Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The most under-reported country in the world?

In March this year, a military coup took place in the Central African Republic which plunged the country into chaos. A group of rebels calling themselves the Seleka ousted former president Francois Bozize. Since then it is estimated that 1.5 million people have been displaced, and there have been reports of massacres of civilians, the burning of villages and widespread rape. While shedding some light on the situation in the CAR, the minimal news coverage there has been shows just how pitifully little we know.

As its unimaginative name suggests, the CAR lies in the middle of the African continent, bordering Chad and Sudan to the north, South Sudan to the East, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo to the south, and Cameroon to the west. The CAR was
colonised by the French, and prior to this the region had been ravaged by the Arab slave trade. Since independence in 1960, the CAR has suffered from bad governance, instability and chronic poverty, and it remains one of the ten poorest countries in the world to this day. Three times the size of the UK but with only 4.6 million inhabitants, the CAR is a vast territory about which we know next to nothing. Even before the outbreak of violence last year, neither the IMF nor the World Bank had any staff on the ground, and few NGOs are active in the CAR despite the desperate need.

While it is difficult and dangerous to get information out of a war-zone such as Syria, amazingly, there are still scheduled flights, and as a high interest story, there are channels for the media to get into the country. In stark contrast, the CAR is less extensively mapped today than Britain in the year 1800. While tarmac roads connect the capital city, Bangui, with some of the other principle towns, dirt tracks are the norm, and these can become impassable after the rains. According to the Wikipedia page, there are "over 1800 motor vehicles on the road." Before last year's coup, there was one flight from Paris to Bangui per week.

The main route to the outside world should be the Oubangui river, which connects to the Congo and the Atlantic Ocean. But continued conflict in the DRC has made this route impassable. Sudan and South Sudan have recently been at war, and the Chad is politically unstable. As a result, CAR's main route to the outside world is through Cameroon, and this road is in very poor condition due to the damage caused by heavily laden trucks.

Deposed President Bozize himself came to power through a military coup in 2003, after a five year period in which there had been numerous attempts by different military groups to seize the capital. The only means of social mobility in the country is the army, and except for Bozize's predecessor Patasse, all of the country's leaders since 1960 have been military men. While political commentators are now discussing whether the CAR is in danger of becoming a failed state, no government has ever been able to control the whole country.

As is often the case in international affairs, Aljazeera has given the CAR much more coverage than the western media, although there have been reports on the latest conflict in the Independent and the Guardian. The Seleka rebels marched into Bangui on March 24, and their leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president. But while "Seleka" means "alliance", it quickly became clear that the rebels were far from united. Djotodia has even tried to disband the Seleka, amid continued fighting among the rebels. Djotodia has admitted that he can't control the rebels, stating, "it is difficult for me because I don't know who they are."

Last week Aljazeera has reported that another armed group, calling itself Anti-balika, has attacked Seleka rebels, displacing a further 200 000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and are taking refuge in the forests, or gathering in make-shift refugee camps. Evidence of a massacre in which 18 people were killed has been found, but it is likely that this is only a tiny fraction of the violence unfolding in the country.

But the international response has been pathetic: Britain has pledged £5 million in aid, a laughable amount which will make barely any difference. The African Union hopes to have a force of 1100 soldiers in the country in 2014. What exactly they are expected to achieve remains unclear.

The CAR briefly made the headlines during the Kony 2012 phenomenon, and Joseph Kony was thought to be hiding in the east of the country. Commentators interviewed in an Aljazeera programme claimed that armed groups as diverse as the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, the Janjaweed from Sudan, and the Nigerian Boko Haram may have spilled over the borders into the CAR. But the the striking fact is that we simply don't know. Statements from the French government stressing the danger that the CAR could become a failed state and a safehaven for terrorists give the illusion of some sort of command and understanding of the situation.

In reality, to talk of the CAR's "borders" is meaningless. Most of the borders are unmarked and unprotected areas of jungle. While the CAR would make an effective hiding place for Kony, it seems unlikely that Boko Haram would want to take refuge or try to recruit here. The crisis in the CAR is the worst humanitarian disaster in the history of the country. Framing it in terms of terrorism makes little sense and only serves to disguise our ignorance of what is really going on.

Portraying the conflict in the CAR as a threat to our security may raise some foreign interest. However, the grim truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us are not affected by the events in the CAR. In a civilised world that shouldn't be a reason not to care.

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