The situation in the Central African Republic remains volatile and tense, with the intensification of violence in Bangui that saw the bodies of three young men brutally murdered and mutilated on their way to a an inter-faith reconciliation football match. The subsequent cycle of revenge attacks led to the throat of a priest slit in front of his congregation, 15 of whom were killed, and the total destruction of one of the last remaining mosques in the capital.
Despite the fact that faith leaders and civil society groups in the country stress that this conflict is not religiously based, in the last four months the conflict has manifested itself into a sectarian one as militia groups recruit and mobilize support along ethnic and religious lines. Though genocide is not taking place according to the latest UN Human Rights report and there have not been widespread massacres as we saw in Rwanda, symbolic acts of violence deliberately brutal in nature are consolidating and accelerating the polarization of religious communities.
The reality is these gruesome attacks are part of a long history of chronic government instability in CAR. Poor governance, poverty, marginalisation of ethnic groups, impunity, and the lack of equitable resource distribution throughout the country, are all part of an intertwined nexus that led to current phase of violence. The Seleka, a predominantly Muslim and secular rebel alliance, protested the years of marginalisation and the lack of state infrastructure in the North-East. Hospitals, schools and civil servants were virtually non-existent. Their coup in March 2013 that overthrew the government of former President François Bozizé, failed to control foreign Seleka mercenaries who undertook a 10 month rampage where they looted, raped, and pillaged the population. This then saw the formation of self-defence groups known as the Anti-Balaka who successfully pushed the Seleka back, but then started indiscriminately targeting Muslim communities, vowing for their complete expulsion from CAR.
Security is the primary challenge to the humanitarian, developmental, and political response. The humanitarian response has been caught under extraordinary amounts of pressure, with a highly volatile and inaccessible landscape impending much of their delivery. Inefficient coordination and information gathering compounds much of the effectiveness of humanitarian responses, but as importantly, protection of civilians has been alarmingly weak. The response of the International forces was particularly telling in the latest attacks, where they were criticized for not being continuously present in areas they know are high-risk for vulnerable communities. Despite the presence of African Union troops; MISCA, EUFOR (EU) & the French mission; Operation Sangaris, their combined number of 8000 strong is under-resourced and overwhelmed. They face an estimated 100,000 militia men throughout the country. A strong gendarmerie and police force is needed to patrol the urban environments of Bangui, as opposed to the heavily militarised force currently deployed that is best suited to secure key resource sites such as diamond mines and disarm militia in the bush. More UN and EU support is needed to bolster this.
The current state of insecurity greatly limits the access and service humanitarians can provide, and the recent intensification of violence in Bangui is accelerating the rate of revenge attacks and demoralising social cohesion work. A coherent, robust and coordinated security management structure needs to be clearly articulated by the interim government and the international forces together. Their lack of cohesion has meant that the effort of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration is that much more difficult. More needs to be done to ensure the safety and security of IDPs and populations at risk, as opposed to relocating them to the north or outside the country as a first resort as this will increase the challenge of building a unified state.
OCHA's appeal is only 31% funded and more financial support is required to support NGOs. Interfaith collaboration is sorely needed, as the lack of access and contact between communities is deepening the religious divide. More assistance should be provided to national initiatives such as the Interreligious Platform, and support for the creation of an interfaith NGO consortium that brings together Christian and Muslim faith-based NGOs, that would openly work in partnership and deliver humanitarian assistance jointly. This would significantly help build those inter-communal bridges and help stem the tide of religious hatred.
The interim government is struggling immensely with a lack of professional civil servants and needs urgent technical support and training. The cycle of impunity has to be broken by strengthening the judicial capacities of the state and establishing a penitentiary system- only one, dilapidated, prison exists in Bangui. A wider scope and understanding of the response with detailed pre-planning before the UN deployment in September, has to include regional actors and focus on protection and reconciliation work. An integrated cross-border monitoring response is also needed as the borders are so porous that both the Seleka and Anti-Balaka are quite freely financing themselves through the illicit diamond trade and illegal poaching. The proliferation of cheap arms in Bangui is a clear indicator of this, with grenades selling for 50 francs a piece- cheaper than buying most vegetables in the market.
We cannot afford to allow another tragedy to take place in Africa and we cannot afford to be complacent in our response. The regional ramifications and the human cost are too great for this to be another forgotten crisis.