The United Nations Security Council has authorised the expansion of an African military force inside the Central African Republic to counter a rising spiral of sectarian violence.
Against a backdrop of fresh deadly violence in the CAR capital of Bangui, Thursday’s unanimous vote of the 15-member council provides a mandate to the African Union to send thousands of additional military personnel to the CAR for up to 12 months, to augment the 2,500 African Union troops already stationed there. France has said it will bolster its long-standing force of 400 in its former colony with up to 1,200 additional soldiers under the name “Operation Sangaris,” the name of a red butterfly that inhabits Central African forests.
Landlocked in the heart of the continent, the Central African Republic has been beset by violence since March, when a coalition of rebel groups, led by Michel Djotodia under the Séléka banner, drove out President Francois Bozizé.
Djotodia took control of a transitional government, but lost control of Séléka soldiers. He disbanded Séléka in September, but its members continue to loot, rape and murder Christians in particular. Since September, the mostly Christian and Animist local population have formed self-defence groups named Anti-Balaka, which have attacked Muslims, in turn inviting brutal reprisals from Séléka and raising fears of inter-faith genocide.
On Monday, 12 people believed to be Fulani herdsmen were killed in an attack on their camp near the town of Boali, 80 kilometres from the capital, Bangui. The attack, attributed to Anti-Balaka, provoked reprisals from Séléka the next day.
The Security Council resolution instructs Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to begin planning to convert the African multinational force into a full-blown UN peacekeeping operation if the task proves too much for the African Union and French forces to handle alone.
“What is necessary today may not be what is necessary tomorrow,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, after the Security Council vote.
Ban is scheduled to meet Dec. 7 in Paris with CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, French President François Hollande, and others to determine how to implement the resolution.
Early Thursday, reports emerged of heavy gunfire in Bangui, between Muslims and Christians. News reports indicated 80 or more killed, and dozens more injured.
“The Central African state has collapsed,” Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, told reporters after the Security Council vote. Events “are taking and inter-sectaian turn, with violence occurring between Christians and Muslims.” He said the first job of the expanded African Union force will be to restore security.
“The African forces and the French forces are going to re-establish law andorder in Bangui,” he said, then will aim to restore security beyond the capital and bring humanitarian aid to the injured and displaced.
Growing humanitarian concerns
The Catholic compound in the town of Bossangoa in the violent northwest has been transformed into a gigantic refugee camp. On the site, which spreads over four hectares, or about 10 acres, are dozens of tents, one against the other. Nearly 40,000 people, most of them Christians, have sought refuge within the mission, said Fr. Frederick Tomfio.
“I have lived here with my wife and three children for two months”, said a man identified by the name Nasser. “The Sélékas and Muslims have burned our houses. This is what has led all of us to gather here. We are hungry, but we cannot go to our farms because of fear of attacks by Sélékas. Our children are not well, but we do not have medicine. We feel stuck and abandoned.”
Christian and Muslim leaders have joined efforts to stem sectarian violence. On Nov. 27, following a three-day visit to Bossangoa, Nicolas Guérékoyamé, President of the Alliance of Evangelical Churches in Central Africa, and Umar Koubin Layama, President of the Islamic Community in Central Africa, called for cohesion.
“In a conflict situation like this one, we should not act in a hurry,” Guérékoyamé said. “We must be patient, hoping that through dialogue members of the two communities will eventually accept each other. If Christian and Muslim leaders were able to shake hands and pray together, we believe that cohesion will return, step by step”.
Layama agreed: “The aim of our presence is to raise awareness among religious leaders in Bossangoa, whether they are imams, pastors or priests, so that they can work in harmony, following the example of the platform-leaders (Guérékoyamé, Layama, and Mgr. Dieudonné Nzapalinga) who travel together each time problems arise between our communities,” he said. “We do not want to leave politics to exploit religion, as the outcome will be very dangerous, with serious consequences.”