According to the United Nations there are at least 130,000 of the 800,000 residents of Bangui who are displaced. More than 45,000 are crowded into the only camp for the displaced near the airport, under French protection, without proper shelter, water, medical supplies and inadequate food supplies. There is a serious risk of epidemics due to the critical hygienic conditions after days of rain. Some 530,000 people are internally displaced in the country of 2.3 million people. Tension is increasingly high in Bangui and in other parts of the country between Christian and Muslim communities. Meanwhile the disarmament operations carried out by the French military continue. According to the staff of the French armed forces in the capital, there are anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 militants from the armed groups to be disarmed. We talked to Thibaud Lesueur, of the International Crisis Group (ICG) about the French intervention, the rule of the international community, the causes of the crisis and who are the main players in this conflict.
Months of silence and waiting on the crisis since last March’s coup, followed by a swift French ‘diplomatic offensive’ and the UN action on the ground with the deployment of troops in Bangui, through operation Sangaris, alongside the International Support to Central Africa Mission (MISCA). How to explain this change of direction by the international community ?
Indeed, the reaction of the international community to the crisis in CAR has been much slower than the deteriorating situation on the ground. The beginning was due to CAR’s international partners’ incorrect analysis of the situation, believing that the transitional president Michel Djotodia would have been able to restore security in the country and have full control over the Seleka fighters, although it had long appeared that most of these elements were uncontrolled. Several developments on the ground have contributed to the international community’s change of direction, accelerating the diplomatic process to vote for a new resolution in the UN Security Council on 5 December. The emergence of ever increasing religious tensions and the multitude of massacres from conflicts between the major communities, which had always coexisted peacefully until now, had the effect of a shock. Foreign partners have become increasingly aware that if CAR plunged into total chaos, then it would become more difficult, more expensive and more time consuming to intervene. In addition, were the state to collapse, warlords would end up dividing the country, plundering entire portions of the territory, exploiting its resources.
What are the international and French goals/interests underlying the military intervention under way in Bangui?
Unlike other scenarios on the African continent, France does not entertain many strategic or economic interests in Central Africa. That’s why at first the French authorities have opted for a position of ‘vigilant neutrality’ and have decided to feel out the game. In the light of the deteriorating situation on the ground and given the presence of 400 soldiers in Bangui, France could no longer take the stand of the ambiguous position of ‘observer’ of the crisis.
What is at stake at the regional level and what are the responsibilities of the neighboring countries in the Central African crisis?
Security is the main concern. In fact, the Central African conflict has already spread to eastern Cameroon, where since last June several Central African rebel attacks across the border have caused casualties. The Cameroonian government’s strengthening of security along the border explains its concern. Today, Chad, Cameroon, Gabon , Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo have deployed troops in support of the Pan-African MISCA force, under the auspices of the African Union. Soon, Burundi will also contribute troops. However the split within this force is clear, with Chadians on one side, and the other parties in a position of challenge. Since the beginning of the political and military crisis in Bangui, N’Djamena’s agenda has been ambiguous. Even today, Chadian forces in Bangui and Seleka representatives, some of whom are Chadian, maintain close ties. Chad’s ‘double-cross’ strategy in the Central African scenario is undoubtedly a factor that is weakening the African force in addition to creating diplomatic tensions within the Economic Community of Central Africa (ECCAS).
In your opinion who are the protagonists of the Central African chaos?
For several months, the conflict has spread to a wider portion of the national territory. In the interior region, particularly in the west, it triggered a spiral of violence and bloody reprisals between Seleka, anti-Balaka and self-defense groups, militias formed from among former members of the Central African armed forces and plain peasants and villagers, who have targeted civilians for the most part. As of a month or so, these strong contrasts have also reached Bangui, further fueling religious tensions. The violence has grown ever more religious and interdenominational, with mosques and churches being attacked, prompting thousands of residents to flee the capital toward nearby forests or refugee camps in the central part of the country.
The coup last March is often cited as the starting point of the new crisis while the transitional authorities, starting with Djotodia failed to restore order. What were the actual causes that have dragged the country toward the brink of the abyss?
The ongoing conflict is the result of decades of misrule and an inadequate political class in Central Africa. Mismanagement, or lack of management, of the State has translated into increasing poverty , growing insecurity – particularly in some regions, including the Vakaga (northeast), historically marginalized by the various power groups that have developed in Bangui, prepaqring fertile ground for such rebels as the Seleka. In addition, the birth of this rebel coalition (in 2012) is a direct consequence of the total paralysis of the François Bozizé regime in terms of security, and its disregard for the commitments signed in the 2008 Libreville Accord, which provided for ‘the armed groups’ – the Seleka coalition – to participate in a process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. (V.V.)