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Only regional intervention can break cycle of violence in Central African Republic

A fight on her hands: CAR’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza. Jerome Delay/AP

More than 2,000 people are feared killed since violence intensified in the Central African Republic (CAR) in early December of last year. Much of the violence erupted between the Séléka alliance of armed militias, which had seized power in Bangui, and the anti-balaka (anti-sword) movement of self-defiance groups of the ordinary citizens. The United Nations estimates that more than 900,000 people have been driven from their homes, and that about 2.2m out of a population of 4.4m are entirely depend on humanitarian aid – all this in a country without any policing whatsoever.

But even before the current wave of violence, one could scarcely speak of the CAR as a “state” in any functional sense. Although the constant intra-elite fighting over power and wealth was always accompanied by some sort of efforts for settlement (or at least damage limitation), these efforts were always thwarted or aborted when one side felt it could gain superiority.

The upper hand has never been definitively achieved by any side. Peace accords signed in 1997, 2008 and 2012 (among others) were motivated more by war fatigue and exhaustion among political power brokers than political will to achieve lasting stability. Post-conflict accords were followed by new elections and renewed violence, then a new peace process, and so on.

Events followed a similar pattern in 2013. After the eventual ceasefire of January 11, 2013, Nicolas Tiangaye was appointed prime minister, and Séléka leader Michel Djotodia became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence.

Much to the surprise of all observers, 2013’s Libreville Accord was cut and dried within a single day – but even so, everyone was nervously awaiting the next round of violence. They did not have long to wait. Within three months of playing for time by then president, François Bozizé, Séléka finally captured the capital on March 24 and the president fled the country.

On 18 April 2013, Michel Djotodia was recognised as the transitional head of government at a regional ECCAS summit in the Chadian capital N'Djamena, but his government was unstable from the start. It counted among its numbers nine Séléka ministers, plus eight from other oppositional groups and 16 representatives of civil society; the latter turned out to be Séléka as well. This provoked an instant boycott of the government by other invited stakeholders. Finally, Michael Djotoda was summoned by ECCAS heads of state to N’Djamena, and he agreed to elections within 18 months instead of three years as originally planned.

The advancing rebel alliance, which originally could never muster more than 5,000 militants, became a spring flood of frustrated young men from the north-eastern regions. Eventually, an armed mob of 25,000 self-declared Séléka were roaming Bangui and the country, most of them not subject to any chain of command. Few of these militia were actually loyal to the political alliance; they were opportunists who took a once-in-a-lifetime chance to benefit from turmoil, theft, pillage and rape. When Michel Djotodia officially dissolved Séléka, a majority of fighters simply refused to disband.

Séléka marauding at Christmas, which left more than 1,000 people dead in the streets of Bangui, started a new cycle of vengeance. Established and peaceful communities of Muslims from Mali and Chad were left between a rock and a hard place, looted by Séléka and victimised by Christian self-defence groups. Tens of thousands from Chad, Niger and Mali were repatriated, many from one conflict zone to another. As a result of the all-consuming violence, more than 10,000 houses were burned and hundreds of thousands fled their homes to the bush in northern parts of the country.

The past year, then, has seemingly seen just the latest wave of hopeless conflict in Central Africa. But if ever the CAR had a chance to truly turn for the better and become a secure and functional state, it will be in the aftermath of the election of Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president on January 23.

New year, new president

Samba-Panza has much experience with reconciling the different factions of the CAR’s political elite, having participated in domestic conflict mediation since 2003. She also has the backing of external actors (in other words, France and ECCAS member states), who had helped pave the way for her to become the new temporary head of state. The rule dictated to the 135 members of the provisory national council as a precondition for any further support was that no person who had been an active member of a conflict party for the preceding 20 years would have the right to stand for interim president. This dramatically shrunk the number of eligible candidates.

The signs for the new interim president are good. Samba-Panza displayed great resilience as a member of civil society when she headed the national association of women lawyers. Running against eight other candidates, among them Desiré Kolingba, son of former president Andre Kolingba, and Sylvain Patasse, the son of ex-president Ange-Felix Patasse, her role as acting mayor of Bangui provided her with the air of competence necessary to obtain the presidency. Her transitional government of 20 ministers includes seven women.

The appointment of the new prime minister, Andre Nzapayeké, a former vice president of the Central African Development Bank, is an encouraging display of the ambition to form a government of competent technocrats with as little affiliation to warring parties as possible. And so far, Samba-Panza has stood firm by the little she could plausibly announce, careful not to repeat the mistakes of Michael Djotoda and his prime minster Tiangaye – both of whom called for order in a country that was not ultimately under their control.

But remnants of the warring parties remain: she has appointed three representatives of Séléka and one from the anti-balaka militias as appointed ministers. And with no viable security apparatus at hand, this government still depends entirely on foreign support in the face of continuing violence. In early January, former Séléka fighters temporarily occupied the town of Sibut, 90 miles north of Bangui. The town was eventually recaptured by French, and MISCA forces from Gabon, but there are now reports that the forces who attacked it plan to form a new Independence Movement of Northern Central African Republic.

While the establishment of the interim government has given the country an opportunity to move its political process forward, a great deal of practical work remains to be done. In an interview, Nzapayeké acknowledged that violence has become a business in the country and it will take time to address the complexity of the crisis. To deal with it, he called for a “real Marshall Plan” for the CAR.

Elections are planned for next year but, until then, Samba-Panza and her government have real problems in governing, with have no working state institutions to implement their decisions, let alone the means to sustain national policy.

A failed state can only be effectively relaunched under foreign guidance and, unfortunately, France and Chad are the only strong powers in the region. The whole idea of French external support has an odour of neo-colonialism that all sides want to avoid. Chad’s interference, meanwhile, is among the root causes of the CAR’s present weakness.

It is time for the African Union Peace and Security Council to enact article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union and to consider the nomination of an African lead nation to guide a temporary AU mandate over CAR. Cameroon could do the job, if only Paul Biya could overcome his reluctance to accept regional responsibilities. If he does not, the spill over from conflict in the CAR, Nigeria, and potentially Chad will destroy his country too.

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