Central African Republic teeters on Somalia-style chaos, as the country has been hindered by five coups and several rebellions since independence in 1960.
The already inflamed situation in the Central African Republic intensified on Christmas Day, after fierce fighting left six peacekeepers from neighboring Chad dead in the capital, according to various reports.
In the last 48 hours, the violence in Bangui, the country’s decaying capital, also left bodies reportedly strewn about the streets, according to Reuters. The Chadian soldiers were deployed with the African Union peacekeeping mission in the country. Chad, though a troop contributor to the mission, has been blamed for not doing more to stop rebels from its territory from committing atrocities in the Central African Republic.
Red Cross workers said on Thursday they had recovered 44 bodies, according to a Reuters interview with Georgios Georgantas, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s delegation, who said, “Violence has been at extremely high levels. We have information about more bodies in certain parts of town which we have been unable to access because the fighting was so intense.”
Although French troops are also deployed alongside the AU troops at strategic locations such as the airport, which is close to where some of the fighting took place Christmas Day, they are having a difficult time countering the Seleka rebels who are swapping attacks with self-defense styled Christian militias.
According to Agence France-Press, Chadian troops with the AU mission, known as MISCA, will be deployed to the Muslim north to quell unrest in that part of the country.
With neighboring South Sudan spinning out of control in the last week as well, the world is watching to see if the region is going to boil over in dueling ethnic and religious contexts. Central African Republic is teetering on Somalia-style disorder. Rich in resources like gold, uranium, diamonds, timber and some oil, the country has been hindered by five coups and several rebellions since independence from France in 1960 – most of the instability centering around who controls the riches.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was in Bangui last week trying to broker a resolution to the situation, but the fighting has only intensified since her departure. Colonel Gilles Jaron, spokesman for the French military, said France has between 1,000 and 1,200 men posted in Bangui, with remaining troops scattered throughout the interior of the country.
Tens of thousands of Christians have taken refuge at the Bangui airport, constructing makeshift camps underneath airplane wings and in the open. A displaced woman interviewed by Voice of America woman said she’d been at the airport for two weeks.
“There is nothing for us. They know we are in the midsts of bandits. We asked them to bring in [humanitarian aid], but they refused. We haven’t seen anything,” she said.
Can the persistent and increasing violence be stopped?
Disarming the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seems unlikely. And asking the Christian militias, known as anti-Balaka, to do the same is also unlikely. Both sides have committed revenge killings that keep the dubious brutality marching forward, as civilians get caught in the middle.
The Muslim minority have been largely marginalized in the country’s history, until last March when Muslim President Michel Djotodia seized control with the help of the Seleka, ousting President François Bozizé, who is now in South Africa.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is drafting plans for a possible U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country. According to a piece in The Washington Post on Thursday, the U.N.’s emergency response office said that some 639,000 people out of a population of 4.5 million are displaced, and altogether 2 million people need humanitarian aid.
Hundreds have died already this month with tens of thousands of people being displaced across the country. Many experts believe it will be difficult to get to a “normal” setting prior to the most recent chapter in Central African Republic’s politically-inspired violence.
The seeds of distrust are now deep, having been sewn by Bozizé and others before him, but analysts say he took it to another level, according to an article in The New York Times on Monday.
“Bozizé started to turn the people against Muslims,” an imam said. “He said the Seleka were Arabs, that they would come to enforce Islam and change your schools into Quranic schools. He told the people, ‘Take up your knives and axes and machetes,’ and he identified Muslim neighborhoods by name. So the spirit was created.”
After something is so ingrained in a culture over time, it’s tough to turn things around. Just look at Rwanda. But there, they’ve been able to move forward from ethnic divisions.
Whether foreign troops can help reign in the violence will be key to any potential for stability in the country. If a U.N. force is deployed, it could help. Until then, France and the troops working under the banner of the AU have to collectively keep their finger in the hole of the dike.