The Central African Republic (CAR) descended into violence in March 2013, when Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize’s weak authoritarian regime. After seizing power, the Seleka engaged in large-scale abuses, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Initially, the Seleka started as a political movement against President Bozize but since then it has shifted its character to that of a sectarian confrontation drawn along religious lines.
The anti-Balaka (comprising of Christians) was created in response to the Seleka (rebels comprising of Muslims), with the aim of protecting the Christian community at all costs. Both sides are responsible for large scale killings, which have thrust the country into a downward spiral of pain and repression.
The crisis has multiple dimensions. NGOs are dealing with a worsening humanitarian crisis, underfunding and a high risk of being attacked. The situation has reversed any development seen in the CAR and regionally the crisis has put a severe strain on neighbouring countries. There is also an important misconception regarding the crisis, which has to be clarified.
The forgotten crisis in the Central African Republic
This political instability has created a power vacuum allowing the violence to escalate. With a failed government in place, the conflict in the Central African Republic has been able to enter its fourth year. NGOs on the ground such as MSF, are finding it very difficult to operate under such circumstances. NGOs are having to deal with chronic underfunding, constant attacks on aid workers from the anti-Balaka and Seleka rebel forces, attacks on NGO infrastructure and a worsening humanitarian situation. The crisis has left an entire population in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The CAR has a population of 4.8 million with 2.5 million in need of aid. As a result, there are 481,000 CAR refugees and 503,600 internally displaced civilians. The humanitarian consequence of the crisis means 1 in 2 Central Africans depend on aid to survive. NGOs are therefore essential in providing a lifeline for civilians during the violent conflict.
UNDERFUNDING IS ONE OF MANY OBSTACLES NGOs FACE
During the crisis, underfunding is at the extent where half way through this year only 25% of the required funding has been achieved. Underfunding has severe consequences for the population in need. Humanitarians are left with no choice but to reduce or shut down operations. Food rations have been halved and humanitarian flight services, essential for delivering aid in inaccessible areas, risk cut backs. This was the case in 2016 when the World Food Programme was only able to provide aid for 400,000 out of nearly 1 million people. The World Food Programme has also been forced to halve the amount of food provided to civilians. In November and December, school meal distributions were only able to cover 15 days instead of the intended 18.
A HISTORY OF ATTACKS AGAINST NGOs
Since the beginning of the crisis, rebels have had a history of attacking NGO workers and infrastructure. The rebels intentionally attack NGOs in order to deliberately deprive the population of essential goods. The senseless targeting of NGOs allows rebel groups to demonstrate the extent of their power. NGOs generally operate in guaranteed areas of safety. By repeatedly targeting these organisations and their infrastructure, the rebels are looking to remove these neutral spaces in order to divide them across religious lines. From an outsiders perspective it appears as the rebels are defining the conflict in binary terms, Muslim v Christian, right v wrong, white v black, they are looking to extinguish the grey zone that international NGOs have been operating in.
In April 2013 the Seleka arrived in Bouar, in the Western region of Central African Republic, looting hospitals and preventing access to medical care by commandeering hospitals. The looting of expensive supplies in conjunction with underfunding removes any chance of NGOs being able to repurchase these life-saving supplies. These supplies include drugs to help those suffering from aids, tuberculosis, malaria. Consequently, humanitarians have had to restrict the scale of their operations, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians who may no longer receive aid in a perilous position.
The table below lists a few of some of the attacks against NGOs.
|February 2014||Boda (Lobaye)||Anti- Balaka||A team from an international NGO was forced to stop the distribution of non-food items in the town of Boda (Lobaye) to Muslim IDPs due to threats made by anti- Balaka militias.|
|May 2014||Haut-Mbomou||Various||An international NGO truck was travelling from Bangui to Zemio, was subject to harassment and attacks by armed men along its route. In Bangui, four motorcycles and income generating kits were stolen by the anti-Balaka elements. At Sibut, more of the income generating kit disappeared. In Alindoa, the truck was held for two days by former Seleka who half- emptied the entire truck of its content before releasing it.|
|June 2014||Haut- Mbomou||Others||An international NGO base in Mboki was been completely looted. A crowd of the inhabitants of Mboki, pillaged a truck that was loading equipment at the international NGO base. After completely emptying the truck, they moved onwards into the base and emptied the entire compound. Amongst the things that were looted were computers, printers, documents, cash, satellite phones and many other items.|
|July 2014||Ouham||Unknown||On 18 July 2014, in Bossangoa, a convoy of trucks (hired by the United Nations and an international NGO) transporting humanitarian supplies was attacked and looted on the road from Bangui to Bossangoa.
|January- March 2015||Damara (Ombella M’Poko)||Unknown||At least five attacks against World Food Programme trucks or convoys were reported on the same road near Damara (Ombella M’Poko).|
In all attacks against humanitarian relief goods, the most common method of attack was directed against vehicles transporting food from December 2013-2014.The Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic identified 123 cases of looting of humanitarian relief goods. The conditions in which humanitarians work under, in 2014 reached the top five contexts with the greatest number of attacks on aid workers. When the rebels are not attacking NGOs or their infrastructure, humanitarian workers are restricted in their movements by the authorities or other armed militias, as was the case in 2015.
