The best option to settle the CAR crisis?

The deteriorating situation in the CAR undermines the African Union’s collective security system.

New militias have emerged that oppose Seleka and its ruling government [Reuters]

The crisis in Central African Republic (CAR) is certainly one of the major peace and security issues Africa faces in 2013. In the fighting that broke out in March 2013 between Seleka, a coalition of armed opposition groups formed in late 2012, and the forces of Francois Bozize’s government, Seleka overthrew the president and seized CAR’s capital Bangui. Subsequently, Michel Djotodia, the leader of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, part of Seleka, declared himself president of the country.

Not unexpectedly, Seleka’s victory over Bozize’s government did not usher in an era of stability for CAR. Instead, it inaugurated a new period of insecurity characterised by the collapse of state authority, the triumph of violent armed groups, widespread violation of human rights and displacement of civilians.

Already weak, security and governance institutions disintegrated following lootings and destruction of most of the administrative, police and judicial infrastructure of the country. Seleka’s leadership that supposedly assumed power failed to have effective control over the various armed forces that formed it. Thus, despite the declaration of its dissolution by the president on September 13, the group continues to pillage and kill.

Apart from the total breakdown of law and order, fighting between various armed forces has come to affect many parts of the country. The risk of further militarisation of the crisis has also been on the rise with the emergence of militias opposed to Seleka. In addition to the pressure that spillover of the crisis may create on regional peace and security as well as undermine the ongoing operation against Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The participation of a significant number of fighters from Chad and Darfur in Seleka’s rebellion means that there is a high risk of cross-border movement of armed groups, as well as small arms in the region.

Despite the AU’s sanction and demand for member states to “isolate” the Seleka leadership, Mr Djotodia was welcomed to, among others, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Widespread violation of human rights, increasingly taking religious dimension, has raised fears of genocide. The head of the UN Office in CAR told the UN Security Council in May that “indiscriminate and often targeted killings, rampant rapes and assaults on the innocent population, flagrant recruitment of children as soldiers, looting of homes, not just of the rich but even of already struggling citizens” has become widespread. The anarchy in the country involving pervasive human rights violations and fighting has created one of the largest humanitarian crises in Africa, with over 400,000 people forced to seek refuge both within and outside the country.

A preventable disaster

Seleka’s rebellion started in March 2013, only two months after the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) hastily facilitated in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, the signing of a fragile ceasefire and peace agreement that marked the end of the first round of its earlier revolt in December 2012.

While Bozize’s government understandably assumes much of the blame for it, the failure of the January 2013 Libreville agreement and the resumption of the rebellion is for sure a major fault of the security framework of the ECCAS region, which is part of the larger continental peace and security architecture anchored on the Protocol Relating to the Establishing of the Peace and Security Council of the AU.

In the first place, the January 2013 Libreville agreement was the result of negotiations among the heads of regional states, rather than the warring parties themselves. As such, its failure not only reflects the weakness of, but also directly implicates the regional leadership. The upshot of this is that the leaders of the countries of the region, particularly Idris Debie of Chad, might have deliberately allowed the agreement to fail in a move to teach Bozize a lesson. For Chadian President Idris Debi, it is an exercise continuing the role Chad played in previous coups in CAR and forms part of his political calculus of ensuring the emergence of a friendly, stable government to the south that will not, willingly or unwillingly, provide sanctuary for Chadian insurgent groups.

Second, as many in Addis Ababa’s Headquarters of the AU believe, the second Seleka rebellion could not have succeeded without the full knowledge of ECCAS members and the permission (by omission) of the ECCAS peacekeeping force in CAR, known by its French acronym MICOPAX (Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in CAR). Unlike the first rebellion in December 2012, when MICOPAX forces stopped the rebel advance in Damara, about 75 km from Bangui, during the second rebellion MICOPAX forces turned their backwhen Seleka crossed Damara to capture Bangui. Although a senior official of ECCAS peacekeeping force justified the inaction of the troops on lack of mandate to act unless attacked, MICOPAX was reinforced with additional troops and mandated to protect Bangui after the first rebellion in December 2012. Clearly, had it not been for the chosen inaction of MICOPAX forces, Seleka could have been stopped and the current anarchy prevented.

Clearly, the nature and design of the peace and security response of ECCAS to the situation in CAR bears at least part of the blame (on account of both its inaction and complicity) for the disaster that CAR has become. This has exposed one of the major flaws of AU’s collective security architecture that assigns a major role for regional bodies with no clearly agreed division of labour.      

Enter the AU

Initially, the major weakness of the African Union happened to be its “hands-off” approach. The AU appeared contented with ECCAS countries taking the lead and responsibility in addressing the crisis in CAR. Its role in the January 2013 Libreville agreement was limited. It also assumed no meaningful role as a guarantor of the agreement.

Here, as in Mali, Africa’s collective security system proved incapable of mobilising the effective responses it marshalled for stabilising Somalia.

In an attempt to pick up the pieces, after the Seleka rebels seized Bangui and Mr Djotodia declared himself president of CAR, the Peace and Security Council of the AU (PSC) suspended CAR from its AU membership and imposed sanctions including travel bans and asset freeze on the Seleka leadership. After conducting an assessment mission to CAR, the PSC additionally decided to launch the African-led International Support Mission to CAR (AFISM-CAR) taking over from MICPOPAX.

Dependent for enforcing its decisions on the cooperation of member states, particularly those constituting the responsible sub-regional organisation, the AU’s efforts were frustrated. With AU failing to reign over ECCAS (after taking over the CAR file) and implement its plan for stabilising CAR, a security vacuum has been created allowing the crisis to continue to fester, with serious humanitarian and security consequences.

Despite the AU’s sanction and demand for member states to ‘isolate’ the Seleka leadership, Mr Djotodia was welcomed to, among others, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea when he undertook visits to ECCAS and other francophone countries in violation of AU’s travel ban. Additionally, the operationalization of AFISM-CAR was also derailed. Apart from acute shortage of funding and logistical supplies (which implicates others in the international community including the UN), divergence with ECCAS resulted in a protracted negotiation between AU and the countries of the region, hence slowing the process.   

Here, as in Mali, Africa’s collective security system proved incapable of mobilising the effective responses it marshalled for stabilising Somalia. This experience, as well as the similar debacle in Mali, has brought Africa’s ten years of experiment with its own mechanism for peace and security to a crossroad. This is clearly the time for a major overhaul and it is up to the major countries of the continent (such as South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, etc) to rise to the occasion and take the “bull by the horn”.  

In the meantime, given the unlikely possibility of a full UN takeover of the mission in CAR in the short term, the best option is a UN Security Council resolution, expected to be adopted this month, providing critical support for fast tracking AFISM-CAR’s deployment and hence stopping the situation from further deterioration.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African affairs who regularly writes on African and African Union affairs, is a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa.