Hanging by a Thread

The U.N.'s new mission to the war-torn Central African Republic needs more money, manpower, and training. How can it possibly succeed?


BANGUI, Central African Republic — On the night of Dec. 5, 2013, Fatou Sall was asleep in the front room of her mud-brick house in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, when she awoke to the sound of her 37-year-old daughter screaming. Sall smelled smoke and ran outside, turning to see her house engulfed in flames. Inside, her daughter and 6-year-old grandchild were trapped in the back room. "We broke down the walls of the house to get my daughter and the kids out," said Sall, 60, standing under a tent made of the U.N.-issued tarps where she now sleeps. "But they were already dead."

The fire was no accident. That night, thousands of fighters entered the city, unleashing a wave of violence that in less than a week left hundreds dead. The murderers were part of the anti-Balaka, a mostly Christian militia that had been gathering close to Bangui for weeks. Sall and the six of her grandchildren who survived the attack are now protected by African troops in the city’s last Muslim enclave. Known as "PK5" or "Kilometer 5" for its distance from the city center, the neighborhood is surrounded by a no man’s land of destroyed buildings that mark the territory between the city’s Christian and Muslim residents. On one corner leading to PK5, a row of gutted stores with walls covered in black soot stands empty across from a checkpoint where Burundian troops now stand guard. Thousands of Muslims still seek shelter inside PK5’s borders.  

Stories like Sall’s highlight the challenges facing the United Nations’ newest peacekeeping initiative in the Central African Republic, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). It will be the UN’s most ambitious mission yet in the country, where more than a dozen regional and African-led and international efforts have previously failed. It is intended to restore peace, stability, and the rule of law. But with few troops on the ground and unremitting violence in many parts of the country, many observers say the mission is likely to have little impact, and that it won’t address the underlying factors that led to conflict in the first place.

The most recent round of fighting in the CAR began in late 2012, when the Séléka, an alliance of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries and Central African anti-government militias led by the ambitious, Soviet-trained northerner Michel Djotodia, overthrew the regime of François Bozizé. Djotodia assumed the presidency in 2013, but violence across the country continued. Motivated both by grievances against former president Bozizé but also by the promise of personal enrichment through looting, rebels plundered villages, recruited child soldiers, raped women, and killed thousands of Christians, according to human rights reports.  

In turn, a largely Christian "anti-Balaka" ("anti-machete" in the local language) rose to avenge Séléka abuses, and attacked Muslim communities for their perceived support of the group. This, in turn, sparked reprisal attacks by the Séléka. As the country descended into anarchy and the seeds of sectarian conflict grew, neighboring countries forced Djotodia to step down in January 2014. But his resignation failed to stop the violence. According to the Associated Press, at least 5,000 Central Africans have been killed since December. The U.N. estimates that hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

At the new mission’s headquarters in Bangui, there is a frenzy of activity. Behind white walls freshly painted with the new mission’s acronym, soldiers line up for new badges, equipment, and deployment instructions. MINUSCA is tasked with disarming rebel fighters, supporting the transitional government, and protecting civilians in imminent danger. About 1,500 troops from Bangladesh, Morocco, Indonesia, and elsewhere will join 4,800 African Union troops that are already on the ground from the previous African Union mission. They will work alongside about 2,000 French soldiers, in place since December 2013, and the roughly 700 European soldiers deployed in May.

At full deployment, it will command a mere 12,000 soldiers and police officers, a force that won’t be fully in place for months. And unlike most international forces, like the 130,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan or the 50,000 who went into Kosovo at the height of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in 1999, the U.N. peacekeepers on their way to the CAR will not necessarily be from countries with well-funded, trained, or equipped troops, says Martin Welz, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Konstanz in Germany who has written extensively on CAR’s peacekeeping missions. "The number of troops is too small to achieve MINUSCA’s broad mandate," he says.

