In which tennis becomes a political statement

These last couple of weeks in Bangui have been very stressful. Between 24 September – 2 October an eruption of violence, politically orchestrated and clearly calculated to bring down the discredited Transitional Government, killed at least 77 people. Hundreds more were injured, and houses were burnt down across Bangui’s 5th arrondissement. International NGO offices were looted, targeted and trashed: Mercy Corps, CORDAID, Premier Urgence and many others lost their bureaus. Altogether 65% of international humanitarian and aid organisations working in Bangui were targeted by heavily armed gangs. More than 200 internationals were evacuated within the week, and many of them are not coming back.

The word on the street, and at the UN MINUSCA headquarters, is that this was a failed, badly launched coup attempt, probably backed by ex-President Francois Bozizé who was kicked out by the Seleka rebel coalition when they seized power in March 2013. Bozizé’s two sons (one is Francois junior) were apparently present in Bangui, and implicated, along with members of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) who apparently fought alongside the anti-Balaka for control of Bangui. I don’t like writing ‘apparently’ but this all remains very murky unconfirmed stuff. No-one – not the UN, the Sangaris French troops, the EU, the Americans nor most Central Africans – knows what really just happened. And this is what is unnerving us now.

In light of all of the above, I’ve spent most of the last ten days in self-enforced lockdown, exacerbated by some anti-Balaka calling for French women (i.e. white women) to be raped in revenge for the sexual abuse of Central African children by Sangaris troops. I survived by staying with a friend in her very safe Bangui apartment. We paced like cats, ate all her food, watched too many episodes of Sex & the City, boozed at night and texted all our friends to try and understand what the hell was going on while gunfire cracked across the city every night.

But this morning, after several days of what I can only call ‘Tense calm’ I cracked, called a friend and we drove to the local tennis courts, and played. The rest of the courts were empty, like the swimming pool and the town centre. But life must go on, and playing tennis felt good because I was outside, running around, defying the conventional wisdom that we must all stay indoors until this is over. Which it certainly isn’t.

This much I know: President Catherine Samba-Panza (who was in the US addressing the UN when this latest crisis erupted) is discredited and unable to negotiate with any of these rebel actors, for the simple reason she is negotiating from a position of utter weakness. National journals mock her, civil society organisations have called loudly for civil disobedience and her resignation, and the President of the Central African CNT, Alexandre Ngendret, this week mocked the Transitional Government as a ‘Soufflé.’ Apparently.

There is a very dangerous political void in CAR. But this vacuum will not last until the elections – which have now been delayed to begin on 27 December – it will be filled very soon, and maybe very violently, as the main players, ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka colonels, fight it out between themselves and each other. But there are international political forces behind them, ‘conflict drivers’ who seek to benefit from this crisis, like France and Chad, whose toxic influence is poisoning life in CAR, and whom remain accountable to no international body.

MINUSCA meanwhile has been battered by its inability to protect Central African civilians, to coordinate any kind of emergency rapid response, and by the fact that its most senior leaders were all out of the country at the same time. MINUSCA’s ‘Robust’ peacekeeping mandate is not working in the CAR political landscape, and today saw the poignant Bangui funeral of a Burundian peacekeeper killed during this wave of violence. The new interim Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (the guy running MINUSCA at the moment), Parfait Onanga Anyanga, is scheduled to depart in just a few weeks. Apparently.

For background, it’s certainly worth reading the International Crisis Group (ICG) recent report on the roots of violence in CAR. And Amnesty ought to be congratulated for their painstaking ‘Chains of abuse’ investigation into CARs thriving trade in Blood diamonds.’ I will write again, very soon about how this disturbing landscape is evolving, and who is driving it forward.

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