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AfricaSource August 14, 2018

CAR’s changing security landscape: a catalyst for UN policy change?

By Andrew Carroll

Amid strong pressure from the Trump Administration, the United Nations (UN) voted at the end of June to cut over $600 million from its peacekeeping budget. The majority of these cuts are set to come from key operations in Sub-Saharan Africa, including the UN’s mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), known by its French acronym MINUSCA, which was originally authorized in April 2014.

While CAR’s military, the Forces Armées Centrafricains, or FACA, is retrained by a European Union (EU) force known as EUTM RCA, MINUSCA acts as CAR’s primary guarantor of security in a country overrun by competing rebel groups.  Unfortunately, these cuts could not come at a worse time. Faced with increasing religious violence, the mission has come under critical strain in recent months according to UN Special Representative Parfait Onanga-Anyanga. 

Despite impending budget shortfalls, MINUSCA, along with EUTM RCA, still remains the best hope for restoring peace, order, and state control in CAR. The alternative of continued conflict and unrest, increasingly offered by Russia, will likely perpetuate cycles of exploitation and violence that have plagued CAR since its independence from France in 1960. To retain influence and trust, MINUSCA and the European community are in dire need of a new strategy to deter violence and bolster security capabilities to protect civilians.       

CAR’s current status as arguably one of the world’s most-forgotten crises has roots in its history. After France colonized the country in the 1890s, private companies were offered concessions to quickly exploit CAR’s mineral resources for profit. Independence did little to change CAR for the better.  Since 1960, the country has seen no less than five military coups and long suffered under brutal dictators, many of whom kept up the same exploitative practices to fund lavish lifestyles and ceremonies. At the same time, the largely underequipped and underfunded FACA was left unchecked to commit gross violations against CAR citizens while the country’s Muslim minority population, concentrated in its mineral-rich northeast, was increasingly marginalized by Bangui.           

Persistent cycles of exploitation and violence thus created the conditions for CAR’s current crisis in 2013. That year, Muslim-dominated rebel groups from northeastern CAR, collectively known as the Séléka, seized the capital of Bangui and ousted President François Bozizé. While the uprising was initially based on political disputes, the conflict soon took on religious and sectarian undertones. Without effective leadership, Séléka fighters looted and committed atrocities, often targeting the majority Christian population. As Christian militias known as the Anti-Balaka formed in response, the country descended into civil war with both sides taking advantage of internal mineral trade profits to commit atrocities against civilians. 

Rather than see another humanitarian catastrophe on the scale of Rwanda, France and the African Union (AU) led separate UN-authorized military interventions to stabilize CAR’s fragile security situation. By July 2014, they were largely successful, with leaders of the Séléka and Anti-Balaka agreeing to a tentative ceasefire. However, a hastily-assembled interim government under the leadership of Catherine Samba-Panza remained ineffective and unable to project power outside of Bangui without international assistance. As if to underscore CAR’s sorry state of affairs, some former military officers were even able to gain ministerial appointments after forming their own rebel movements against Samba-Panza’s transitional government. 

On top of these challenges, AU and French forces were plagued by allegations of human rights and sexual abuse, damaging their credibility with the very civilians they were deployed to protect. 

When the UN assumed peacekeeping responsibilities from the AU in 2014, some positives were seen. Peacekeepers undoubtedly helped save lives during an outbreak of violence in Bangui in September 2015. Additionally, much to the surprise of outside observers, UN troops helped see peaceful elections held in December 2016. 

MINUSCA, however, has not been without setbacks. Blue helmets have been accused of sexual abuse, bias in favor of Muslim rebel groups, and failing to adequately protect civilians. The withdrawal of French forces in 2016 has undoubtedly left the mission overextended. MINUSCA today has fewer peacekeepers than were once deployed to Liberia to execute a similar mandate, yet is responsible for a territory over five times as large. Meanwhile, armed groups currently control over 80 percent of CAR’s territory while government power remains concentrated practically only in Bangui.    

