The conflict in the Central African Republic features the northern-based Séléka rebels, who are a union of five rebel groups (Séléka means "union" in Sango), among them the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), with some reported jihadist elements. They’ve all opposed the central government for years, seizing the capital city of Bangui in March with 5,000 troops and ousting President Francois Bozizé, who is accused by rebels of crimes against humanity during his reign.
Michel Djotodia, who was a leader of the Séléka rebel coalition, declared himself president after the rebel coup. Djotodia is a Muslim governing over a majority Christian population and has lost control over Séléka rebel groups now inciting Christians and Muslims against each other. To make matters worse, there’s mounting evidence those same rebels have been responsible for war crimes, among other atrocities.
There haven't been any impassioned pleas by celebrities yet, and Obama hasn't sent a tokenistic group of marines to save the day. But other organisations have been busy documenting atrocities and actually helping refugees — most notably Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who have set up in the embattled northern town of Bossangoa to help fleeing citizens.
Tarak Bach Baouab, Humanitarian Affairs Advisor for MSF, recently visited the CAR and says the situation is dangerously unstable. "The main problem is that the fighting has specifically targeted civilians," he said in an emailed statement. "Whereas rural populations had been used to being displaced in the bush because of fighting through the previous so-called ‘Bush War’ [from 2004 to 2007], the latest cycle of violence has been different in that it has increasingly taken on a religious undertone. Civilians are therefore now hiding to avoid being killed for who [and] what they are instead of just avoiding fighting between different rebel groups and the government."
In Bossangoa alone, Bach Baouab says 35,000 displaced people are living on a Catholic missionary compound, "scared stiff" of leaving. Mostly Christians, they’re afraid of retribution and targeted killings by rival Muslim groups. Likewise, Muslims also fear revenge attacks by Christian militias. "People are abandoning their villages, which often end up being burned by both parties to the conflict and are terrified by tit-for-tat killings," Baouab said.
MSF have documented treating individuals with gunshot and machete wounds, hearing firsthand accounts of targeted sectarian executions and witnessing burned villages and "appalling scenes of murder". If you’re looking for historical parallels to those images, refer to the Rwandan Genocide or the recent killings in Sudan by Janjaweed death squads, both instances where Western powers sat back and watched.
The French Army, which has engaged in at least three military campaigns in Africa in three years — Libya, Mali, and Ivory Coast — has its footprints in CAR. Although Francois Hollande ruled out propping up African regimes on the French public’s euros, his intervention in Mali helped reinvent modern French power in the region. Yet recent reports say the French are poised to increase those numbers to between 750 and 1,200 troops.
In the summer, Hollande even bandied about terms to his allies that were similar to when he lobbied them to help fight Malian rebels in 2012, saying the CAR risked "Somalization" from militant jihadists looking for a home base. And that theory isn't entirely implausible, given the reports of jihadist militants (like Sudanese Janjaweed fighters) crossing into CAR, and fears that the Nigerian al Qaeda affiliates Boko Haram have a clear corridor to enter CAR from neighboring Cameroon.
There’s no denying the increasing Western interest in African conflict zones, either: the US recently deployed predator drones in nearby Niger, with an eye to the Sahels. For France, the gaze toward the old colonial playground isn’t anything new; they have key economic interests in Africa and in countries surrounding the CAR, which is especially interesting when you consider that China is encroaching on their traditional turf. It’s worth noting that, before the coup in March, Bozizé had signed significant mining deals with firms from China and South Africa, only for them to be immediately reviewed by Djotodia following the coup — conveniently at the same time he asked for military support from France.
Some military sources I spoke to said that judging the intentions of the French Army in the CAR is impossible as they tend to keep most of their operations self-contained from allies to avoid international criticism. Other sources said the colonial mentality within their military still exists. For example, among French troops the term "crocos" is often used to describe black soldiers.
As it stands, alongside current and future French troop contributions, the African Union is poised to deploy a total of 3,600 soldiers to the CAR, adding to the 1,100 who are already in the country. However, that mission likely won’t be operational until 2014, meaning besides the various rebel entities and militias wielding machetes and guns, citizens must rely on the 200 police officers nationwide to keep the peace.
In the end, it’s a sad script we’ve all seen before when it comes to Western intervention in Africa: France wonders how to salvage colonial influence as the rest of the international community plays spectator to genocide.