The Central African Republic is often called a forgotten country, but that isn’t quite right. It has had a long and substantial international presence and sizable foreign investment. It’s just that those efforts haven’t made much difference. As the country rapidly descends into greater violence, the difficult truth is that more — and much better — international and regional involvement is its only hope.
France has had an almost continuous military presence since the country gained independence in 1960, including the 400 soldiers deployed at the start of the current crisis. The European Union has a delegation in Bangui and has been the main donor for 10 years. United States Army personnel arrived in 2011 as part of efforts to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court and is believed to be hiding somewhere in Central Africa.
The foreign presence is not limited to Western countries. South Africa had a bilateral military cooperation program from 2008 to 2012. Last March, 13 of its troops were killed attempting to keep President François Bozizé in power. The regional Economic Community of Central African States has maintained a peacekeeping force since 2008. Its 2,500 troops will soon come under the command of the African Union-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (Misca). Moreover, the United Nations has been working to rebuild the country since 2010.
The Central African Republic was supposed to be a test case for the latest thinking on how to deal with fragile states. Given all this political, military and development assistance, it is difficult to understand why the country is not only weak, but dissolving.
President Bozizé was ousted by a loose alliance of guerrilla fighters from throughout the region known as Seleka, which supported his successor, Michel Djotodia. In September, Mr. Djotodia, in a move that contributed to instability, disbanded Seleka. With no chain of command, the fighters descended into banditry and widespread violence. With no effective national army to challenge them, violent militias are now protecting some elements of the population and terrorizing others.
The spreading conflict has also taken on a religious dimension, with fighting between Muslims and Christians. The transitional authorities are weak and the modest African peacekeeping force is no deterrent against the militias, which includes mostly Muslim fighters.
After intervening successfully in Mali, France is preparing to salvage another of its former colonies, beginning with an additional 800 troops. Last Monday, the United Nations deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, asked the Security Council to reinforce the African Union-led mission and ultimately to transform it into a United Nations peacekeeping force. Discussions are underway on a new resolution. The United States has proposed a budget of $40 million.
But United Nations peacekeepers are not going to arrive any time soon and the situation in Bangui is fast deteriorating. With a prompt and robust mandate accompanied by effective funding, African and French troops might be able to pull the country back from the brink. But the key to ending the country’s nightmare will also lie in the ability of Africa, France and the United Nations to forge a well-coordinated strategic partnership to restore order and rebuild the institutions necessary to preserve order.
When the Security Council meets this week, it should beef up logistical support to the African-led peacekeepers and authorize France to use all necessary means to support that mission. The United States, along with the European Union, should move quickly to provide the necessary financial support.
At the same time, Africa’s leaders must step up to the plate and provide more support to the African Union. Stabilizing the Central African Republic will require a doubling of the proposed 3,600 Misca troops. Securing the capital will only be a beginning: This mission should also safeguard the main roads, starting with the major commercial artery running from Bangui to Garoua-Boulaï, at the Cameroonian border. This would both stabilize the Central African Republic and reduce the very real threat of violence spreading to its neighbors.
The Security Council has a precious opportunity to restore security. Without this, the task of implementing the transitional political road map cannot begin, there will be no reforms, elections expected in early 2016 will be difficult to convene, and the transition may stall and even collapse with only one result: civil war with unspeakable consequences for Africa’s volatile center.
Thibaud Lesueur is a Central Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. Thierry Vircoulon is the group’s project director for Central Africa.