I am back in Bangui; to be honest I’ve been back here for a couple of months, but simply haven’t been able to find the time to write. It’s because I’ve got a job. Yes! I am finally working for an NGO, so I get up early and get myself ready and go off to the office to write and email and liaise and network and do all those other NGO things that NGO workers do.
Personally I’m delighted to be back in Bangui, and working; I like my London-based NGO employer and the projects they ‘do’ – but want to try and keep that famous work-life balance, so I’m just writing personal reflections; or as aid workers say, ‘Opinions are all my own.’ The thing about my job is that I’m on solo deployment; so when people ask, as they do, about who is my security/logistics/ finance/ officer I just smile. And tell them its all me.
I arrived as the only member of my team – which I guess also means I am my own line-manager boss (it’s worth a try!). I’ve just recruited an assistant and a driver, and have found a small office in a compound with trees and flowers, and a hammock. Plus, I’ve found a lovely old colonial house to live in with a large terrace and palm trees in the back garden. It ain’t a bad start to NGO-ing.
But I digress. Bangui is bruised. This week the Capital was again engulfed with violence, after a bloody shooting and grenade attack on a Catholic church by a group of Muslims that killed at least 17 people. Within hours of the attack the local population of Banguiois erupted, erecting barricades they then set on fire across main roads, as crowds stormed the streets in protests that turned violent. African Union peace keepers (also known as MISCA) fought anti-Balaka militias in vicious street battles near the scarred church.
For two days and nights most of us stayed in inside and as far away from the heavy shooting as possible. It was frightening and very very tense. President Catherine Samba-Panza condemned the attack as violent manipulative politics, and her speech somehow slaked the communal outpouring of rage. For now. Because this latest ‘incident’ above anything else, highlights how chronic fear turns in on itself with impunity.
Lets be clear; this is not a religious war, and never has been. The hideous attack on the church – and equally hideous reprisal on a Bangui Mosque the following day – were both symbolic acts aimed at the perpetrators achilles heel, crowded, popular, sacred communal places where the impact would be hardest felt. I’ve spoken to anti-Balaka commanders like Maxim Mocom, and asked him directly if this conflict was religious. He fixed me a hard stare. ‘This has nothing to do with religion’ he replied. ‘We have liberated our country from Seleka, we are the national resistance.’
For the anti-Balaka, their job is now done, and they are looking for an triumphant exit, whilst also demanding the transition Government listen to them and understand their rationale for taking up arms against the Seleka regime.
Ten days ago the CAR government launched its new National Plan of Social Cohesion and Reconciliation, finally acknowledging that it needs to reach out to armed groups and include them in a national process of dialogue and reconciliation. The problem is the government has virtually no resources to carry out this vital and ambitious programme.
Meanwhile, the biggest international response to the chronic crisis here in CAR has been promises of (as yet much undelivered) humanitarian funds, and the focus on September’s arrival of more peace keepers, this time from the UN who are deploying some 10,000 ‘Blue helmets’ that will also absorb many of the current MISCA peace keepers. The French military (under operation SANGARIS) apparently can’t wait for the UN mission to begin soon enough, as they can then beat a hasty retreat.
As brilliantly argued by this very recent Open Democracy article, peace keepers can be a tool for a national peace building strategy here in CAR, but cannot be the strategy. The new MINUSCA UN Mission will be the eighth peace keeping mission in the Central African Republic since 1997. This dismal role reveals what a disaster the other missions have been, and how lessons have not been learnt, especially vis a vis dialogue with non-state actors like the anti-Balaka, and Seleka – who are now back on the rise, re-galvanised and have installed themselves in the north central city of Bambari where they fight running battles with the French and pit Muslims against Christians for their own political ends.
Where is the ‘clear and coherent vision’ developed by the UN alongside Central African strategists and the amorphous ‘International community’ to propel CAR into a future, not a peace keeping freefall?