Babacar Gaye, a former Senegalese army general, is leading the new mission. "One can always wish for more boots on the ground," he told me in his office at MINUSCA headquarters. "[But] when you come to my house, and you’re dying of hunger, and I give you bread but then you say, ‘There’s no jam, there’s no butter,’ you’re pushing it." In other words: The size of the force does not necessary translate into its effectiveness. "We will have the capacity to react as soon as there is an incident … and to find out who did it, why they did it, and to try and settle the issue," Gaye said. "It will be a long-term process."

MINUSCA also faces steep logistical challenges, which have significantly delayed deployment, according to U.N. peacekeeping officials on the ground. Jeeps, trucks, personnel carriers, and building supplies need to be flown in or hauled across hundreds of miles of dirt roads from the nearest port in neighboring Cameroon. Inside the country, conditions deteriorate as soon as one leaves the capital. Traveling to Bria, a mere 300 miles from Bangui where the U.N. is establishing a sector headquarters, requires a two-day-drive across boggy clay roads.

Conditions in Bangui have undoubtedly improved since the height of the conflict. The city’s dilapidated airport once served as a refuge for more than 100,000 displaced people, huddled in a camp behind barricades manned by Spanish and French soldiers. The sudden influx of the displaced — some 130,000 in Bangui alone as of this past May — led to a humanitarian emergency. Peacekeepers were forced to clear crowds of hundreds off the runway as emergency medical supplies and food were flown in. Now, most of these displaced have returned home. In the city’s central market, once-empty street stalls now bustle with activity, selling fruit, spare car parts, and fabric, and stay open past nightfall. Daily shootings have also decreased.

In Bangui, some are confident that the new mission will break the country’s cycle of violence. A recent headline in a local newspaper read: "12,000 U.N. Peacekeepers Prepare to Save the Central African Republic." But others feel different. "It would be a dangerous illusion to believe that U.N. forces will solve all the problems of the CAR," says Crépin Mboli-Goumba, a former spokesperson for the Transitional Government. "The definitive solution must come from the Central Africans, who are condemned to live together."

But for the majority of Central Africans beyond the capital, and for nearly all of the city’s Muslims like Fatou Sall, it’s still too dangerous to return home. Ahmed Tidjani, the imam of the crowded mosque where Sall and dozens of others now live, is usually reticent to speak of politics. His house sits next to the mosque, past a health clinic run by Doctors Without Borders. When asked what it would take to achieve peace, his opinion was clear. "The obstacle to progress is not the common people — it’s the people who are running this country," said Tidjani. "The Séléka need to talk to the anti-Balaka," Tidjani said. "Politicians need to talk to each other. They need to decide on a future."

Many factions, including the Séléka, anti-Balaka, and the transitional government, signed a cease-fire agreement in July. But violence has not ended. Instead, the accord highlighted divisions within the Séléka, some of whom reject the cease-fire. What’s left of the group has set up headquarters in Bambari, 200 miles from Bangui, and they have now stated their support for the north to secede. They remain in firm control of the northeast, while Anti-Balaka militias maintain a grip on large sections of the west.

A coalition of international peacekeepers, meanwhile, is backing a transitional government in Bangui that wields little authority. Parliament rarely meets. International troops guard the National Assembly, a majestic but empty hall that overlooks the city. In January, parliament chose Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-trained lawyer and former mayor of Bangui, to lead the country when Djotodia stepped down, in hopes that she can lead the country into a new round of elections that might encourage political reconciliation. Her appointment was followed up in August by the formation of a new government, which included a Muslim prime minister. Key positions were reserved for the Séléka and anti-Balaka. But the coalition is already falling apart: The Séléka expelled its own members in early September, accusing them of "high treason" for participating in the government. And government officials are now saying elections might be pushed back as late as February.

Meanwhile, Séléka factions have begun fighting each other. Sectarian violence in the countryside is increasing, and the presence of troops is doing little to stop attacks on civilians in much of the country. "This so-called ethno-religious conflict is the result of 20 years of state failure and economic decline," said Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group. Another peacekeeping mission, he adds, is not going solve the problem.

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