR’s President Djotodia – who came to power via a coup.  Whether or not this resignation was a good thing, it is surprising that one state is as influential in crafting regional responses to the ongoing problems in CAR as Chad.  After being replaced in Bangui by French and Rwandan forces, Chad’s troops are now playing an extraction role evacuating the Muslim population in the country from Bangui.  This action is a response to daily attacks on Muslim’s by Christian’s.  Many of these attacks appear to be in retribution for the atrocities that the largely Islamic Seleka rebels (supported by Chad) perpetrated in the preceding months.  It is sad to think that the once stable peace between these Christian and Muslim groups has been so irrevocably damaged that Muslims are now forced to flee or face brutal deaths at the hands of citizen vigilantes.  Now, I don’t mean to place all of the blame for the conflict in CAR at Chad’s doorstep.  It is a complex situation with many causal factors, but it appears that Chad has been and will likely remain an important player in this conflict.

In South Sudan, where negotiations for a peace agreement between warring factions that support the president and the former vice-president are set to resume in the coming days, the role of Uganda in taking sides leads to a number of questions regarding its role in this newly-minted country.  Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has confirmed that Ugandan troops are fighting alongside South Sudanese government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir. Whilst the root of the South Sudanese conflict rests in problems associated with internal political party factions, the role of Uganda in actively engaging in combat as opposed to brokering peace is both surprising and concerning.  Some analysis has explained Uganda’s action based on concern for losing out on lucrative trade links with South Sudan, whilst others note the potential for an influx of refugees fleeing the violence.  Either way, the decision of Uganda to take sides and intervene in such a manner is confusing, particularly as Museveni was always supportive of South Sudan’s creation.  Question’s need to be asked about whether Uganda’s action has been proportional and really helpful in bring stability or preventing the commitment of atrocities in South Sudan.  

The fact that neighbours have such an influence in each of these civil conflicts speaks to the fragile nature of these states and of the region. Indeed, the CAR and South Sudanese central governments have struggled to consolidate control or contain conflict in their respective territories.  The history of this problem is far longer in the CAR than in South Sudan primarily as the latter is the world’s newest state.  But both face similar challenges in that they lack the conventional means and institutions to address problems within their sovereign borders that might diffuse civil conflict and that might counteract or negate the intervention of outside parties or regionally dominant states. 

The conflicts in CAR and South Sudan, whilst of different origins and certainly different histories, highlight the tragedy of fragile states and the challenges of state-building.  Indeed, they reinforce the importance and necessity of building structures and institutions that can consolidate the ability of a government to ensure peace and security within its own borders by finding alternative means to violence. All of which can work towards deterring meddlesome neighbours from contributing to internal instability.