Foreign Policy Blogs

Will It Work This Time?

CAR phto 2 Ivan Lieman AFP Getty Images

This is something rare. Knowledge of a rapidly deteriorating situation in Africa and a somewhat timely, actual action by those in the world with the power to intervene.

The situation is in the Central African Republic. And that intervening is the first step to stabilizing the slaughter and – hopefully – stopping another genocide from occurring. It does not solve the problem but for the moment mitigates the horror.  That is progress.

The juxtaposition in Africa is clear.  As Nelson Mandela is laid to rest, conciliation seems to be vanishing across Africa.

France moved fast, perhaps strengthened by the semi-positive experience in Mail earlier this year in routing the Islamists and bringing some order to that nation. Similar dynamics are in the CAR, where sizzling fault lines are stoked by radical Islamic opportunists.

This it the same pattern of so-called “little wars” of the post-Cold War period. This December marks 18 years since a peace agreement ended the fighting in Bosnia, the birthplace of the term “ethnic cleansing.” That was a war where opportunists blew apart small religious and cultural fault lines to convince many they were “different” from each other — and the slaughter was underway.

This December also marks 20 years since the reporting from Burundi, which at the time became Africa’s bloodiest conflict. Again, the lines were clear between two ethnic groups, the same ones exploded later in Rwanda. The situation is far from calm in Burundi today.

The United States is assisting France, helping transport African Union soldiers into Bangui, the capital of the CAR, from Burundi.  This week they airlifted a second contingent. France initially  deployed about 1,600 troops to the CAR, another of its former colonies, and more are on the way.

The violence in the CAR erupted in March when President Francois Bozize was ousted by a Muslin rebel group under the nom de guerre of Seleka. The Seleka rebels installed Michel Djotodia — the Central African Republic’s first Muslim leader — in place of Bozize and made Christians their targets, leading to the creation of rival militia.

Fighting has grown increasingly bloody as Djotodia lost control of the troops that helped deliver him to power.

The United Nations estimates the number of people forced from their homes at around 710,000 displaced since the violence began. Thousands of others have fled the nation completely, crossing into neighboring countries to find safety.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the United Nations will establish a commission to investigate reports of atrocities in Central African Republic. He said he is “gravely concerned about the imminent danger of mass atrocities,” and that the CAR has “descended into chaos” this year.

Ban said the entire population of 4.6 million people — half of them children — is affected, and the U.N. is scaling up its humanitarian response and sending in human rights monitors. He said African and French troops are already making a difference, but “we must do more to meet this test of global solidarity.”

The Central African Republic was supposed to be a test case for the latest thinking on how to deal with fragile states. Yet despite military and economic help since 2008 from South Africa, the U.N. and the Economic Community of Central African States, the country remains weak and is crumbling.

It is uncertain whether other European countries will deploy troops to the CAR. The U.K., Belgium, Spain and Germany are among the countries providing transport and logistics support for the French-led mission in the Central African Republic.

And the spillover danger is clear. The CAR borders six nations: Cameroon, Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, where a civil war seems imminent. All have the potential to burst if the wrong sparks are flaring – much like Burundi’s violence spilled over to Rwanda and then the Congo.

I am not there. I cannot see, hear or feel what is happening. Yet it has the foreboding of here we go again.

Not just because it is Africa. It is because it is the same pattern.

This time, those whose can act are acting. It may not be enough or the right strategy — but for those who have had grandmothers kiss their muddy boots as they begged to have their grandchildren taken to safety, to have children clamoring for garbage as their next meal, to see shivering bodies go still after frigid nights on mountains, it is a long awaited change. It is a start.

(Photo credit: Ivan Lieman AFP/Getty Images)



Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.