With Three Leaders In Two Weeks, Can This Country Rebound?

Lawmakers in Central African Republic are preparing to elect a new interim president—their third in about two weeks. Then the hard part begins.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jerome Delay / AP

Christians gather in a makeshift camp for internally displaced people set in the airport in Bangui, on Dec. 13, 2013.

It has been six weeks since Central African Republic plunged into its worst strife in years, with at least 1,000 people killed in tit-for-tat violence that straddled religious lines like never before. A leadership shake-up amid mounting regional and French pressure to restore order may be the first step toward a long rehabilitation.

The former French colony erupted on Dec. 5, months after the Séléka coalition of mainly Muslim rebels overran the capital, Bangui, and installed its leader Michel Djotodia as interim president. Djotodia’s ascension initiated a drawn-out campaign of looting, arson and killing, and prompted retaliatory attacks by armed Christian vigilantes called anti-balaka.

new report by the U.N.’s humanitarian agency labeled the city “relatively calm but unpredictable” despite at least 44 killings since Jan. 10, when Djotodia and Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye resigned at a summit in Chad. Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, head of the National Transitional Council, is in charge until lawmakers choose a new interim president–the country’s third in about two weeks—on Jan. 20.

Chaloka Beyani, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, said the quick timetable would help avoid a vacuum in leadership. “The history of Africa, generally, is once people get in power, it’s difficult to get them out,” he told TIME. Regional security analysts weren’t sure who may be tapped for the job, but said whoever it is will have to look deep into the failed state’s past in order to create a sustainable future. That’s a tall order, considering a senior U.N. official’s warning on Jan. 16 that without a stronger international response, “the seeds are there for a genocide.”

The landlocked nation of 4.6 million people is a product of its complex social environment: half of them are Christian, about 35 percent subscribe to traditional beliefs and 15 percent are Muslim. Although the flare-up in December largely pitted Muslims and Christians against one another, the conflict is not intrinsically religious. Rather, it’s the result of a set of long-standing issues: a critically underdeveloped agricultural sector, ineffective governance, external influences vying for power or natural resources, and five coups.

Now it’s the scene of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. “The warning signs were there since March,” Beyani said. He suggested what the new leader will have to do to begin resolving it: inspire confidence in lawmakers, promote a policy of coexistence, stop reprisal attacks, emphasize disarmament, and build a representative government that can handle fair elections within a year.

Little to none of that can happen without more aid. More than half of the 886,000 people displaced across the country are in Bangui. About 100,000 live in a makeshift camp by the airport, where France‘s troops are based to protect its interests and help restore order; they operate alongside thousands of African peacekeepers. With a lack of food and medicine, poor sanitation and little defense from the heat, the camp is a breeding ground for disease.

The U.S. has little interest beyond humanitarian concerns and making sure the violence doesn’t spill over borders to further destabilize an already vulnerable neighborhood. But providing more resources to meet the basic needs of those affected by the violence is a markedly cheaper and easier investment than trying to promote a political solution. A second operation began this week to transport regional troops into Bangui using American aircraft.

Still, the problems won’t end if and when the displaced return home. Beyani said those who fled will only go back when the country is stable—when the ex-Séléka and anti-balaka are reined in. He admits that could take six months for Bangui, where aid groups are concentrated, and up to three years in the north. With their homes or fields destroyed, their animals dead or gone and a harvest ahead, they need a successful planting season to avoid a food production crisis and jumpstart local economies. The U.N. is looking into a massive development program, he said, aimed at long-term stabilization.

Beyond that, John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Africa lacks a blueprint for conflict resolution and prevention. The Republic might benefit from a personalized playbook, he added, similar in nature to the U.N. trusteeship that earned Namibia a lengthy transition from South Africa before it gained independence in 1990. “Chad is a big player and France is also a big player here,” said Amadou Sy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative. “If those two agree, I think we can do it.”

An anti-balaka spokesman told Reuters ahead of the vote that “we always have our machetes” if the transitional council isn’t overhauled, replacing ex-Séléka with more of his militiamen. Even if that does happen, it may just be a question of how long it will last.