While countries faced with political upheaval such as Ukraine and Venezuela have taken over the headlines of most of the main western media outlets, the escalating violence in the Central African Republic has retreated to the background of international attention. Despite the continued loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, as with previous African conflicts, the attitude of international bystanders has remained the same: “Africans still killing each other? No news there.”
But what is actually happening in the Central African Republic and where is the political situation heading? Is there any hope of mitigating the conflict in the near future to prevent further unnecessary bloodshed, the loss of innocent lives and the exodus of large populations of refugees?
After long-lasting colonial rule, post-independence CAR was plagued by political instability and a frequent change of leadership through military coups. This political instability is one of the main factors hindering socio-economic development. Similar to neighbouring countries such as the DRC, having vast reserves of natural resources such as gold, diamonds, timber and uranium manifests itself rather as a curse than a blessing. Previously, the Muslim minority had little to no representational rights in the predominantly Christian government. When the Muslim-based Séléka rebels rose up to overthrow the government in March 2013, they looted Christian villages and committed massive human rights violations in the process. In response, the Christian-based anti-Balaka gathered forces to seek revenge, repeating the same cruel acts on the Muslim minority population.
Nowadays the conflict has escalated to an extent where killing is carried out with impunity. The divisions of who is killing whom and for what motives have been blurred. Living in dire socio-economic circumstances, individuals abuse this chaotic situation to provide for themselves and their families by looting and killing others.
The situation in the Central African Republic has reached a dimension where it is frequently referred to as genocide. If this seems to invoke the post-genocide guilt from Rwanda, shouldn’t the international community and political decision-makers jump at the sound of the word ‘genocide’? Are we doing enough to stop the violence?
How can we put a halt to this hurricane of revenge which David Smith describes as: “militias in the CAR slitting children’s throats, razing villages and throwing young men to the crocodiles?“
Recently, on the 23rd of January, Africa’s third female president, Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn into office. Even though she will only serve the country as an interim president for one year, high hopes have been pinned on her. This is partially due to her gender symbolizing the pioneering of political change and progress. Many expect her to bring more peaceful and creative ideas to the negotiating table to resolve the crisis, but even on the day she resumed the presidency, the relentless fighting continued throughout the country.
In an interview with the guardian Samba-Panza explained her ambition in the following terms: “The politicians are fighting among themselves and it’s not certain that the interests of the population are considered in this political struggle. The people express their anger at this political struggle and they wish for another kind of leadership, and this leadership could be represented by a woman.”
As a political role model she references the first elected female head of state in Africa, Liberian President, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who inherited the legacy to govern a war-torn country and consequently won the Nobel Peace Prize for her achievements.
Samba-Panza comes from an ethnically diverse background. Her mother is Central African, her father Cameroonian and she was born in Chad, which makes her, as she claims in her inaugural speech, the “best example for regional integration” and international understanding. However, this multicultural background also makes her an easy target for the opposition and the press.
She comes from a business background, is an advocate for women’s rights and a member of the national lawyers association. The new president is perceived as courageous and is respected for her decision not to flee, but to fight, despite the widespread chaos and mass killings and the imminent threat the presidential role entails for her personal safety. Some commentators have dubbed her “mother courage”.
Samba-Panza largely draws her support base from international donors, NGOs and civil society groups. The president, as well as the newly appointed Prime Minister, André Nzapayeke, former secretary-general of the African Development Bank and vice-president of the Development Bank of the Central African States, are both Christian.
However, reinstalling Christian control of the government risks the intensification of the spiral of violence. Under such difficult circumstances, it remains to be seen how successful Samba- Panza’s policies will be in implementing a more peaceful order in just one year.
Nevertheless, Samba-Panza seems committed to adopt an impartial approach in negotiating the interests of both warring parties in a fair and transparent manner in order to prepare the country for the 2015 elections and hopefully socio-political stability in the long-run.
However what is the international community doing besides supporting Samba-Panza?
In December 2013 France established a peacekeeping intervention force supported by the UN aid mission. Approximately 2000 French personnel and about 6000 African police officers from Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Gabon and Guinea have been deployed so far.
France is accused of having dubious motives for intervention especially in light of previous engagements with the country and in consideration of CAR’s natural resource wealth.
The success of operation Sangaris, named after an indigenous butterfly, remains limited. The personnel is overwhelmed and not sufficiently equipped to halt the violence. As it is estimated that over two million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, more UN troops are scheduled to arrive soon – too late, however, for hundreds of thousands of Central Africans.