The current conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) is only the latest expression of an uninterrupted series of military, political, and humanitarian crises that have plagued that country since 1997. In that time, 13 regional and international peacekeeping operations have been organized to quell violence and restore stability. They have been conducted by individual states, such as France; ad hoc coalitions; and regional and international organizations, including the African Union (AU), the Economic Community for Central African States (ECCAS), the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), and the UN. None of these patchwork interventions provided a sustainable solution to the crisis.
The recent escalation of violence in CAR has offered another occasion for peacekeeping. But the upcoming mission, to be led by the UN, seems fated to repeat mistakes of its predecessors. Financial resources and troop numbers appear insufficient; it is questionable whether the mandate will be suited to address the root causes of the violence; and key stakeholders continue to assert their particular interests even when they conflict with the communal mission.
The history of CAR over the past 20 years is linked to a dizzying number of acronyms. Mission Interafricaine de Surveillance des Accords de Bangui (MISAB) was organized in 1997, following a series of military mutinies. Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, and Mali, prompted by France -- which has had an almost uninterrupted military presence in CAR since its independence in 1960 -- established MISAB to help restore peace and security and to disarm the former mutineers. MISAB comprised some 800 troops; France supported the operation logistically and financially, and, after an escalation of violence in June 1997, it also had troops temporarily join the mission.
But because of the financial burden, Paris soon began to insist that the UN share the peacekeeping task. That plea resulted in the 1,350-troop Mission des Nations Unies en République Centrafricaine (MINURCA), which was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1159 in March 1998. In 2000, after CAR managed to hold two peaceful elections, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan replaced MINURCA with the UN Peace-Building Support Office in the Central African Republic (BONUCA), which was composed entirely of civilians.
But security in CAR remained fragile. In May 2001, another coup was launched. It could be defeated only with the support of external forces, including the militia of Congolese rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba and Libyan troops, which were loaned to CAR through a bilateral agreement. In early 2002, Sudan and Djibouti each sent 50 troops of their own to CAR to reinforce 100 Libyan troops already there. Under France’s initiative, the Force Multinationale en Centrafrique (FOMUC) was created in October 2002. Placed under the auspices of CEMAC, it comprised some 380 troops from Chad, Congo, and Gabon, with France providing logistical support.
In March 2003, in the presence of FOMUC troops that were tasked with protecting the CAR government, CAR President Ange-Félix Patassé was overthrown by a coup d’état led by François Bozizé, who became president. After the coup, CAR's crisis only deepened. Large portions of the country, especially in the north, remained out of the central government's control and fell under the sway of various armed groups and rebel movements. By 2008, the government and major rebel groups signed a comprehensive peace agreement, but it only brought temporary calm. In July of that year, FOMUC was replaced by the Mission de Consolidation de la Paix en Centrafrique (MICOPAX), in which ECCAS took the lead. The operation comprised some 500 soldiers and 150 police officers, with contingents provided by Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo. As with FOMUC, the EU gave the operation financial support and France provided technical and logistical support.
Despite MICOPAX’s presence, the Séléka, a coalition of predominantly Muslim rebel movements, consolidated in 2012 and, led by Michel Djotodia, advanced toward Bangui, CAR’s capital, later that year. In March 2013, Djotodia overthrew Bozizé, plunging the country still deeper into violence. In mid-April 2013, MICOPAX and ECCAS requested assistance from the AU, essentially paving the way for an AU takeover of the operation. And so, on July 19, the Mission Internationale de Soutien à la Centrafrique Sous Conduite Africaine (MISCA) was born under AU leadership.
The transformation from MICOPAX to MISCA proved protracted, and during the transition phase the situation in CAR began to spiral out of control, as Séléka and the so-called anti-Balaka, local militia groups comprising mostly vengeful youngsters, confronted one another violently. The death toll rose to 2,000 (by conservative estimates), the number of refugees swelled to over 400,000, and half of the country’s population was in need of basic assistance. The UN and France began warning of the possibility of genocide, which temporarily focused the attention of international media.
At this point, France decided to step into the fray. Authorized by the UN Security Council, it initiated Opération Sangaris in order to support MISCA. At first, it sent 1,600 troops, chiefly to Bangui, and the AU, prodded by France and some African states, increased its troop levels from 3,500 to 6,000. Under international and regional pressure, Djotodia stepped down as president and Bangui’s mayor, Catherine Samba-Panza, was selected as the country's interim president. Despite her pleas for the disarmament of the Séléka and the anti-Balaka, fighting has continued unabated.
