The situation in CAR in regional and historical context

For a few days now, worrying reports have come out of the Central African Republic (CAR) regarding advances by rebels. With substantial interests in the stability of the CAR (see more below), France called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, March 20th. In a statement issued the same day, the UN Security Council closed with the following:

The members of the Security Council expressed serious concerns at reports of human rights violations and abuses, in particular reports on the targeting of persons belonging to ethnic minorities and illegal detentions, and at the continued violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including recruitment and use of children in armed conflict and sexual and gender-based violence.  They emphasized that such activities must cease immediately and that those responsible for such violations and abuses should be held accountable.

At the time of writing, reports are coming in that the rebels – known as the Seleka rebel coalition – have entered Bangui, the capital, last night (Saturday), after fighting with Chadian and South African troops, and may have even taken the Presidential palace. It is also being reported that France has sent an additional 150 troops to help keep control over the airport in Bangui, where 250 troops were already stationed.

While I’m not an expert of the Seleka rebel coalition – and there are plenty of news stories and analytical pieces floating around that can explain it very well – I thought it would be interesting to discuss the regional and historical context (see below) for CAR’s current predicament, as well as clarify some of the military aspects which are being referenced to. A lot of the news pieces I’ve seen so far seem to say a lot, without going into details and I find them quite confusing. So here we go.

Current Foreign Military Engagement

The Chadian troops referenced in the news report are operating under the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic (MICOPAX FOMAC being the French acronym), which has been operating under the authority of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) since July 2008. The main objectives of MICOPAX are to: 1) protect civilians; 2) secure the territory; 3) contribute to the national reconciliation process; and 4) facilitate the political dialogues. The South African troops, numbering at about 400, were sent to help train the CAR army in the new year; there are talks South Africa may be sending more troops in the next few days.

France’s current military involvement (which includes the above mentioned troops) in CAR – under Operation Boali – is primarily to support MICOPAX administratively, technically, financially and logistically. In addition, France provides operational training to troops before deployment. All of this falls under RECAMP (Renforcement des capacites africaines du maintien de la paix –  i.e. reinforcement of African peacekeeping capacities), one of the cornerstones of France’s military strategy in Africa since the late 1990s. Although France’s goals with regards to RECAMP have been to emphasize France’s willingness to apply a normalized and equal policy towards African countries and to coordinate their military engagement with the international community, I would posit that RECAMP is actually more about re-legitimizing France’s military engagement in Africa rather than significantly altering it. But that’s getting off topic …

Correction/clarification (25 March): in addition to the French troops operating under Operation Boali, the French contingent was supplemented on March 22-24 with 300 troops from the Forces Françaises au Gabon (FFG), which is France’s permanent military base in Gabon. The base usually has about 900 military personnel, 450 of which are there permanently.

Correction #2: I originally posted that FOMAC was the French acronym for MICOPAX. FOMAC – standing for the Multinational Force for Central Africa – is actually a separate thing. My understanding is that it’s a non-permanent regional force constituted from ECCAS member states but not necessarily limited to a particular country/situation; FOMAC forces have been deployed to support the MICOPAX forces. I would assume that they would then be operating under the command authority of MICOPAX but I could be wrong.

Regional Context

Although CAR is one of those African countries rarely in the news and which very few people know about, it’s very central (no pun intended) to regional security – with its conflict/security closely tied to those in Darfur and Chad, yet independent – and has historically played a key role in French African policy. Moreover, the situation in CAR hasn’t been stable for a very long time, although the situation has been increasingly volatile in the past few months; current CAR President Francois Bozizé himself came to power in 2003 in a military coup.

Recent efforts to maintain stability in CAR have largely been dominated by the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (Mission des Nations Unies en République Centrafricaine et au Tchad, MINURCAT), which was established in September 2007 to increase security on the eastern border of Chad and the northeastern border of CAR. The European Union Force Chad/CAR (EUFOR Tchad/RCA) was established as the military arm of MINURCAT, since the latter had initially been given no peacekeeping or political mandate, as well as to act as a bridging force until MINURCAT could be deployed. The EU force was largely comprised of French troops, which numbered 1600 out of 3500. In March 2009, MINURCAT took over the military aspect of EUFOR after the latter’s mandate expired. Some of EUFOR’s troops were incorporated into the UN mission, including 850 French troops.

MINURCAT troops were withdrawn from Chad and CAR in December 2010, after the UN Security Council failed to renew the mandate in the face of resistance from Chadian President Déby; if I remember correctly (and I can’t find any sources on this), Bozizé was against the withdrawal and would have preferred for MINURCAT troops to stay.

What this shows, however, is that instability in both Chad and CAR is often seen as a “spill-over” from Darfur, rather than as independent conflicts – which I believe them to be. While regional instability is certainly a factor – it almost always is – rebels in both Chad and CAR have grievances (whether legitimate or not) which have little to do with Darfur. Although explaining Chad and CAR in the context of Darfur may help garner attention – and it certainly did, for instance, in getting MINURCAT – it does little to address the root causes of conflict in each country and to devise long-term solutions. Furthermore, this “Darfurisation” theory have enabled both Chadian President Déby and François Bozizé to divert “attention from their own shortcomings and responsibilities” in each of their respective conflicts, as is eloquently argued by people much smarter than me here.

