21 January 2014

Central African Republic: EU Cautious in Military Mission

The EU's foreign ministers will combat violence in the Central African Republic with troops and cash. Nearly a million need help. April might see the country turn from crisis to chaos.

For more than a year, the Central African Republic has been on edge. Nearly 900,000 of its citizens have fled the country in fear of violence - and this in a country of 4.6 million. Violent clashes between Muslim rebels and Christian militants have torn through the country, says the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva. Only now is the world waking up to it.

"This has been, for far too long, a forgotten crisis," she said in Brussels on Monday (20.01.2014), adding that it is "forgotten no more." Her words came after a conference to raise funds for the Central African Republic. "Our pledges made, in total, almost half a billion dollars," she said, adding that $200 million is for immediate urgent humanitarian needs, with the other $296 million for stabilization and humanitarian measures, as well as the restoration of basic human services.

"That will contribute to the country being able to come out of this very dramatic situation," she said.

Help from Germany's army

Parallel to the civilian donation conference, the Europe's foreign ministers met in Brussels. There they decided in principle to intervene in the conflict militarily - not to fight, but rather to stabilize the situation and separate the armed groups. France, the country's former colonial power, has had 1,600 soldiers on the ground for four weeks now. The EU wants to send a further 500 to 1,000 troops.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has announced that Germany would participate in the mission via transport units, but that it would not be sending battle-ready soldiers for deployment beyond the capital's airport. Over the next few weeks, the German Ministry of Defense's planning staff will determine exactly what their deployment will look like and when it should begin.

In Mali, 170 German soldiers, together with other troops from Europe, are involved in a training mission. France, too, sent forces to Mali.

The foreign ministers pointed out that the mission has a limited timeframe and is by nature a handover, operating until a promised contingent of 6,000 African Union troops has arrived. The aim is to then swap the EU's mission with a deployment of UN peacekeepers. The EU is currently involved in four active military missions: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mali, Somalia and an anti-pirate mission off the Somali coast. Europe generally, and France specifically, would like to see more assistance from the African side. In December, the EU rejected a proposal that would have financed the French troop deployments to the Central African Republic.

Extreme difficulties

In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, government institutions are few and far between, concluded an internal EU assessment on the country. Ministries are empty. Development resources, as well as goods and aid monies, are therefore very difficult to distribute.

"It is an extremely complicated situation," said Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, who led the meeting of foreign ministers. "And what we find is that, while there might be a state structure left in Bangui, what goes on outside of Bangui, we don't know - or know very little about."

Bildt, also the former prime minister of Sweden, added that the situation is comparable to South Sudan, "where we have states collapsing with massive humanitarian consequences and very, very demanding state-building issues in front of us."

Bildt's demand was for the EU to send its rapid reaction force - the multinational "Battlegroups" - to Africa. Walter Steinmeier of Germany rejected that idea. Battlegroups have never been used since their establishment in 2007. Sweden's foreign minister responded that if the Battlegroups aren't deployable or will never be deployed, one should have to discuss the sense in having them at all. Sweden, it should be mentioned, does not have troops in the EU's rapid reaction force.

Reconciling religions

The UN is pleased at Europe's growing engagement in Africa. Its coordinator for catastrophe relief, Valerie Amos, said after the Brussels donor conference that the Central African Republic must now be helped quickly. Beyond assistance for refugees and for reconstruction, groups must also consider initiating dialogue between the Muslim and Christian factions.

"Reconciliation efforts and stabilizing the relationships between the communities is absolutely central to the response," Amos said. "So there are ongoing discussions with religious leaders. We have seen, on the ground, religious leaders and communities seeking to come together to deal with the way that the violence is escalating out of control."

Relief agencies estimate that roughly 100,000 people are camped out around the Bangui airport, believing the area there to be secure. The UN has placed the Central African Republic crisis high on its list of pressing issues, Amos says. Bangui's former mayor, Catherine Samba-Panza, was elected president of the country on Monday, winning a vote by a national transitional council in parliament amidst more violence in the country.

Ten days earlier, the previous president, a Muslim rebel leader who came to power via a putsch in March 2013, stepped down.

In Brussels, EU Commissioner Georgieva said that the period of relative calm would not hold long. Farmers in the capital must return to their fields before the April rainy period in order to sow their fields for harvest.

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