Reacting to a quickly deteriorating situation in the Central African Republic, France has airlifted more than 1,000 troops plus armored vehicles and helicopters to Bangui in the span of just three days.
These soldiers reinforced a contingent of 450 French soldiers that held the capital’s international airport during several months of unrest and are mandated by the United Nations to secure the city and the most important routes into the landlocked country.
Paris rushed the deployment after rival militias turned Bangui into a battlefield over the last few days, killing at least 300 people. The Red Cross is expecting dozens more dead to be found in coming days.
Now French soldiers have begun to confront armed groups in the city, killing several unidentified men Friday night. On Saturday, the town was considerably more quiet as a result, with residents coming out of their houses for the first time in days.
Religious violence worsens
The latest outbreak of fighting seems to be motivated religiously, with Christian militias targeting Muslim neighbourhoods in Bangui and vice versa. After the mainly Muslim rebel group Séléka dethroned authoritarian president François Bozizé, a Christian, early this year, many observers warned that the conflict was taking on more and more religious overtones. The U.N. even went as far as warning that a genocide might be imminent.
Now France seems to have brought Bangui under control, but this will have little impact on the rural parts of the country, where the largest part of the population lives and from where reports of similar massacres have reached international media and aid organizations.
Paris has emphasized that it will not deploy many more troops and instead will focus its activities on the capital, securing routes necessary to import humanitarian aid into the country. Bringing peace to the rest of Central African Republic will be the responsibility of the African Union, which already has several thousand troops stationed in and around Bangui and plans to deploy thousands more.
But African troops were unable to prevent the coup against Bozizé, the following slide into chaos and the latest massacre in Bangui. How long it will take to deploy additional troops—which may or may not make a difference—is currently unclear.
The French government for its part praises its troops for delivering quick results, but earlier dragged its feet as long as had been diplomatically possible. Paris has little appetite for extended interventions at the moment and takes responsibility only in extreme situations, as in Mali last year.
On the one hand, this is a refreshing change from the frequent meddling in African affairs that France has practiced since the end of colonization. On the other hand, this attitude has cost hundreds of peoples their lives in recent months.
African quick reaction force
Spurred by the current crisis in Central African Republic, African heads of states gathered in Paris for a summit on African security, renewing plans for a continental quick reaction force.
The idea was hatched by the African Union years ago and would make regional organizations like the East African Community or the South African Development Community responsible for providing several hundred to a thousand troops on a few days’ notice. But many countries have dragged their feet on the plan, wary of the costs and potential diplomatic complications.
Now the plan has been revived, with France promising to provide equipment and logistical support for the force and also vowing to lobby the European Union to cover the costs. According to French Pres. François Hollande, the quick reaction force should be operational by 2015.
But having a force like this on standby will mean little if Africa and the international community continue to handle crises like they are doing in Central African Republic. Neither the rebellion of Séléka nor the continuing chaos came as much of a surprise to analysts and locals. But the reaction of those countries and organizations with a responsibility and the capability to act, like France and the African Union, was slow and overly cautious.
While Africa has made huge progress in recent years in terms of stability and peace, there are still enough crisis-prone countries that the continent needs a robust political framework to handle events like this. So far, civil wars, rebellions and coups d’état are managed on an ad hoc basis and while this works in some rare cases, mostly it just leads to unnecessary death and suffering.