Conflicts in small countries are often made worse by international indifference. In the case of the Central African Republic (CAR), however, the problem is a little different. There is a substantial international presence in the country, but the main actors are adopting a wait-and-see attitude rather than pro-actively engaging with the crisis.
Meanwhile, the country is rapidly falling apart. Public services no longer exist; the formal economy has collapsed; child soldiers have reappeared; journalists live in fear; relations between Christians and Muslims have turned violent; and the country may be on the brink of a humanitarian crisis at a time when even aid workers are under threat.
As a meeting on the CAR takes place in New York this week on the sidelines of the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, the international community must consider an over-arching reality: if the CAR goes under, the already fragile stability of the whole region will be gravely at risk.
If the CAR is not to collapse entirely, its friends need to pull together and use a little imagination to find the right solutions, and soon. The short-term challenge is to establish enough basic security to enable credible elections. The long-term challenge is to rebuild the state.
The crisis in the republic has a long history. Failed democracy in the 1990s, bad governance during the first ten years of the 21st century and a habit of governing by force led to the present violence and lawlessness. In 2007, the International Crisis Group referred to CAR as a phantom state. Today, even the country's rulers agree that their state apparatus is in danger of disappearing. Transitional president Michel Djotodia recognises that the Seleka rebels who staged the March 2013 coup ousting President Francois Bozizé, which resulted in Djotodia coming to power, are themselves a source of insecurity.
International involvement in the CAR includes a significant foreign troop presence. In addition:
- The UN Integrated Office for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic (BINUCA) has been active since 2010.
- The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has maintained a peacekeeping force since 2008.
- France has had an almost continuous military presence in CAR since the country gained independence in 1960, and it deployed 400 soldiers at the start of the current crisis to secure the airport.
- Finally, in eastern CAR the Ugandan army and American military advisors have tracked (so far unsuccessfully) the chief of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court, since 2011.
All this foreign involvement has failed to prevent the recent coup or stabilize its aftermath. BINUCA has not been able to implement a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration program, and it failed to convince Bozizé's regime to reform the security sector or consolidate the peace. ECCAS has been unable to restore order in one of the smallest capitals of Africa, and troop-contributing countries have proved unable to deliver the 600 extra soldiers they committed to provide in April. Paradoxically, France, while securing Bangui's airport, is also hosting ousted president Bozizé, who declared from exile in Paris his wish to retake power by force with the "support" of private actors.
To make matters worse, a recent decision to try to deploy a mission led by the African Union (AU) seemed a good idea, but in reality its establishment remains contingent on funding from the European Union, logistical support from the United Nations and political acceptance by ECCAS.
The deterioration in the country is happening much faster than the "mobilisation" of international organisations, beset as they are by petty disputes over leadership and financing. This slow and clumsy international response could have major consequences not only in the CAR but for Cameroon's eastern border and potentially for other neighboring countries.
Past failures and the current violence require the country's regional and international partners to show the imagination and commitment to achieve better coordination. International interventions must be based on quick and effective partnerships and a sound division of labor, where capacity goes with responsibility.
The French force in Bangui should restore security even as the country waits for the arrival of an AU led-mission and as plans are made to deploy African forces led by ECCAS to other major cities, especially in the west where violence and serious human rights abuses recently occurred.
Such a division of labor between France and ECCAS should provide the security necessary to enable the transitional authorities and donors to launch a demobilisation program and kick-start security reforms in order to put CAR's own security forces back to work and prevent them from joining an emerging counter-rebellion in the west. (The International Crisis Group's last report (Central African Republic: priorities of the transition) details the political and financial support needed to pursue demobilisation and security sector reform in the CAR.)
A window of opportunity to avoid what French president François Hollande has called the possible "Somalisation" of the Central African Republic will close rapidly if an accelerated security response is not put in place. With their troops already on the ground, ECCAS and France need to act decisively.
Thierry Vircoulon is the Central Africa project director of the International Crisis Group.