/ 5 June 2014

Disarmed to the teeth in Bangui

A crowd cheers interim president Catherine Samba-Panza in February.
A crowd cheers interim president Catherine Samba-Panza in February.

There’s election fever in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). It seems as if everybody is declaring themselves a candidate for president. It’s almost hard to believe anyone would want the job. But if precedent is anything to go by, it’s a licence to loot.

The popularity of the current interim administration is to the left of zero. An SMS made the rounds in Bangui earlier this week calling for a general strike if the few remaining Muslims in the city had not been disarmed by Thursday.

The CAR’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, has few of the tools most heads of state rely on to restore order – the army is not allowed to carry guns and her administration has almost no political skills. She doesn’t really have to worry about any kind of protracted general strike – the few people in Bangui who have jobs are too dirt-poor to stay away from work.

The past week has been one of the worst. Just as everyone from the interim prime minister to France’s defence minister was telling the world that an element of calm was returning to the capital, a heavily armed group killed and injured dozens in a church. The next day, in an apparent revenge attack, a mosque was burnt down.

Two days later the city was in lockdown. On national radio Samba-Panza appealed for calm, with promises to speed up the disarmament. And therein lies the problem, on several levels.

Perpetual distrust
Few people take her seriously. Apart from a perpetual distrust of the ruling political class, Bangui residents know that the president has no say in how the disarmament process is carried out. Roughly 9 000 soldiers from a force led by the African Union, a French force and a European Union force are tasked with stabilising Bangui and the country. That includes disarming, a process taking longer than expected.

Speculation is rife over whether the foreign forces are biased in favour of either the predominantly Muslim forces known as Séléka or the predominantly Christian militia groups known as anti-balaka.

Two days of marches organised by various civil society groups called on the AU force to remove the Burundians from the ranks of its mission, known as Misca, claiming that the Burundians were complicit with Séléka supporters in the attack on the Fatima church.

Interim president Catherine Samba-Panza. (Reuters)

It’s a slippery slope if the AU tries to keep everybody on board with its choice of peacekeepers. A few months ago Chad pulled its troops out of the mission, probably before being kicked out.

Evidence of bias was piling up against the Chadians, and, reminiscent of the National Party pulling South Africa out of the Commonwealth before being expelled, President Idriss Déby in N’Djamena told his boys to come home.

Unwelcome light
The latest internal peacekeeping crisis shines an unwelcome light on soldiers from Congo-Brazzaville. Human Rights Watch has documented a number of cases of torture, murder and abduction of locals by the Congolese in areas under their watch. In September the AU forces will change the colour of their helmets and become United Nations peacekeepers.

There aren’t very many Muslims left in Bangui. Most of them are living scared in a small part of the city known as KM-5. There’s no doubt popular opinion in Bangui favours disarming them. Disarming sounds like a good idea if their protection can be guaranteed. The problem is it can’t. There’s always the option of shipping them off to another part of the country, and chances are that’s what will happen.

The disturbing side to that option is the death knell it sounds for any attempt at tolerance and reconciliation. And it’s another blow to any semblance of authority Samba-Panza hoped to exhibit – she’s on record as saying Bangui Muslims should stay in Bangui. I’m not convinced that if Madame la Presidente lived in KM-5 she’d want to follow her own advice.

David L Smith is an expert on the Central African Republic and is on assignment in Bangui for the Institute for Security Studies.