Bangui — Amid an upsurge in attacks on African Union (AU) peacekeepers, the UN special representative in the Central African Republic (CAR) has called on the population and leaders to "get a grip" and not allow blind hatred to destroy the country.
Speaking in the capital Bangui on 27 March, Special Representative Boubacar Gaye told media that "faced with national collapse no one is absolved of responsibility". He reiterated a demand for the anti-balaka militia groups "to cease all their operations ...
"I call on all the armed groups to draw up lists of their requirements and stand ready to answer a call from the authorities for discussions," he said, "and I ask the authorities to organize a political dialogue, which should examine all the causes of instability in the country."
The aim of such a dialogue, Gaye said, should be to find a basis for a firm commitment by all political actors in the CAR.
Clashes in Bangui since 22 March between anti-balaka, other combatants, the African Union mission (MISCA) and the French mission Sangaris have resulted in at least 15 deaths, according to the French news agency AFP.
Since 23 March one MISCA soldier has been killed and at least six others wounded in ambushes, several seriously, the mission reported.
The surge in violence prompted the MISCA commander Gen Jean Marie Michel Mokoko, to condemn the anti-balaka as "enemies of peace in the CAR".
The other main armed group in the CAR, the largely Muslim ex-Seleka, has not been a major actor in the recent violence in Bangui, Gaye said.
MISCA has increasingly been drawn into clashes with the anti-balaka in Bangui as it seeks to protect the residual Muslim population. Burundian MISCA helped Muslims in the city's third arrondissment fight off three concerted attacks by the anti-balaka on 22 March, local Muslims told IRIN.
MISCA has also been called on to remove street barricades erected by armed groups, and to protect the authorities. Rwandan peacekeepers intervened on 25 March after anti-balaka attacked and destroyed the house of the transitional parliament's vice-president.
Clashes between MISCA and the anti-balaka are likely to continue, observers predict.
"This will certainly become more bloody," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch blogged on 26 March.
Challenge for the government
The UN special representative's appeal to the authorities and the population came amid growing concerns about the response by CAR political leaders to the crisis.
Hinting at these concerns, Gaye told the media that "Central Africans need to be at their own country's bedside" alongside the international community.
International observers stress the government's lack of capacity and the extreme challenge it faces to impose its authority, given the widespread insecurity.
They note that a number of anti-balaka leaders believed to be in Bangui have not yet been captured, and that even CAR soldiers who were filmed lynching a suspected Seleka combatant at a parade in early February have not yet been arrested.
But they also suggest the authorities could do more to reach out to the population, particularly in areas of community tension such as the Muslim ghetto in Bangui where residents told IRIN on 23 March they had not been visited by any government ministers since the president's visit on 1 February.
Ministers not visiting the provinces
UN officials have commented that ministers' visits to the provinces have also been rare.
The UN's humanitarian coordinator in CAR, Abdou Dieng, has been visiting high-tension areas in the provinces at least once a week when in-country and told IRIN this month:
"When I talk to administrators I feel or felt there was a lack of support or disconnect between central and local government. The first question I ask them is whether there had been any visits on the ground [by central government]."
He intended to invite one or two ministers to join him on his next trip, he added, as they were limited by their lack of transport capacity.
UN officials say the CAR government has concentrated on the capital for decades and current security and mobility problems could exacerbate this tendency. For example, government employees in the west of the country now have to travel to the capital in person to collect their monthly salaries, owing to provincial bank closures, a journey that could take some of them nearly a week.
And measures to remove fictitious employees from the state payroll could result in many Muslims being struck off the rolls, as employees were given a deadline this week to present themselves to their ministries for registration, but insecurity has meant that Muslims who leave their ghetto to go to the town centre risk being lynched.
Reconciliation and justice
A senior UN official has also suggested that the authorities could be sending more signals on human rights and the need for reconciliation.
During her visit to Bangui on 20 March, UN High Commisssioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she saw "a positive sign" in the live broadcast of a debate about human rights in the parliament, adding:
"There needs to be many more such highly visible efforts by national and local politicians to ram home the message that human rights violations and rampant crime will no longer be tolerated ; that all sectors of society, including minorities, have equal rights; and that reconciliation is vital for everyone if the country is to recover."
Pillay welcomed the government's announcement that it is setting up a reconciliation commission. But first steps towards that goal have been faltering.
International organizations were invited to an official ceremony to launch the national reconciliation process, scheduled for 24 March, but this was cancelled and a smaller gathering of Muslim community leaders and officials was held at the Reconciliation Ministry the next day.
Gaye said the cancellation did not cast doubt on the political will for reconciliation, and all initiatives to this end, "even if they are not altogether coordinated, should be encouraged".
"The government must define a strategy for reconciliation, in which everyone will have their role and which could attract international funding," he added.
A government spokesman, Gaston Mackouzangba, minister in charge of the government secretariat and relations with the institutions, told IRIN that plans for the reconciliation process need to be finalized before a launch ceremony can be held.
"For a project like this, all the authorities, including the president, prime minister, ministries and parliament need to be involved," he explained, adding that the reconciliation process needs to be aligned with the restoration of justice and the fight against impunity.
"The UN has sent a commission of enquiry here to investigate crimes committed since 2012, and the government is setting up its own national commission, composed of political as much as judicial authorities, which needs to work hand in hand with the UN commission."
Asked why it had not been possible to arrest CAR soldiers who were videoed taking part in a lynching, Mackouzangba said in the current chaos the government needs very good information to bring people to justice, although this should not be an excuse for impunity. "We need to act quickly and well," he said.
As for government ministers' visibility in areas of communal tension, Mackouzangba said security in the provinces is even more uncertain than in Bangui and on their last visit to the Muslim quarter on 1 February, with an AU peacekeeper escort, ministers had been insulted and threatened.
New army needed
The key to security, he said, is to set up the nucleus of a republican army not dominated by tribal affiliations.
Just establishing who is in the army at the moment will be a difficult task.
"The previous government enrolled around 5,000 recruits in late 2013," he said, "many of whom were foreign mercenaries, and were not eligible."
Security experts have told IRIN that many if not most of the current army, whose number is put at up to 8,000, are also allied with, or in, the anti-balaka.
Mackouzangba said the government's aim is to have an embryonic republican army of about 2,000 troops within three months. The international community is wary of financing soldiers who may not be neutral in communal conflicts, however.
Special Representative Gaye told the press on 27 March that reconstituting a republican army is one of the major tasks facing the country.
"Everyone knows the difficulties the army faces," he said. "We support the rapid re-establishment of the police and gendarmerie, and the re-establishment of the army in conditions to be discussed."
Donors this week announced further funding of about US$2.5 million for the police and gendarmerie to pay for vehicles for each police commissariat in Bangui. Salaries for government workers, paid for by donors, began to be paid earlier this month.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]