17 January 2014

Turmoil in the heart of Africa


Since rebels ousted the ruling government in March 2013, civilians in the CAR have suffered routine exactions, arbitrary arrests, looting, arson, recruitment of child soldiers, and summary executions. Here, African Union peacekeepers from Burundi walk through the Fouh neighbourhood, as they investigate the area after anti-Balaka militiaman attacked a truck and killed at least one Muslim passenger attempting to flee the capital, in the Fouh neighbourhood of Bangui, Central African Republic.

The crisis in the Central African Republic and the ongoing military intervention highlight the security challenges in Africa and the need for a rapid reaction force

The Central African Republic (CAR) is an impoverished country of 4.5 million inhabitants spread over 623,000 sq. km, located in the centre of Africa, which became independent from France in 1960. It has recently turned into another hub of instability. Responding to an urgent appeal from the African Union and the transitional authorities of the CAR, on December 5, 2013, France decided to deploy 1,600 soldiers in the country. The French soldiers are bolstering the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA). Several international partners — many European — have contributed with logistical and financial support.

This intervention was urgent and necessary to prevent a catastrophe. Since rebels ousted the ruling government in March 2013, the daily life of civilians was reduced to exactions, arbitrary arrests, looting, recruitment of child soldiers, scorched villages, rape, mutilation, and summary executions. One out of ten inhabitants was forced to abandon their house, 70,000 Central Africans have fled the country, and 2.3 million people urgently need help. Even more disquieting, the clashes between Christian and Muslim groups had assumed extremely dangerous communal and religious tendencies.

Threat of anarchy

Anarchy in the CAR is also a threat to its neighbours, especially Sudan as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, where the United Nations maintains peacekeeping operations with large Indian contingents. In an already quite fragile region, the CAR must not become a new sanctuary for trafficking, militias and terrorist groups.

Our goals are clear. The first is to restore security in the CAR, check the spiralling extortions and religious drift, and enable the return of relief organisations as well as the reinstatement of a functioning government. The situation is still fragile, but the initial results are encouraging. Through dissuasive patrolling, French soldiers have been able to avert widespread massacres at a time when the situation in the capital city of Bangui was becoming particularly critical.

The second goal is to put the MISCA in a position to ensure control over the security situation, with the task of disarming militias and facilitating political transition before 2015. We support swift augmentation of MISCA capabilities from 2,400 men to 6,000 men. The French engagement is temporary and not a substitute for African efforts. But in the face of the urgency of the situation, it was necessary to act promptly with sufficient and swiftly deployable resources. France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, responded in keeping with its international responsibilities and on the basis of a UN mandate. Resolution 2127 provides for the option of a UN peacekeeping operation to follow the MISCA, should the Security Council so decide.

Working hand in hand with our African partners, we hope to enhance the international forces swiftly and stabilise the situation on the ground within a few months. The intervention in the CAR is quite different from that which took place in Mali. Mali required countering a terrorist offensive led by particularly determined groups operating from strongholds they already occupied in the north of the country. We repulsed and defeated this offensive, helped Mali regain its territorial integrity and have democratically elected political authorities, with the presidential election held in July and legislative polls in December. Of course, on the ground, the fight to defeat any terrorist resurgence continues. In the CAR, we have to disarm militarily not a specific enemy but completely out-of-control militias, and prevent communal violence between Christians and Muslims.

In the face of such crises, terrorism, piracy, and all kinds of trafficking, Africa must organise ways to deal by herself with such challenges rapidly and efficiently. At the Summit for Peace and Security in Africa, held in Paris in early December, the African Heads of State and government agreed on the necessity of forging collective security in Africa by establishing an African rapid reaction force in the coming months. France hails this important development and will support this force. The international community must rise to this challenge together in the interest of Africa’s security, which is important for all of us, well beyond the boundaries of this continent.

(The writer is France’s ambassador to India)

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