By Sophie Desvignes
On Feb. 14, the French government announced a deployment of 400 additional soldiers to the Central African Republic (CAR). This will increase the number of French troops deployed in Bangui, the capital of CAR, to 2,000 soldiers. France launched the intervention, known as ‘Operation Sangaris,’ on Dec. 5, expecting it to only last six months. But two months later, the government has acknowledged the increasing difficulties of the French and African joint-military forces (comprised of central African countries, including Chad, Congo, Cameroon and Gabon) face in handling the situation. Since the intervention, political divisions have evolved into religious tensions, and the country is now facing an emerging war between Christians and Muslims, arousing fears of genocide.
The French Minister of Defense, Jean Yves Le Drian, declared that the French commitment to the war in CAR would be “longer than expected because the level of hatred and violence is more important than what we thought.” The government explained that its decision followed the call of U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon for an international mobilization and the deployment of a European military coalition. Germany and United Kingdom already asserted that they will not provide military support; however, African and French soldiers may be joined by Estonian and Georgian armies.
Previously, the French government asserted that its military intervention was aimed at “ceasing massacres, preventing war crimes and restoring the security of population.” But with the death of two French soldiers on Dec. 9 and the implosion of CAR, France has now realized that this goal cannot be achieved unilaterally. Thus, it is now asking for the intervention of the United Nations and the deployment of the European Rapid Operational Force.
This call for international support was motivated by increasing violence between the Christian militia Anti Balaka and the ex-members of Seleka—the rebel group that overturned President François Bozizé and brought Michel Djotodia to power in March. The current situation is hard to understand without a quick flashback on the growing political tensions that have affected the country for the past two years.
Formerly a French colony, CAR was granted independence in 1960. Since then, the country has been ruled by a succession of dictatorial regimes. These regimes have proved unable to ensure economic growth and social development for its population, despite the country’s vast natural resources. In 2003, François Bozizé came to power through a coup. The opposition immediately organized into two main parties: The Union of Democratic Forces for Gathering (UDFR) and the Convention of Patriots for the Justice and Peace (CPJP). When Bozizé was reelected in 2011 (through a fraudulent election), the government and the opposition signed a peace agreement.
However, this agreement did not unite the people of CAR, and, in August 2012, dissenting factions gave birth to Seleka. Religious concerns allied with political ambitions for Seleka, an Islamic group in a country where 80 percent of the population is Christian. In order to express its disapproval of the Bozizé regime, Seleka sought to spread its movement and ideas throughout the country using violence.
Before the situation spun out of control, however, President François Bozizé signed a peace agreement with Seleka and created a national unity government, including members of the opposition. When the government disregarded this agreement, Seleka reverted to rebellious, armed action that eventually overthrew the Bozizé government and brought Michel Djotodia to power. Soon after he came to office, Djotodia dissolved Seleka. Most of the ex-rebels, however, refused to surrender. This further aroused anger and hatred of Seleka among the Christian majority, who began associating all Muslims with Seleka. Consequently, Christians have used Anti-balaka to exact revenge on their Muslim persecutors. On Dec. 5, the Anti-Balaka militia took control of Bangui, leading to the French intervention.
About 2,000 Africans have died since the beginning of the conflict, and nearly a million of people have been dislocated. Most of the Muslims fled to neighboring countries such as Cameroon and Chad. A significant portion of the population has sought shelter in the forest to avoid being massacred by the militias.
President Djotodia was forced to resign on Jan. 10 because of his inability to manage the civil war. Hope now rests with Catherine Samba-Panza, the first female president of the CAR, elected by the National Council of Transition. Welcoming the French Minister of Defense on Feb. 12, Samba-Panza asserted that members of Anti-Balaka “are criminals and have to be treated as so.”
Decapitated bodies, murders and robberies are now part of the daily life of Central Africans. Meanwhile, France and the United Nations fear a genocide akin to the one that devastated Rwanda in 1994. Whereas the international community witnessed the Rwanda genocide without taking action, there is a will to avoid the same mistake in CAR. Along with the protection and safety of the population, the aim of the intervention is also to prevent the conflict from spreading to neighboring countries, which are already experiencing regional conflicts (such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo). France also fears that terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram, could take advantage of the situation to settle in the country.
If no additional international support is provided, there is no doubt that the current French military intervention will be extended. However, when considering such aggressive action, policymakers must not forget that political stability and social progress rarely come with military solutions. A year ago, France launched the ‘Operation Serval’ in Mali for similar reasons that motivated the intervention in CAR. But in both cases, a military answer has only brought about domestic escalations of violence. The current crisis in Mali and CAR are the result of several decades of corruption, authoritarian rule and ethnic rivalries. Instead of ignoring these issues and waiting until conflict arises, France should support a long run political reform.
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