MINUSCA’s struggles are a microcosm of CAR’s history of foreign interventions. Since 1997 CAR has hosted nearly a dozen military missions, even being named the world champion of peacekeeping by AFP in 2014. A common theme in the country’s various interventions has been a focus on short-term goals for exit and avoiding over-commitment. France’s recent Operation Sangaris is emblematic of this trend, with the mission being named after a short-lifespan African butterfly to symbolize the temporary nature of Paris’ involvement. Naming conventions aside, such a myopic focus in military operations leads to inaction among peacekeeping troops and persists with MINUSCA today. 

Nevertheless, MINUSCA and EUTM RCA are the best option for helping CAR reassert state authority and improving its security sector. The mere presence of combat-ready peacekeepers has been repeatedly shown to better-protect civilian lives, with interventions often reducing both the intensity and duration of conflicts. Moreover, EUTM RCA’s training program has seen FACA elements slowly redeployed to help bolster UN forces in key areas of CAR.

But regardless of the positives MINUSCA and EUTM RCA bring to CAR, both require a more robust character in order to regain credibility and better-protect CAR’s civilians. In the absence of serious doctrinal change, countries with questionable intentions and human rights records like Russia are stepping in to fill the security void. Although CAR’s government has been willing to accept any and all foreign support, Russia’s goal of trading security, arms, and military training for mineral exploitation rights will only see CAR again become plagued by cycles of violence and exploitation. Likewise, as armed groups threaten CAR’s ongoing justice and peace process, Russian engagement with rebel groups to share mining revenue will only see peace delayed and violence against civilians continue.

Drawing upon lessons learned from past peace operations in Africa, MINUSCA must employ a robust doctrine and force posture to rebuild credibility. Given the importance of minerals in fueling violence throughout CAR’s history, MINUSCA can best achieve desired political effects on the ground by targeting armed groups’ control of mineral mines and illicit trade. While the UN has previously attempted to sanction the trade of CAR’s minerals, these efforts have largely been unsuccessful. Armed groups still derive a large profit from the internal mineral trade.  From just one mine, rebels have been able to control the production of over 2,500 grams of gold per day. Through patrolling and policing major mining sites, MINUSCA can chip away at CAR’s war economy, handicapping the capacity of militants to hurt civilians. 

Employing MINUSCA’s blue helmets in this fashion would not be without precedent. MINUSCA forces have used attack helicopters to disperse militia fighters outside of Bambari to preemptively stop attacks against civilians in the past. Such an action would also adhere to recommendations that UN forces should not shy away from tactical offensive operations to put potential spoilers to political peace processes on notice.

However, as recent fighting around Bambari and Bangui has shown, MINUSCA cannot yet go it alone and still requires the support of international partners. In this regard, the extension of EUTM RCA’s mandate is positive as it shows CAR’s internal security is still of interest to Europe. By utilizing the leverage gained from the extension of EUTM’s mandate, combined with recent EU commitments to bolster African security in Mali, MINUSCA and EUTM RCA can push for new, much-needed support. This should include a request for much-needed strategic airlift, resupply, and aeromedical evacuation support that could be coordinated by the European Air Transport Command to assist in the deployment and sustained operations of peacekeepers outside of Bangui.

Of course, MINUSCA cannot rely solely on the hope of EU assistance, nor the UN to grant a broader offensive mandate. The European community has differing priorities, and expanded peacekeeping mandates are politically contentious and face many hurdles in being approved. 

What MINUSCA can do in the interim, however, is focus on generating new capabilities using key, well-equipped contingents to coerce spoilers to CAR’s peace process to cease illicit activities and harming civilians. MINUSCA can, and must, maintain faithful to the core tenets of peacekeeping while acting decisively and persuasively to address the growing threat of actors actively looking to undermine peace and disarmament efforts in CAR. Absent reforms in doctrine, strategy, and force-multiplying capabilities, CAR’s troubling history of violence and manipulation could be set to continue, only this time under the banners of competing militant groups and Russia.

Andrew Carroll is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Image: A Cameroonian United Nations peacekeeping soldier guards women fleeing the village of Zike as they arrive in the village of Bambara, Central African Republic, April 25, 2017. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)