On an operational level, AU troops were working well with their French counterparts. However, MISCA was weakened in April when the Chadian government suddenly withdrew its 833 troops following accusations of waging an unprovoked attack on a crowded market in Bangui on March 29 that left about 30 people dead. This did not spell the immediate demise of MISCA, but it did not survive for much longer. Under pressure from France, the UN Security Council established the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA). The operation is scheduled to take over from MISCA on September 15 with some 10,000 military and 1,800 police personnel. The EU has also launched a peacekeeping mission, EUFOR CAR, for some nine months with around 700 troops from Estonia, France, Georgia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, tasked with stabilizing the capital city.
GO BIG OR GO HOME
To date, none of the operations in CAR have managed to bring long-term stability, let alone peace. Unless MINUSCA addresses some of the underlying problems that hampered previous peacekeeping operations, it risks being condemned to repeat past failures.
One fundamental shortcoming of all previous operations has been that their size and scale were insufficient to the task. Over the past 20 years, the number of foreign troops in CAR has never exceeded 5,300 troops; Afghanistan, a country roughly the same size, has hosted up to 130,000 international troops. FOMUC and MICOPAX, which never had more than 700 troops, found themselves regularly outnumbered by rebel movements that comprised thousands of combatants. Although the UN intends on deploying some 10,000 troops beginning in September, that is still likely to be insufficient to ensure stability.
More critical than the size of the operation is its mandate. Previous operations focused on short-term stabilization -- restoring order by halting rebellions, fighting, and criminal activities. But they have not addressed the root causes underlying the conflict. As long as peacekeepers ignore the political and social conflicts in CAR -- including political marginalization, corruption, poverty, and mismanagement --- a durable peace will be impossible to achieve.
Another problem is the interference of particular interests. Chad's involvement, for instance, has largely been motivated by its own political interests and regional ambitions. Up until the Chadian withdrawal, its President Idriss Déby used the crisis in CAR to strengthen Chad’s position in the region. The Republic of the Congo has similar aspirations. And France still tries to influence and control politics in its former colony. The UN mandate explicitly states that the protection of civilians is the peacekeepers’ first task, but the previous operations deployed in CAR have shown that this goal was often subordinated to the pursuit of national prestige, or particular political, economic, or strategic interests. Even so, the UN has little choice but to work with states willing to deploy troops. Given the reluctance of most countries to get involved in CAR at all, the UN is mostly obliged to accept the help of anyone offering it.
Previous peacekeeping operations have never sufficiently addressed the regional dimension of the conflict (apart from the EUFOR mission to Chad and CAR organized by the European Union in 2008 and a subsequent UN mission, established to tackle the refugee problem from Darfur). CAR's porous borders with Chad, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, and other neighbors have allowed the uncontrolled flow of small arms into the country. They have also allowed armed groups to recruit new members across borders. Séléka, for instance, was easily able to recruit foreign combatants, mainly of Sudanese and Chadian origin. Addressing this regional dynamic would require a transnational approach to peacekeeping, with a focus on stronger and broader security cooperation of Central African states, including the involvement of non-state actors.
It is too early to predict exactly what will happen when the UN takes over on September 15. The prospects for success depend upon a variety of factors. With French support at the outset and a commitment by the United States to provide airlifting and some training, the UN mission can bring a certain measure of temporary security to CAR. But, given the limited international interest in the CAR crisis -- especially amid the ongoing crises in Ukraine and the Middle East -- the UN will probably face difficulties in finding sufficient well-equipped troops. Moreover, given past experience, the UN is likely to transition from a peacekeeping mission to a civilian operation as soon as possible. If this happens, there is some risk that CAR will plunge back into a state of crisis. In the absence of a lasting peace negotiated and approved by regional powers and domestic antagonists, including the marginalized Muslim community, insurgents will find it easy to launch new attacks.
It is also likely that France will soon start searching for an exit strategy. France's military is already overstretched, and it has become politically and financially difficult for Paris to commit to a long-term intervention in CAR. At the same time, France’s primary strategic concern at the moment is instability in the Sahel zone, and Mali in particular. France's interest in CAR, by contrast, mostly involves securing its economic interests there. France’s withdrawal would nonetheless be catastrophic results for the international peacekeeping operations in CAR. The absence of well-trained French soldiers and first-class military equipment would weaken the peacekeeping operation dramatically and likely lead to an upsurge in violence.
The challenges of the CAR crisis are tremendous, and there are no easy solutions. But that is no excuse for not trying to learn from past mistakes. In the absence of peace and stability in CAR, the entire region will continue to face the risk of spillovers. In central Africa, conflicts can very easily jump borders. (One need only consider that U.S. troops and Ugandan special forces are currently hunting Joseph Kony, a Ugandan rebel leader accused of massive human rights violations, in eastern CAR.) The situation will improve only if the international community commits to a regional approach and an operation designed to stabilize CAR, protect its citizens, and provide the foundation for the socioeconomic development of this otherwise resource-rich country. Unfortunately, such an operation does not seem to be in CAR's immediate future.