Ben Shepherd
Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme
Mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, attends a session at the National Transitional Council (CNT) before being elected interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR) 20 January 2014, Bangui, CAR. Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images.Mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, attends a session at the National Transitional Council (CNT) before being elected interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR) 20 January 2014, Bangui, CAR. Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images.

Western countries and traditional donors have little stake in the sectarian crisis in the Central African Republic. The country has a capable interim president, but without outside support, the population is unlikely to see a respite in the conflict any time soon.

The crisis in the Central African Republic continues to simmer. Sectarian violence between the Christian majority and Muslim communities intensified during the short-lived rule of the Islamic Seleka rebel coalition in 2013, and has gathered pace since. More than a million people have been displaced. Numerous killings and large-scale massacres have been reported, with many blamed on Christian militias known as ‘anti-Balaka’. Initially organized to protect communities from banditry, they resisted the Seleka and are now seemingly seeking revenge. 

The Seleka has since disintegrated. Its leader, Michael Djotodia, resigned his short and ill-starred presidency in January, and foreign fighters – including a substantial number from neighbouring Chad – fled the country. Others are protected by peacekeeping troops. CAR’s remaining Muslim communities feel under acute threat, and there are warnings of widespread ethnic cleansing – even parallels with Rwanda before 1994.

There is one glimmer of light. Catherine Samba-Panza, a lawyer and former mayor of Bangui, and – somewhat remarkably for the CAR – not a former rebel or coup leader, was sworn in as interim president in January, along with a transitional government that contains few from either the Seleka or the anti-Balaka. Unlike the rebel-dominated transition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, it seems that peaceful politics may have broken out in the CAR – though for how long it is impossible to say. Elections are due within a year.

In the meantime, the most obvious short-term scenario is a return to the status quo ante. Samba-Panza has inherited a state that was almost non-existent even before the latest convulsions, and essentially no longer exists. Control over territory outside Bangui is unlikely to be established before elections, and the grievances that drove the component parts of the Seleka – the ones originating in the CAR at least – have not gone away. Numerous small rebellions and armed groups are very likely to re-emerge, notably in the Muslim-dominated northeast. Elements of the Seleka are already reported to be regrouping.

Perhaps the most important question for the CAR is whether the wounds left by horrific sectarian violence can be staunched and eventually healed, or whether the intercommunity hatred will harden further. Comparisons with Rwanda are not accurate – Rwanda’s genocide was the product of deliberate policy, implemented through a disciplined command structure in a densely populated, highly structured society, none of which applies in the CAR. But the country is already a long way down. Muslim and Christian communities, which lived in relative tolerance and peace for many years, have become locked into a perverse dance of mutually reinforcing fear and violence.

Given the almost complete lack of government capacity, the task of pacifying this internecine conflict will fall to external actors. But where will they come from? The African Union’s International Support Mission to the Central African Republic has an authorized strength of 6,000, though has yet to deploy anywhere near that number. France has 1,600 troops deployed in the country, but the long, complicated and difficult post-colonial relationship between Paris and Bangui may make them wary of taking a lead.

An EU mission of some 400-600 troops was authorized in January, and will in theory be deployed to bring stability to the Bangui area. But the gap between aspiration and capacity remains as high as ever, and none of the big EU players have committed troops. It may be that France has to step up to fill the gap once again. An EU force would allow the already-deployed French troops to leave Bangui, and – at least in theory – secure the rest of the country.

The problem, in practice, is that securing a vast country − the same size as France − with such a force is impossible. In fact, the UN estimates needing 10,000 peacekeepers, which are unlikely to materialize given the overstretch of peacekeeping in Africa. The existing UN office in the CAR has acute staffing difficulties, despite numbering less than 200.

And it would not be a traditional peacekeeping operation. The urgent task is the protection of civilian lives and the de-escalation of intercommunity tensions. There will be no formal fighting, and therefore no formal peace to keep. Populations are tangled together in the slums of Bangui and villages across the country. Whether peacekeepers will have the ability, mandate or will to effectively protect them remains to be seen.

The precedents are not encouraging. In the DRC, the majority of MONUSCO’s 17,000 peacekeepers are deployed in the Kivu provinces − more soldiers in an area five times smaller than the CAR − and yet they have still, repeatedly, proved inadequate to protect civilians. In a country with a largely rural population, civilian protection entails scattering peacekeepers in small groups, a long way from backup or evacuation – making force protection more difficult and potential troop contributors even more wary. Expensive helicopter fleets become essential.

Nonetheless, external forces should be able to restore a level of stability to Bangui and its immediate surroundings. This in turn may allow the new transitional government to bed down. Elections may follow. But the task of building institutions, public trust, infrastructure, and an accountable and effective security sector will be vast, and will almost certainly not attract sufficient resources. Donor funds will be token pledges which may never be disbursed − who will spend them in an environment where the state has no capacity and almost no agencies are active? Temporary military deployments will do little to heal the country in the long run.

Sadly, the CAR will almost certainly continue to be seen as the periphery of the periphery, ill-served by the weakest of Africa’s regional economic communities and undermined by continued power-plays by its neighbours. Donors see little national interest at stake, and little risk of overspill into more sensitive regions – the country is too sparsely populated, too big and too remote for that. A desensitized Western public merely shrugs at what is presented to them as yet another display of atavistic ‘African’ violence. Though President Samba-Panza offers hope of a new beginning, for the CAR’s civilian population the light at the end of the tunnel is a long distance away.

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