The Central African Republic (CAR) has been much in the news recently as the security situation has collapsed and gone from bad to worse. It was not supposed to be so. In 2008, several key international development players decided to launch a major effort to reform CAR’s security sector. This was billed as the most comprehensive and integrated reform effort ever carried out in the national security environment.
The reforms were acutely necessary. Since 1960, when it became independent from France, CAR had gone from one governmental crisis to the other. More often than not, CAR’s security sector was at the centre of these crises. Through this period, CAR’s security forces have been badly armed and poorly trained. There are stories of men, women, and children having to share the same prison cells. There are also stories of security forces only having four or five bullets in their carabines: was this because the government feared better-armed security forces or was it was because there were simply insufficient resources to pay for more? Your guess. Beyond this, the writ of CAR’s security forces has never extended much beyond the country’s capital, Bangui. The security forces have traditionally failed to be representative of the major ethnic groups and regions of the country. And they have tended to be used like political footballs in the country’s on-again, off-again struggles for power. In CAR, the notion of overseeing the security forces has been a non-starter.
CAR’s crisis reached new heights in early 2013. In March, then President Bozizé, reached a power-sharing agreement for a national union government that would have integrated rebel forces from the largely Muslim north of the country into the national armed forces. A few months later, the rebel forces accused Bozizé of reneging on his promises. They then overwhelmed the capital. President Bozizé fled. Seleka, as the rebel force called itself, installed a new President, who then lost control of the situation. The story now is one of compacting chaos. No one force appears to be on top of the situation in the nation’s capital, let alone outside it. Just the other day, French Foreign Minister Fabius warned of an impending genocide. Basic services to the population were never very good, but now they have deteriorated significantly. As a case in point, Fabius has said there are now only seven surgeons to serve the entire country’s population of around four and a half million. There is talk about systemized rape, swelling ranks of child soldiers – as many as 6000 – summary executions, and the like.
In response, the UN Security Council has authorized France to increase its forces in the country to 1,000, and for the local African force (MISCA) to enhance its contingent to 3,600. This will help but it falls well short of the UN Secretary General’s proposal for a UN peacekeeping force of between 6,000 and 9,000 troops, plus 1,700 police. Notably, as a UN force, these elements would have had substantially more resources at their disposal.
I have a soft spot for CAR. Five years ago, at the beginning of the SSR process, I went to CAR as part of a team assembled by the OECD to roll out its newly minted Handbook on Security Sector Reform. Seconded to UNDP, I stayed on to work together with a group of distinguished officials from all walks of life in CAR to prepare a national conference aiming to forge a countrywide national consensus on how to create a national and regional approach to SSR. Apart from several touching encounters with members of the local population, one of my most memorable moments was with then President Bozizé the day before I completed my mission. I proposed that I return with teams of experts on different dimensions of the security sector and that I train a small team of young lions whom would be able to take the reform process forward in the different ministries. I remember well this scene. The President, nodding his agreement with my proposal, was surrounded by advisors whispering whatevers into his ears. Behind him, there was a large portrait of himself and Nelson Mandela, shaking hands. The message was clear: invest in me, as I can do for CAR what Mandela has done for South Africa. But anyone knowing the situation in CAR would sense a tension in that proposition. Would an investment in an SSR programme in CAR enable it to move in the direction of a more accountable and popularly-supported government? Or would it only allow the rulers of Bangui to better plunder the country’s wealth to their own ends?
Changing things in CAR is a challenge of the first order. The country is large– roughly the size of France and the Benelux countries together—and landlocked. It is poor, with some of the world’s lowest living standards; according to some reports, two-thirds of the population live on one dollar a day. CAR places regularly in the bottom four or five of the over 160 countries assessed annually in the UNDP Development Index. The population is also very young. A census carried out in 2003, to my knowledge the most recent one, pegged over 50% of the population as being less than eighteen. Illiteracy is rampant: a 2005 study had only 40% of the population over fifteen as being able to read.
CAR’s ethnic makeup is, moreover, hugely complex. In the analyses I have seen, experts have identified between 19 and 90 separate entities! While the discrepancy in the numbers begs belief, there is little controversy about the fact that no one group forms a majority. Studies have shown that conflict is more likely to occur in ethnically-fragmented states, an idea for which CAR is a poster child. Increasingly, however, it seems that it is not ethnicity but religious affiliation that is proving to be the key determinant of CAR’s national politics. My guess is that this results from events happening close to or just beyond CAR’s borders. CAR borders several countries and regions where instability, both ethnic and sectarian, are endemic, such as Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Congo, and Africa’s Great Lakes region. This region is one where Muslim and Christian communities, often polarized, overlap. Apparently, rebel groups from the internal Nigerian and Mali conflicts are also now involved in CAR.
As it happened, I did not return to CAR to carry out the mission I had proposed to the President. Would it have made a difference? Hard to say. But the more relevant question is perhaps whether SSR in CAR ever had a chance to be successful. The documents I have read about the efforts undertaken by the EU and UNDP after my departure, and my conversations with people who served in CAR in the period of 2008 -2010 suggest that SSR was never really given a chance in CAR.
Here is a short-list of what went wrong:
First, there was a colossal lack of coordination among the actors who were supposed to carry out SSR in CAR. During my posting in 2008, even the various EU missions that were present in CAR did not want to have much to do with one another.
Second, the people working on behalf of UNDP and the EU tended to be junior, on their first missions to Africa. Moreover, their stays tended to be poorly coordinated and limited to six months in duration. This is perhaps understandable. CAR is a tough place. Walking anywhere is dangerous because of cavernous potholes and endemic street crime. A Caucasian face signals that you have a least $100 in your pocket – a veritable fortune in CAR. All that said, what could a reformer effectively do in six months?
Third, and decisively, once the SSR process appeared to be much more demanding than anticipated by the key donors, they tended to lose interest in comprehensive reform and refocused their efforts in other areas. Thus, in 2010 electoral support displaced SSR as the central focus of assistance from the international community. This had the advantage of requiring a shorter-term, cheaper, and simpler engagement, but it failed to address the underlying dysfunctions afflicting CAR.
What went wrong in CAR was not about local ownership. The locals wanted to make SSR work; it was the international community that flinched when it came to understanding the complexity, costliness, and messiness of the process. In addition, probably both sides failed to realize that SSR is a long-term proposition. It is not the kind of thing that you can effectively do within the confines of an annual budget or even an electoral cycle. It costs money but much less than what it can cost to mount an international security force in an attempt to pacify a out-of control situation, as the international community is now faced with in CAR. And it requires a regional perspective: the condition of a security sector in any one country is intimately related with that in neighbouring jurisdictions. CAR’s crisis has been fed by instability in neighbouring countries, and in turn, the current crisis in CAR threatens to stoke regional tensions.
Africa cannot aspire to lasting peace and prosperity if its centre wallows in poverty and conflict. CAR’s predicament can be attributed to several things: problems with its economy, gender equality, regional integration, and the like. But deep problems within CAR’s security sector have played a major role in the tumult. Unless CAR’s security forces can carry out their mandate to provide protection to the population in a rights-respecting manner, the country will not be able to emerge from its debilitating weaknesses. SSR in CAR requires resources, but beyond that it needs a broad perspective on what has to be done to make a security sector work, and an understanding of how disparate entities should optimally work together.
David Law is an Associate Security Governance Group Senior.