France ended its Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic on October 30, almost three years after its initial deployment. This departure leaves a 13,000-strong United Nations force as the main stabilization effort in the country, operating in an extremely volatile context marked by the resumption of violence and the remobilization of armed groups.
Although planned for several months and not a full disengagement, the French withdrawal from one of the most demanding theaters for peacekeeping comes at a time when France’s leadership of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is reported to be challenged by China. António Guterres is expected to appoint a new leadership team within the first couple months of taking over as UN secretary-general on January 1, 2017. Although France hosted a meeting on Francophone peacekeeping in Paris at the end of October, some see its commitment to peacekeeping as waning due to other priorities, including concerns over terrorist threats on its domestic soil and a pending presidential election.
Presented by France as a success, Sangaris played a critical role in momentarily stabilizing CAR. After dramatic episodes of violence between Christian and Muslim communities and between the anti-Balaka and Séléka armed groups, it operated as a peace enforcement operation, separating factions and enforcing confidence-building measures. Sangaris enabled the return of humanitarian actors and contributed to providing sufficient security for the transitional government to organize presidential and legislative elections. Initially mandated to support the African Union peacekeeping force (MISCA) in CAR, Sangaris also acted as a so-called “bridging operation” for the UN, facilitating the deployment and initial operations of the MINUSCA mission in 2014.
Cooperation between both missions led to noteworthy operational successes, like in Sibut in October 2015, where the advance of ex-Séléka forces towards Bangui was stopped by a coordinated robust action between French and UN troops. While the AU operation provided the peacekeeping framework ready to be transferred to MINUSCA, Sangaris had the added value of a peace enforcement mission authorized to use “all necessary means,” with up to 2,000 troops sufficiently equipped and trained and under national command to deter further violence in CAR. The French operation benefited from considerable credibility in terms of the use of force and represented a precious deterrent, operating alongside the UN mission. Since its attack helicopters inflicted important losses among ex-Séléka ranks in Sibut last year, its presence undoubtedly pushed armed groups away from resuming violence and toward adopting a cooperative and open-to-compromise stance regarding the peace process and international forces.
Sangaris ended as expected after MISCA, followed by MINUSCA, took over stabilization and peacekeeping activities in the country. However, many among the local population, the national government, and international workers in the field have expressed concerns regarding the consequences of the French withdrawal. President of CAR’s National Assembly Abdoul Karim Meckassoua expressed apprehension, while former presidential candidate Anicet George Dologuele saw it as occurring “too early.”
Indeed, the gradual drawdown of French forces coincided with a progressive resurgence of violence throughout the country. After the announcement of Sangaris’ closure in March, ex-Séléka leader Nourredine Adam returned to CAR from exile in Chad and exploited the growing frustrations of armed groups toward President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government. Adam’s push for renewing the Séléka coalition led to discussions between former factions and could eventually lead to a rapprochement around the cause of disenfranchised Muslims in the country. The reunification has not yet been successful, due to divergent economic interests and divisions along ethnic lines, but a lot of armed groups from both the ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka sides have clearly been remobilizing and reinforcing their positions against each other in the past few weeks. The fact that the FPRC faction of the ex-Séléka organized a general assembly in Bria, from where it had been expelled by Sangaris and MINUSCA in February 2015, is significant in that sense.
Alongside this agitation from armed groups disappointed by the peace process, CAR has yet again fallen into turmoil. During the last three weeks of October, several violent incidents indicated a resurgence of ethnically and religiously based violence in different parts of the country. Ex-Séléka conducted a deadly attack in the Evêché internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Kaga Bandoro, killing dozens of civilians and forcing thousands of people to flee and seek protection around the MINUSCA base. In the Bambari area, clashes between ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka intensified and the Ngakobo IDP camp was targeted. In Bangui, violent clashes erupted in the Muslim neighborhood of PK5 and inter-communal tensions between the city’s third and fifth districts seemed to increase. Sangaris’ departure could not come at a less opportune time, and could be the last ingredient needed for a full resumption of the crisis.
France is keeping 250 troops in the country as well as a capacity for rapid intervention thanks to the presence of pre-positioned forces in Gabon and of its Barkhane operation in the wider Sahel region, with its troops mainly based in Mali, Niger, and Chad. Roughly 100 of the troops staying on the ground in CAR are attached to the UN mission, and 60 to the European Union Training Mission (EUTM). There will also be some transfer of French capacities to MINUSCA, including unmanned aerial vehicles expected to be delivered by January.
Nonetheless, the departure of such a robust operation still leaves a gap that is difficult to fill for the remaining security actors. The EUTM is strictly mandated to train the CAR national army, which has extremely reduced capacities and needs tremendous support to start operating properly. MINUSCA members are perceived as more permissive and less likely to use force than the French. In several parts of the country that are de facto controlled by armed groups, these peacekeepers simply do not hold the balance of power and find it difficult to maintain a robust posture. When MINUSCA tried to tip the balance back in its favor in Kaga Bandoro, by dismantling several ex-Séléka checkpoints, it raised tensions dangerously, later escalating to the brutal attack on the IDP camp.
UN peacekeepers generally do not have the same leverage and deterrent influence as members of Sangaris, even if MINUSCA’s mandate provides for the use of “all necessary means,” and adoption of “urgent temporary measures” including the ability to arrest and detain. Resentment against the mission’s peacekeepers has grown in Kaga Bandoro, and the contingent in Bambari has been the target of several anti-Balaka attacks in recent days. Anti-MINUSCA views are also on the rise in the capital, as shown by the violent demonstrations organized against the mission on October 24, which forced all staff to stay on lockdown for two days.
Canada’s potential deployment of its recently pledged 600 UN peacekeepers to CAR (although it may instead opt to deploy alongside other NATO troops in Mali), and the ongoing rollout of a full quick reaction force comprised of Portugal’s elite troops, should tip the balance in MINUSCA’s favor. Yet the UN still has to demonstrate that it can address the peacekeeping challenges in CAR and face the country’s growing instability.
Absent the offensive-ready Sangaris force, MINUSCA may find it more difficult to prevent rebels from spoiling the fragile peace process and to pursue their disarmament and demobilization. Strong incentives will need to be put on the negotiating table, whether for integration into defense and security forces, reintegration into civilian life or political gains. Although President Touadéra had initially resisted any political dialogue with armed groups prior to their disarmament; this prospect may be even less realistic now, and a renewed political engagement with ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka militias will be critical to thwart their armed remobilization.
Namie Di Razza is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.