As violence broke out in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), on October 7, the newly minted United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation deployed to the country, MINUSCA, faced its first serious test since taking over from an African Union mission on September 15.
A grenade attack by a presumed fighter from the Seleka, the rebel alliance responsible for the overthrow of former President François Bozizé in March 2013, killed four civilians. The attacker was immediately caught by a mob, lynched, and then burned in the streets; a gruesome sight not uncommon in Bangui in the cycle of violence that has gripped the country since December 2013.
The incidents sparked an outburst of violence not seen in the capital since early April. Anti-balaka militias, formed largely in response to Seleka abuses but themselves perpetrators of deadly revenge violence, particularly against CAR’s Muslim minority, launched attacks throughout Bangui and clashed with armed civilian self-defense forces and peacekeepers alike.
As the situation calmed by October 17, the hospitals of Bangui had received over 225 wounded civilians, and thousands were displaced. The preliminary death toll of 16 civilians is almost certainly higher, particularly as humanitarian access was almost completely restricted in the zones of clashes. Many likely buried their dead themselves.
Two UN peacekeepers also lost their lives in the spate violence. One, a Pakistani officer, died when his vehicle overturned in an ambush. The second, from Burundi, succumbed to malaria because medical evacuation was impossible to arrange. Eighteen UN personnel were also wounded, many of them police units shot as they sat exposed on the back of pick-up trucks; easy targets for anti-balaka ambushes. A Spanish soldier from the roughly 700-strong European Union (EU) military force, EUFOR-RCA, was wounded when his convoy was hit by a grenade.
Despite the casualties, international peacekeepers banded together to repel near-nightly incursions by the anti-balaka into the last remaining enclave of Muslims in the capital. UN troops and police continued their patrols in the tense streets of Bangui, breaking up roadblocks and confronting militias. In truth, the mosaic of international troops deployed in Bangui showed their mettle in protecting civilians—and one another—during the ten days of violence. Without them, much, much worse could have transpired.
The situation likely took the UN, EU, and French forces of Operation Sangaris deployed to the country since December 2013 by surprise. But the underlying factors that drove the violence—a stalled political process and rampant impunity—have been building and coalescing for months.
Political tensions have been mounting since the July 23 Brazzaville peace talks. While a tenuous agreement was struck between the anti-balaka, the Seleka, and representatives of five other armed groups for a cessation of hostilities, plans for disarmament and a political roadmap eluded the parties to the accord.
The transitional government of interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, whose election to the post was marked by hope in January, has struggled to deal with the fallout from Brazzaville. The beleaguered leader has also been embroiled in controversy, including concerns over the appointment of her new prime minister and recent charges of embezzling millions from an Angolan assistance package (aptly called “Angola-gate”).
With Samba-Panza’s leadership in question and public support waning, armed groups took advantage of the outbreak of violence on October 7 and called for her resignation. While the interim president has not flinched, her transitional government is fledgling as it struggles to address the political chaos. Elections, planned initially for February 2015, have been recommended to be moved to later in August, and may need further extension.
The cessation of hostilities agreement—the sole outcome of the Brazzaville talks—has also collapsed. It was largely a hollow ceasefire to begin with, as those signing on behalf of the anti-balaka and Seleka never truly had neither the authority nor legitimacy to do so. Signatories have since rescinded their pledge and clashes between armed groups rage on in an arc of towns and villages that de facto separate the country between east and west. Civilians are often caught in the crossfire or directly targeted in the violence.
Complete impunity for such violence is fueling CAR’s political crisis and emboldening the already-brazen armed groups. The country’s justice system is broken, and despite the promise of a hybrid Special Criminal Court to prosecute the perpetrators, resources have not yet been mobilized to get it up and running. The involvement of the International Criminal Court is welcome, but it is at too preliminary a stage to date to stem systematic and widespread attacks against civilians.
While the UN Security Council has levied sanctions against three individuals, including former President Bozizé, the architects of ongoing atrocities and violence in CAR remain at large. Many of them operate publicly, often interacting with the transitional government and the UN and agitating for a greater political stake. Some have even been awarded ministerial posts in the reshuffled transitional cabinet.
These individuals and the groups they represent are, like many leaders of politico-military groups in CAR before them, holding the country hostage. As the recent violence in Bangui highlighted, the politics of the gun reign supreme in CAR and without robust and proactive disarmament of groups like the anti-balaka, wanton violence will continue to be used both as a tool to advance politico-military and criminal agendas.
The situation is a perplexing one, particularly as the number of international forces deployed to CAR continues to increase with the layout of the UN operation. Combined, there are over 10,000 forces presently stationed in the country, all charged with restoring security and protecting civilians in some capacity.
But absent significant and urgent strides in reviving the political process and ensuring a modicum of accountability, the efforts of the mosaic of troops will ultimately be in vain. And if the driving forces behind CAR’s crisis are left to fester, similar flare-ups of violence like those witnessed in Bangui over those ten days are a near certainty.
Evan Cinq-Mars is a Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.