Analysis: Hunger And Violence Abound In Central African Republic
In January, when Catherine Samba-Panza became the first female leader of the Central African Republic, only the third on the continent, the country was on the brink of civil war. Horrifying words such as “genocide” and “ethnic-cleansing” were being used in the media to describe the conflict and its potential outcomes.
The initial coup by the predominantly Muslim Seleka Rebels and subsequent reprisal killings by the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka militias had reached a fevered pitch. The terror was palpable as no one could accurately predict where the country was headed and it lacked any semblance of stability.
Fast forward just over a month to the current situation and the CAR is still in dire straits.
At least 2000 people have been killed in the country since December, with another 700,000 plus displaced. With this as background, on Monday, the United Nations recommended a 12,000 strong peacekeeping force that would be tasked with protect civilians under a “robust mandate,” to take over for the current African Union peacekeepers.
While most peacekeeping forces have extremely light mandates and strict rules of engagement, the Secretary General’s focus on a “robust mandate” implies that any such force will have considerably greater flexibility in how it will proceed and engage with violent militias.
This is not a distinction the UN has historically taken lightly, with very few such “peace making” forces ever attempted. Such a focus on it can only be seen as an acknowledgement of the particular difficulties peacekeeping in the CAR presents.
The country’s newest troubles began when the Seleka Rebels sacked the government in August 2013. In response to this, the anti-Balaka militias sprung up with vicious reprisal killings against Muslims country-wide.
The Seleka’s hold on the government has since ended, with Michael Djotodia’s resignation, but this has not ceased the reprisal killings. The anti-Balaka militias have been accused of blanket killing of Muslims throughout the country with unimaginable brutality.
In one such killing a man was dragged off a bus on suspicion of being a Muslim. He was then stabbed repeatedly in the head, face and eyes and then set ablaze. Finally, an individual named Ouandja Magloire who calls himself “Mad Dog” ate his leg.
‘I Hate His Leg Because I was Angry’
During this horrific scene, no one in the busy street tried to stop the violence or help the victim. When asked why he went to such lengths, Magloire simply responded that it was because he was angry. There was no other reason.
In addition to the citizens who witnessed the attack and did nothing to prevent it, the attack took place directly in front of a group of Burundian peacekeepers. The peacekeepers did nothing to prevent it. Such inaction reaffirms Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s focus on a “robust” mandate for the UN peacekeepers.
While Magloire’s attack came during the transitional period between Djotodia and Samba-Panza’s leadership, the violence has not slowed down during the new President’s tenure. The ongoing horrors have led to the flood of Muslim Central Africans away from the capital, northeast, towards neighboring Chad.
Samba-Panza has said this migration preoccupies her, while Secretary General Ban has openly worried about a de facto partition of the country into Muslim and Christian enclaves.
The threat of violence and international inaction has created more human misery than just the unspeakable acts in the streets of Bangui and across the country.
The World Food Programme recently reported that the risks of malnutrition have become grave. In addition to the all-too-common problem of inadequate food supplies for children, adults are similarly experiencing tremendous malnutrition nationwide.
In a study conducted in September 2013, just a few months into the outbreak of violence between the Seleka and anti-Balaka, the World Food Programme (WFP) already heralded food security as a major issue within the country.
The WFP estimated that 1.1 million people outside the capital were moderately to severely food-insecure. The Programme went further, presciently predicting the situation would further deteriorate should violence continue.
With continuing violence, the WFP has been proven woefully correct. Right now the Programme has less than one third the amount of funding it requires to meet the bare necessities of food production and delivery for the country. The troubles are exacerbated by the prevalence of armed groups roving the country. Even if the funding were to arrive, it is difficult to deliver food to much of the countryside without a threat of violence and vicious attacks on aid workers.
In a country that prior to the explosion of religious-based violence already suffered from the sixth lowest life expectancy in the world, much help is needed. The potential UN peacekeeping force is an important start. The “robust mandate” espoused by Secretary General Ban is necessary to prevent violence, such as the horrific acts described above. The CAR also desperately needs food aid and assistance to a near-starving populace.
As an interim President, Samba-Panza cannot run for re-election. That leaves her 12 months to make her mark on the struggling country.
Despite ongoing troubles, she is working toward institutional changes that will allow the country to slowly rebuild for the future. By her own words, Samba-Panza is working to “…revive the machinery of government” and “transition towards the elections…so that politicians can come back to live in a situation of democracy – clearly and transparently.”
This is a difficult task in the deeply troubled CAR and will only be more difficult with ongoing violence and an ineffectual or uncommitted international community.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.