Following the overthrow of President François Bozizé earlier this year, the Central African Republic is facing a severe humanitarian crisis with no end in sight.
Over a third of the population of the Central African Republic is in 'dire need of assistance', the UN Security Council has been warned. Rebellions, indiscriminate killings and a refugee crisis have combined to form one of the worst situations in the country's already turbulent history.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that 227,000 people are internally displaced, with over 60,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. A further 1.6 million people, or a staggering 36% of the total population of 4.6 million, are now classed as 'vulnerable'. Half of them are children.
In December 2012, an alliance of rebel forces, collectives referred to as Seleka, the Sango word for alliance, mounted the most aggressive campaign the country had seen for years. Despite a truce in January and the formation of a unity government, the peace unravelled within weeks. In March, Seleka forces stormed the Presidential Palace, forcing then-president François Bozizé to flee. He was replaced by Seleka leader Michel Djotodia.
The transition government has been accused of carrying out human rights abuses with impunity. According to Daniel Bekele, Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, "Seleka leaders promised a new beginning for the people of the Central African Republic, but instead have carried out large-scale attacks on civilians, looting, and murder...the CAR truly is a forgotten human rights and humanitarian crisis."
Human Rights Watch exposes crimes
A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) - entitled "I Can Still Smell the Dead" - reveals that, although the CAR has had a far from peaceful history since independence in 1960, the recent spate of fighting has been extraordinarily vicious even by Central African standards.
The report, published on September 16, describes the complete disregard for the rule of law and human rights demonstrated by the Seleka alliance in power. The document also details the "deliberate killing of civilians" by armed men supposedly loyal to the rebel group.
According to HRW, the "deliberate destruction of more than 1000 homes", both in the capital Bangui and the provinces, has displaced thousands of people. In the north-east of the country the destruction has been particularly fierce with groups of men claiming to be loyal to Seleka attacking and destroying at least 34 villages between February and June 2013. The report accuses the transitional government of "failing to follow through on its public commitment to bring to justice those responsible for recent abuses."
HRW has also highlighted the need for urgent humanitarian action in the country. Aid has been slow in coming, hampered even further by recent heavy rains and floods, which according to the UNHCR have affected approximately 30,000 people, rendering roads and dirt tracks impassable. Although the UN has started distributing fresh drinking water and aid to a number of villages in the north, there are doubts as to how effective this can be in countering the growing humanitarian crisis.
CAR: the 'non-state'
The state collapse has taken its toll on the CAR. The treasury's coffers are empty. The transitional government has had to resort to paying public employees with money borrowed from Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). Teachers are currently on strike and although the new term is due to begin next month, it seems unlikely that schools will open their doors to pupils. Chadian and Cameroonian mercenaries, who aided Djotodia's March victory, are demanding to be paid and in the meantime are taking matters into their own hands.
Many analysts are pessimistic about a future with Seleka in power. "It's a complete disaster," says Martin Plaut, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Plaut points out that the CAR is now a country where "law and order stops outside the presidential palace". And CAR's prime minister agrees. Nicolas Tiangaye recently called the country "anarchy, a non-state".
Limping to Bangui
Overshadowed by conflicts in the Middle East, little attention has been paid to the scale of the humanitarian disaster in the CAR. That said, France, the former colonial power, no longer seems able to ignore the growing horror on the ground. It maintains a foothold in the CAR, with 450 troops based at Bangui airport and has intervened militarily in the CAR once before, in 1979. Given the recent enthusiasm in Paris for intervention in Libya and Mali, some are expecting France to step in. French president François Hollande has expressed his desire to avoid the 'Somalisation' of the CAR, but the Élysée has so far shown little enthusiasm to put French troops in the firing line, preferring a regional force.
So far, the French government seems keen on working to alleviate the chaos in the CAR by proxy. Hollande has been clear that any intervention by France would be of a limited scope in terms of military action. "This is not the same operation as in Mali. France would not intervene directly. We would provide logistical support and training," he said.
But some moves are now being made. Hollande called a mini-summit last Thursday in Bamako, the Malian capital, with the heads of state of Gabon, Cameroon and Chad to discuss the possibility of mobilising "3,500 African men under an African mandate to stabilize the country". This would bolster the MICOPAX (Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic), the African Union force already in the CAR. Hollande has, however, stated that the troops involved would not come from Paris or the French contingent already stationed in country.