The Central African Republic is getting a New Year's present of sorts: trained soldiers, the first in what the government hopes will be a rebuilt national army.
It's only 170 men, a small fraction of the number needed to stabilize the crisis-wracked CAR; but, authorities were pleased with what they saw last week, when the troops, after 14 weeks of training from a European Union mission, showed off a hostage rescue simulation, rope climbing and other skills for senior military leaders at a military camp in Bangui.
“Today, I’m satisfied,” said Joseph Yakete, Central African Republic’s minister of defense. “The people of the Central African Republic have seen today the fruit of the work that has been done.”
A divided nation
The CAR has not had a national army since 2013, when rebels overthrew the president and the country descended into widespread violence, much of it between Muslims and Christian militias. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes, with many Muslims fleeing the country.
The European Union Council decided in April 2016 to work to “reform” the CAR's security forces “in order to stabilize the situation in support of the political process."
The 170 troops — who will make up the first company of the CAR's 3rd Infantry Battalion — were the first to complete the EU Training Mission's course. The young men were selected to serve in the army because of their physical health, intellectual capacity and age, according to the CAR's military chief of staff, Brigadier General Cema Ludovic Ngaifei.
European soldiers instructed the trainees in physical fitness, communications, close quarters combat, topography, first aid, weapons training, and other skills necessary for combat.
Without an ability to ensure peace and security, Yakete said, the country will never develop economically.
“It’s our mission to restore and consolidate a climate of peace,” he said. “You must have permanent security to enable the government to regain control of its national territory.”
The government’s forces lack control in much of the countryside with armed groups holding mineral-rich areas and taxing trade along the roads.
More training coming
The EU will start training two more companies in January, allowing the country’s first battalion to be fully operational within a few months. The trainers plan to certify two to three battalions of troops before their mission ends in September 2018.
The Europeans would train more soldiers if they had more time and resources.
“You would like your country to be rebuilt overnight with the snap of a finger,” Major General Eric Hautecloque-Raysz, the EU Training Mission commander, told the media. “Well, the reconstruction of the Central African Republic today requires time and requires patience. This work we are doing, we are trying to build something solid, built on concrete, not sand, so that it lasts.”
A United Nations Security Council arms embargo implemented in late 2013 limits the ability of the Central African Republic soldiers. The government has repeatedly called for the lifting of the embargo so their troops can be operationally effective.
The army is permitted to acquire some weapons, if granted permission by the United Nations’ sanctions committee.
Hautecloque-Raysz told VOA he’s “quite sure” that the certification of these newly-trained Central African Republic soldiers is a “good reason” for the partial lifting of the embargo.
“If the Central African government is requesting the partial lift to equip that corps, it will be done,” he continued.
The French general, however, said the Central African Republic army will likely require donors to actually pay for the new weapons.
At the certification ceremony, Hautecloque-Raysz told the graduating troops that this was a great day for the Central African army and that he took great pride in being part of its professionalization.
The soldiers themselves were looking forward to serving. One of the younger soldiers told the visiting dignitaries that “It’s what we do in the field that matters.” He concluded his speech with shouts of “Long live the EUTM! Long live the Central African Republic army!”