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CAR Lawlessness Poses Regional Risks

  • Anne Look

FILE - Militias of the Seleka alliance drive past stalls at the central market in Bangui, Central African Republic, in March, 2013.

FILE - Militias of the Seleka alliance drive past stalls at the central market in Bangui, Central African Republic, in March, 2013.

The chaos and the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic have grown steadily worse since the March 24 rebel takeover. France and other world powers say that decisive international intervention is needed to restore order and prevent the crisis from destabilizing the region.

It's been six months since the now-disbanded Seleka rebel coalition seized control of the Central African Republic, and the situation is as chaotic as ever.

Violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, with some fleeing into neighboring countries. Rights groups say Seleka rebels have been attacking and killing civilians since the start of the rebellion last December.

Recent clashes between mostly Muslim ex-rebels and mostly Christian self-defense militias have heightened simmering communal tensions and killed dozens this month alone.

Dire warning

French President Francois Hollande has warned of the "Somalia-zation" of the country. He said the crisis in the CAR could "infect" neighboring countries.

Chadian President Idriss Deby has warned that the CAR could become a safe haven for armed and terrorist groups.

Analysts are more circumspect, but say the situation is serious.

Central Africa Director for the International Crisis Group, Thierry Vircoulon, said "there is no longer any state authority and the Seleka coalition was always very fragile and volatile.

"Even before Seleka was officially disbanded, the coalition barely existed and the different commanders were already increasingly autonomous. We could be heading toward something similar to what happened in Somalia in the early 90s, in which warlords divvied up the country," he said.

The concern is that the CAR, if left alone, will become a sort of security sinkhole smack in the middle of the continent.

The CAR has been plagued by coups, mutinies and rebellions since independence in 1960. Analysts say that insecurity historically has not had much regional or global impact.

Pattern of violence

Roland Marchal, a Central Africa expert with the Sciences Po University in Paris, said that's one reason the CAR doesn't get much attention.

"And now the CAR is faced with this monstrous crisis that is very similar to what we see in eastern Congo, but doesn't have the geopolitical implications that make that crisis so impossible to ignore," he said.

The Lord's Resistance Army has been using the dense bush in the CAR's southeastern corner as a safe haven since the beginning of 2012. Criminal poaching gangs also have been slaughtering the country's elephants.

For now, however, analysts say the immediate regional implications are limited. The main one is rising criminality, in particular road banditry in rural areas, which hurts vital cross-border trade and could even spill over into neighboring countries.

Analysts say the problem is not that the CAR crisis could become regionalized. It's that it is, and always has been, though only in a limited way.

"Seleka drew most of its troops from Chad, Sudan and the northeast corner of the CAR bordering those two countries, an area that has been on the fringe politically and socially from the rest of the country," said Marchal. "There was clear involvement from heads of state in the region who wanted to get rid of Bozize."

Anthropologist Louisa Lombard, who has done extensive field research on armed groups in the CAR, said, "Although it's very difficult to assign nationality in this region, given that people have multiple nationalities and move around a lot. These are people who are living a lot of the time in Chad, for instance, perhaps also in Sudan, and who see carrying arms as a kind of practical occupation. These people were very much involved in the taking over of power in Bangui."

Whether or not the CAR will draw in other armed groups from the region, or these fighters will turn against one of the CAR's neighbors remains unclear.

Analysts say all scenarios are, in theory, possible if nothing is done to restore order and state control.

France and the African Union both are deploying additional troops to the CAR. That pan-African force is expected to grow from 2,100 to 3,500 soldiers by the end the year.