Six Questions on the Crisis in the Central African Republic

In a recent joint column, President Obama and President Hollande hailed their new partnership in Africa. They noted that in the Central African Republic, French and African Union soldiers—backed by American airlifts and support—are working to stem violence and create space for dialogue, reconciliation and swift progress to transitional elections.   However, the violence in the Central African Republic (CAR)  is still ongoing, though leadership has changed, and both the international and national communities have intervened.  The brutality of the former ruling Séléka forces has been replaced by the sectarian violence of anti-balaka militias.  The situation is complex and evolving, so I sat down to answer some basic questions on the crisis and what else the global community could be doing to address it.

1. Should the French-led intervention be considered successful in bringing political stability back to the country?

The political situation is still very unstable in the CAR. The international community agreed to a French intervention last year because of the urgency of the humanitarian situation. Troops were needed rapidly to protect civilians, stop atrocities and restore humanitarian access. However, peace and security have not yet been restored in the country in spite of a change of government. Targeted killings of Muslims by Christian anti-balaka militias are occurring daily, leading to the displacement of entire communities fleeing the violence. But even refugees are being stopped and killed. The inability of peacekeepers to protect all civilians, especially after disarming them, has led to a very fragile political situation. Muslims are attempting to escape the violence by moving to Chad and Cameroon, and there is a serious risk of a de facto loss of territorial integrity in the areas neighboring these countries.

2. Wasn’t military intervention supposed to lead to the disarmament of all fighting factions?

Military intervention and international pressure have led to the disarmament of the ex-Séléka fighters and the resignation in January of their leader and former president, Michel Djotodia. But the anti-balaka militias have taken advantage of the containment of the ex-Séléka forces to position themselves as major actors in the political scene. The problem is that this maneuvering has been at an immense human cost, as the anti-balaka forces have targeted the Muslim population through looting and killing. Muslims (about 10 to 15 percent of the population) are of the same religion as the ex-Séléka forces and are perceived to be sympathetic to them. The current violence against Muslims is seen as a reprisal for the brutality of the ex-Séléka against the majority Christian population. It is possible that some groups are using the negative sentiment against Muslims as a rallying cry to gain bargaining power ahead of the next elections.

The commander of the French peacekeeping mission in the CAR has recently said that he does not know who the anti-balaka militias are and that their leaders’ identity, chain of command and political program are all unknowns. They include former soldiers from the Central African Armed Forces, community-level self-defense units, disfranchised youths and supporters of former President François Bozizé (who denies any connection with them). The commander’s statement suggests that it was easier for French troops to deal with the ex-Séléka forces that were a coalition of rebel troops led by former President Djotodia. But now, the anti-balaka militias are increasingly organized and, as noted by Human Rights Watch, “using language that suggests their intent is to eliminate Muslim residents from the CAR.” Amnesty International has also highlighted the failure of foreign peacekeepers in preventing the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians.

3. How should we judge the effectiveness of new President Catherine Samba-Panza’s tenure as head of state in dealing with this crisis?

President Samba-Panza is tasked with organizing free elections by February 2015, but she faces three huge obstacles: ongoing political instability, a humanitarian crisis and widespread insecurity. She has resisted pressure to include more anti-balaka ministers in her government (there are currently three ex-Séléka ministers and one anti-balaka minister in her government). She has also rightly declared war on anti-balaka militias and has made an appeal for peace and national unity. If she can help restore peace and security for all the citizens of the country and lay the ground for a political dialogue among stakeholders, then she can have a chance to rebuild the institutions that a functioning state needs. This said, the country remains and will remain for a while on life support from France and the international community, which restricts her margin to maneuver.

4. What is currently being done at the regional level to ameliorate the violence? What additional measures, if any, would you recommend?

Regional leaders are key stakeholders in the conflict and have played a key role in designing transitional arrangements. The current president of the CAR was chosen by members of the transitional parliament who were flown to Djamena, Chad. The former president of the CAR, François Bozizé, who has sought exile in Cameroon, is reported to have been recently expelled from there. 

A 5,000-strong African-led force (MISCA) is on the ground in the CAR, and regional leaders are working closely with France, which—in addition to troops in the CAR—has a military presence in Cameroon, Chad and Gabon. ECCAS member countries (the regional economic community in Central Africa) will send more troops and have pledged to cover about one-fourth of MISCA’s estimated operational cost of $409 million per year. But more boots on the ground will not be enough, and MISCA will need help with logistical support, communications equipment and airlift capacity.

5. What is the likely economic impact at the national level of the ongoing conflict?

The economic situation in the CAR, which was already very poor, is worsening. Agriculture is the engine of the economy, and the displacement of people following the coup last year has already weakened its contribution to growth. The timing of any aid is critical: The planting season is starting soon, and farmers need to feel safe enough to return to their fields. They will also need seeds and equipment to start planting. There is a sense of urgency because failure to plant now will lead to a food crisis later. Moreover, as Muslim traders are fleeing the country, disruptions in the distribution channels are leading to food shortages and higher food prices. Indeed, they traditionally play a key role in food distribution in the CAR.  Going forward, the government will need to ensure it gets fiscal revenues from diamond mining and logging activities. It will have to rely on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to rebuild its economy and ensure that aid flows will be stable. We are really not yet out of the woods. This will be a long journey.

6. What is United States government doing? What more could it be doing?

There is still a need to scale up the intervention to protect all citizens, deliver food and other humanitarian aid, ensure that the political transition works, and restart the economy.

The U.S. should deliver a strong message to the international community that the anti-balaka militias need to be rapidly contained, and violence against the Muslim and any other segments of the population should stop immediately.

The U.S. is currently providing logistical support to the peacekeeping operations in the CAR and should be ready to scale up its intervention. It should also be prepared to scale up its humanitarian assistance. More resources are needed, and only a long-term engagement in the CAR can help find a sustainable solution. The problems of this country will not end with a new election in one year.