In the first five months of 2017, there have been 123 incidents regarding NGOs. 30 took place in January, 25 in February, 16 in March, 26 in April and 26 in May. The type of incidents varies from assaults, robbery, arrest, intimidation, abduction, direct fire and other acts. This led to 1 fatality and 13 injuries. The severity of attacks led to 4 international aid agencies having to temporarily suspend their operation in the Northern Central African Republic. In the country’s Ouham region, aid workers have been attacked on 16 occasions since March, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declared. The aid agencies: Solidarities International, Intersos, Danish Church Aid and Person in Need Relief Mission withdrew their staff to the capital, Bangui, while other aid agencies have decided to scale back to focus only on life-saving operations, according to OCHA. Aid agencies withdrew their staff to Bangui, as this is the only place with where the government is able to exert the smallest amount of power.
THE UNDOING OF CAR’S DEVELOPMENT
The violent conflict has already undone any progress in development that the CAR was making. This can be proven through the use of development indicators. Prior to the crisis, youth literacy rate between the ages of 15-24 between in 2005-2011 was 65%. The net inflow of foreign direct investment in 2011 was $109 million, highlighting the interest from foreign investors in the natural resource rich nation. Many investors were able to see economic potential of the nation, despite political instability. Net official development assistance was 12.4% of GNI. However, the CAR is an underdeveloped state which is underperforming on several development indicators. For example, the primary school completion rate in 2011 was 43%. This indicator reflects the coverage of a state’s education system and the educational attainment of students. In addition, 62.8% of the population lived on $1.25 a day in 2008 and the labour force participation rate was 79%.
The crisis has halted any possible development the state could have made. Indiscriminate targeting of NGOs is undoing any progress made to reduce the scale of the humanitarian crisis. Currently, CAR ranks 185th out of 187 nations in the UN human development index. Any hopes for development is contingent on the country’s ability to overcome the effects of several decades of violent conflict. Developing economic confidence amidst political instability to levels prior to the crisis will certainly be a challenge.
RELIGION IS NOT THE CAUSE
The biggest misconception regarding the crisis is the belief that the conflict is drawn along religious lines. It would be wrong to assume and reduce the violence in CAR to just religion. Since independence from the French in the 1960s, both Christians and Muslims co-existed peacefully. Rather, the conflict is a dangerous combination of the effects of poverty, disagreement over the ownership of land regarding natural resources and political anger. Religion has just merely been used as a distinguishing factor in the violence. Despite this being the case, the religious divide has contributed towards irreparable hostility between Christians and Muslims. Many civilians believe the conflict can only be resolved by separating the state to accommodate Muslims and Christians separately. The suggestion of such a radical solution to the crisis has undoubtedly been inspired by South Sudan’s independence in 2011. To Central Africans, such a solution would only formalise an informal partition. The conflict has resulted in all Muslims moving to the North, as it was too dangerous to live in the South, where Christians have a stronghold. Actors in the Central African region such as the United Nations, the African Union and France see this to be unsuitable. Firstly, the Muslim population in the Central African Republic is a sizeable minority, making up 15% before the crisis. Since the crisis, it is now believed the number is significantly smaller. Independence for Central Africans in the North would be economically devastating. Most of the country’s natural resources are located in the south.
REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE CRISIS
Regionally, the crisis has had a ripple effect on neighbouring countries. The crisis has meant 481, 256 refugees have fled to Chad, Cameroon, Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Neighbouring countries are also experiencing the effects of underfunding, despite being proposed millions in funding. Cameroon only received $117million, Chad received 15% of $527million in funds, DRC 19% of $832 million and the Republic of Congo received 10% of $14 million. The degree of underfunding is extremely severe, affecting the extent to which NGOs are able to provide CAR refugees with humanitarian services to welcome them and integrate them into new countries. Although these countries have willingly accepted CAR refugees, each nation has its own domestic issues. For example, Chad is already hosting refugees fleeing from Northern Nigeria. As Chad is in the coalition with Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria to fight against Boko Haram. The DRC has started to have an outbreak of violence, with some worried that this may be the start of violence similar to the 1990s. The country is politically static, with the state being completely divided. Lastly, in Cameroon, the English speaking regions of the state are experiencing opposition to discrimination against Anglophones. Across the Central African region, instability and violence is rife. Therefore, CAR refugees are moving to neighbouring countries not for complete refuge, but to one which is less dangerous than their own.
The silence on the crisis in the Central African Republic is truly worrying. This conflict tops the ‘world’s most neglected’ crises. NGOs are the only active actors in the CAR that are preventing the conflict from worsening. They are also the most forgotten. In order to continue providing a lifeline for Central Africans, they work under constant attack. They are the unrecognised heroes in the conflict.
Nadjah Osman is a contributing writer for PGW with a specific interest in the civil war in the Central African Republic.
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