"The situation in the Central African Republic has changed drastically … there's been a grave deterioration of the human rights situation since last year … civilians are increasingly involved in violence, in an environment marked by fear, hatred and total immunity."
These are harsh and worrying words from United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon in his report this week on the Central African Republic (CAR).
Barely a day goes by without the discovery of a mass grave or attacks between heavily armed Muslim and Christian groups. Added to this is the persistent fear of partition – Muslims, primarily belonging to the Seleka rebels who took power in a military coup last year threaten to split off the north and eastern parts of the country.
The UN Security Council is expected to make a decision later this month on whether the African Union-led mission, Misca, should become a full-blown UN peacekeeping operation. Ban is recommending the deployment of 10 000 blue-helmeted soldiers and nearly 2 000 police officers. He says it is urgent. In UN terms, that means six months from now at the earliest, but more likely, if approved, somewhere in the region of nine.
Currently, Misca has nearly 6 000 pairs of boots on the ground. The French have increased their troop numbers to 2 000, and the first of up to a thousand soldiers of a European Union force, Eufor, should start arriving in the next few weeks. The stated hope is that the country will be secure enough to hold elections sometime around mid-February next year.
But the UN report says that elections should not be a destabilising force – "the fragility of the current political framework … has been identified as a major risk for any future peacekeeping operation". In other words, expectations that any new crop of politicians is likely to be an improvement on decades of bad governance are low.
Not much more than a shell
The UN admits in this report that it cannot fix the CAR on its own. The country is not much more than a shell, surrounded by other fragile states. There is almost no aspect of the country that doesn’t need building – infrastructure, schools, clinics, a civil service and a security force.
Healing the deep but still relatively fresh wound between Christians and Muslims has to be a priority, and any expanded mission will take this into account with a robust public information programme that has reconciliation and dialogue as a core aspect.
But long before Seleka was created, there have been armed rebel groups in the CAR. The conditions that created them are still there. Added to this, armed bandits from neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Sudan will continue to steal livestock and crops and terrorise travellers far from Bangui where the rule of law has rarely if ever been applied.
The man who should have been independent CAR's first president, Barthélemy Boganda, tried hard to keep the pre-independence federation of French Equatorial Africa together. What became Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Chad and the CAR was one colonial unit. Boganda recognised that a dismantling of the federation would create four new and significantly weaker countries.
He died in a plane crash only months before independence, having failed to convince either his peers or the French to keep the federation intact.
Since then, there has not been a single leader in the CAR who has devoted his mandate to developing the entire country. A list of previous presidents is a who's who of bad governance. Between them they have staged military coups, banned opposition, curtailed freedom of expression, ordered the army to fire on students, stolen vast amounts of public money for personal use, declared themselves presidents for life and, most significantly, ignored the people they were supposed to represent.
The CAR of today has changed very little since independence. Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has an almost impossible job. She has less than a year to attempt to stabilise the country, get humanitarian assistance to the millions who need it and start building an administration to run what is currently a shell of a country.
New thinking is needed and Ban’s report seems to recognise this.
Some form of peacekeeping operation has been on the ground for most of the past two decades, including a full-blown UN mission. There should be a long-term commitment to stay with Samba-Panza as long as it takes to build an administration that can run the entire country, and not just Bangui – along the lines of what has been done in places such as Kosovo, Bosnia and East Timor, where administrators were brought in to pass their skills on to locals.
A transitional administration should also include a sort of Marshall Plan, involving the building of roads, perhaps a railway to the border with Cameroon and an extension of the electricity grid beyond Bangui and the very few other places that are connected.
The time needed for such an effort, not to mention the financial commitment, is daunting. The UN has never attempted such an operation in Africa.
But whatever the international community decides to do, it is likely that another conventional peacekeeping mission will have to return to the CAR in a few years if it doesn’t come up with a new plan now.