It is also necessary – when considering the regional context – to mention the Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (the LRA), which has been moving around significantly in the region in the past couple years and has conducted many raids in villages in CAR to abduct children. According to the 2012 Annual Brief by Invisible Children and Resolve Uganda (this is by no means an endorsement of Invisible Children …), senior LRA commanders are operating in the CAR . While this is not to say that the LRA is responsible for the current crisis in CAR nor that it is in any way linked to the Seleka rebels, it certainly hasn’t helped maintain stability in the region, including in CAR.

Historical Context

The current situation in the CAR – and particularly any French involvement (or lack thereof) – is also interesting because of the history between the two countries, a history which is controversial at best. CAR gained independence from France in 1960 and has been one of the African countries firmly set in France’s pre-carré since then, benefiting (and I use that term in the loosest sense) from close relationships with Paris.

Most emblematic of France’s relationship with the CAR in the post-colonial landscape was France’s close ties with Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who infamously crowned himself emperor in 1977. Without going into details, the support that France – and other Western countries – provided Bokassa, who was by all accounts a blood-thirtsy nutso (he did crown himself emperor …), is a dark moment in France’s history.

For your enjoyment, here’s a video of the coronation:

^^ Side note: look at that! I figured out how to embed videos on my blog!

France signed two defense-related agreements with CAR: a defense agreement in 1960 and a military technical assistance accord in 1966. The defense agreement resulted in France keeping pre-positioned troops in CAR until 1996, when a series of mutinies by the CAR army led the French to decide to close their military base there (Chafer 2005). As Rachel Utley aptly puts it:

As France held responsibility for internal order as well as external security, French troops were drawn into the chaos to protect foreign nationals, to restore order, to mediate between President Patassé and the mutineers and to maintain Patassé in power. Fighting mutineers in the streets, French troops, in one particularly bloody incident in reprisal for the killing of two French soldiers, left up to 50 mutineers and 100 civilians dead. If any of the goals of French policy in Africa, particularly in its military dimensions, were to be achieved, the calamity of the Great Lakes region in the 1990s indicated that such policies were drastically in need of change.

By the “calamity of the Great Lakes regions” during that time period is meant France’s infamous involvement in Rwanda and the death of Mobutu in 1997 in DRC. This time period was seen by many as a turning point in France’s involvement in Africa, with France seemingly moving away from being the “gendarme” of Africa for the next few years; however, turmoil in Cote d’Ivoire in 2002 and France’s subsequent military intervention seemed to bring that change of policy to an end (Charbonneau, Dreams of Empire, 2008). That being said, the period from 1997 to 2002 saw no less than 33 French military operations in Africa, including Operation Cigogne in CAR in October 1997, which comprised 1800 troops (Charbonneau, Dreams of Empire, 2008). In 2010, France and the CAR signed a new defense agreement, which is primarily focused on Operation Boali and support to MICOPAX (as mentioned above) and on supporting security sector reform in CAR.

While this historical overview – focused on French-CAR relations – has little to do specifically with the Seleka rebel coalition, I think it is worth considering how the central role played by CAR during post-colonial French African policy may affect the current situation and the response by the international community.

What’s Next?

To be frank, I think it’s hard to say what’s next at the moment, with the situation so volatile and so new. The responses thus far from the French government indicate that there is little interest in fully intervening in CAR, in the same manner as Mali for instance. However, the UN Security Council has been quick in responding and there are opportunities for the international community to step in, especially through bolstering MICOPAX.

Moreover, it is important to note that whatever happens, whoever regains or gains control of CAR will have to work with the international community. As one of the least developed countries on the planet, CAR is heavily dependent (if not entirely) on foreign aid and NGOs. That foreign aid will almost certainly be dependent on the implementation of political reforms, demobilization and disarmament of troops and so on and so forth.

In any case, any response from the French (or lack thereof) will be indicative of the foreign policy French President Francois Hollande aims to undertake in Africa in the next few years. While the French intervention in Mali is certainly interesting, the circumstances – namely, the involvement of AQIM and other fundamentalist terrorist groups – make the intervention rather ordinary in today’s geopolitical context. The rebellion in CAR, on the other hand, is much less threatening to perceived Western interests – beyond those of France to retain control over its former colonies. In other words, little or no French involvement will indicate a commitment or at least a desire to no longer be perceived at the gendarme of Africa. Heavy involvement, however, will indicate that things may not have changed so much since the 1970s.

Notes: where articles/sources are not online , I will be from now on including citations in parentheses which refer to full citations available on the resource page of this blog.

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One thought on “The situation in CAR in regional and historical context

  1. Pingback: CAR gets brand-new AU peacekeeping mission, no one cares | The More Things Change

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