Central African Republic: Why the world has taken so long to help

CAR has been in chaos for a year. Yet after the French went into Mali, after appalling figures of human strife, and with 'terror' and 'genocide' as defining words -- it is getting attention. 

Joe Penney/REUTERS
Soldiers stand guard as interim Central African Republic's President Michel Djotodia attends a ceremony in Bangui, November 30, 2013.

A version of this post originally appeared on the author's blog, Lesley on Africa. The views expressed are the author's own.

Stability is not a term one would use to describe the Central African Republic (CAR), and particularly not in light of the recent conflict which has engulfed the country.

Last December, the Séléka rebel coalition challenged then-President François Bozizé's grasp on power and eventually ousted him in March 2013. At first, the international response to the humanitarian and human rights crises that have ensued was muted. Eventually, over the summer, the African Union launched an International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA), with an authorized force strength of 3,600, to help protect civilians and provide security throughout the country.

MISCA, which may not be operational until 2014, replaced the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic (MICOPAX) in August 2013, which had been in CAR since July 2008 with 400 soldiers.

Former colonial power France, which abstained from preventing Mr. Bozizé's collapse earlier this year, has 400 soldiers in the capital city of Bangui to protect their interests, and is in the process of deploying 1,000 more.

Finally, the UN Security Council is also considering authorizing a peacekeeping mission for CAR, but it would not be able to deploy for at least two to three months - even with a speedy UNSC Resolution. Therefore, the French and AU forces would have to act as a stopgap measure until the UN would be able to put boots on the ground.

The question is, after this crisis has been unfolding for almost a year, why is an international response only coming together now?

Here are some possible reasons: 

First, perhaps the international community was inundated by the response to the crises in Mali. Note that France's OpérationServal commenced in January, accelerating the deployment timelines for the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) from September to mid-January. The Séléka rebel coalition that eventually toppled Bozizé commenced their rebellion around mid-December 2012, agreed to a ceasefire in mid-January 2013, and entered Bangui to overthrow Bozizé for failing to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire at the end of March 2013.

If you think about it, the time period between the initiation of the Séléka rebellion and the current rumblings of an international response has been more or less dominated by the French intervention in Mali, the AFISMA deployment, transition to the UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Mali's presidential and legislative elections. And now that Mali is in a better pace than it was last year at this time, the international community now has the bandwidth to turn to the next pressing crisis on the continent - the Central African Republic.

Second, perhaps the humanitarian toll has risen too high. Approximately one-tenth of the country's population, or 460,000 people, have become internally displaced fleeing the communal violence between Christians and Muslims (15 percent of the population), and over 220,000 people have become refugees in neighboring countries. 

Recent Human Rights Watch reports have documented the destruction of over 1,000 homes between March and June 2013. (See satellite images of 'what war crimes look like from space').

Third, people are starting to say the "T-word." As the Central African Republic continues to spiral into anarchy, there is speculation that terrorist groups, like Nigeria's Boko Haram, could set up shop in the country. Although such reports are unconfirmed, the mere presence of an unstable territory may make it an attractive safe haven for terrorist or criminal actors with regional or even global agendas.

Fourth, people have also started using the "G-word." Whether genocide is -- or is not -- occurring in a given conflict, using the "G-word" is supposed to trigger an obligatory international response.

My personal view is that the term genocide tends to be overused, and as a result, genocide has been conflated with "mass killing," and more generally with  "human rights abuses" or "crimes against humanity," thus distancing it from its true meaning. Therefore, whether or not genocide is actually occurring in the Central African Republic, any response would have to be measured against the international community's failure to respond to allegations of genocide in places like Syria and Sudan's Nuba Mountains.

To sum up: the true reason for the recent focus on the conflict in the Central African Republic, albeit belated, may be a combination of two or more of the aforementioned factors.

Now, as with regional and international attempts to respond to previous crises in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we shall see if the international community can put its money and military might where its mouth is.

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