Dispatches from the Field: Council Delegation Visits the Central African Republic
Bangui and Bria – Security Council members arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) on Tuesday afternoon (10 March). Ambassador Francois Delattre (France), who is the co-lead on the mission with Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins (Angola), briefly addressed reporters upon arriving, noting that there had been progress in the situation in the CAR but that international attention must be sustained in order for the progress to continue.
Day 1: Briefings at MINUSCA
In the evening Council members heard briefings at the headquarters of the UN Integrated Multi-dimensional Mission to the CAR (MINUSCA) by MINUSCA’s chief security adviser, Tim Headington, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of MINUSCA, Babacar Gaye, Special-Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Office for Central Africa Abdoulaye Bathily and the World Health Organization’s representative to the CAR, Dr. N. K. Michel Yao.
Following a short briefing from Headington on how the security situation has improved, Gaye told members that the two main challenges facing MINUSCA are: the political will of the transitional government and funding shortages for activities such as the upcoming elections, national reconciliation and efforts to develop the legal system to combat impunity.
Bathily gave a frank briefing on the political process and measures to address the country’s cycle of recurring crises. Bathily noted that among the anticipated difficulties of holding the elections by August were the overlap of the election period with the rainy season and continuing insecurity in various parts of the country. However, he made clear, that in his view, the lack of commitment from the transitional government was the most significant challenge for organising elections. Additionally, Bathily stressed, that resolving the CAR’s chronic political instability required developing a more professional and inclusive armed forces as well as promoting economic development.
Yao focused on the humanitarian situation, reiterating figures about widespread humanitarian needs and internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugees. He also spoke on the difficult living conditions in enclaves within Bangui and elsewhere, where the Muslim populations are unable to leave, while noting that there has been a significant decline in the IDP population camped by the airport.
In response to the briefings Council members had questions related to protection of civilians issues, as well as whether the UN and the government were doing enough to address the conflict’s religious dimensions, in particular the targeting of Muslims. Members were also concerned to hear that members of the transitional government, and in particular interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, may contest the elections and the potentially destabilising effect this could have on the transition.
Day2: Visit to Bria in Eastern CAR
The next day (11 March) Council members flew to Bria, about 300 miles from Bangui in eastern CAR. Bria had been under the control of ex- Séléka until last month. On 11 February, MINUSCA, with the assistance of the French forces Operation Sangaris, carried out an attack against the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central Africa, a faction of the Séléka, after its refusal to vacate government buildings in Bria. With the ex-Séléka faction having recently been driven out by the operation, Council members met with the MINUSCA Force Commander, NGOs and local government officials.
At the MINUSCA Cambodian Camp the Force Commander of MINUSCA, Major General Martin Chomu Tumenta, and the head of the MINUSCA office in Bria, Oumar Ba, briefed members. During his presentation Tumenta highlighted various issues that made it difficult for the mission to carry out its work, particularly its responsibility to protect civilians. Among the impediments is that the mission is not deployed at the authorised troop level, and has a limited presence in eastern CAR. He made several recommendations to Council members for addressing the challenges, including deploying unmanned aerial devices that could strengthen MINUSCA’s ability to enforce the arms embargo, and he reiterated the need for more helicopters. In speaking about the activities of armed groups, he said that there were more than 7,000 anti-Balaka, approximately 4,000 ex-Séléka, and he also mentioned the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is still operating in southeastern CAR.
Ba told the Council that security was better but unpredictable. He also said that diamond mining, the main economic activity in the prefect, is controlled by ex-Séléka and foreign communities and that there was no state supervision of the sector. Lack of civilian personnel in MINUSCA is one of the mission’s challenges. Council members also heard from the commander of a Cambodian engineer contingent who described the unit’s work to build or repair roads, provide clean water and destroy munitions.
A representative of an Italian NGO addressed Council members on behalf of international NGOs working in the area, and called for MINUSCA to do more to ensure better security for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Following the presentations, members went to Bria’s City Hall and met the mayor, the governor of Haute-Kotto prefecture, and local civil servants, who had recently taken up their jobs again following the MINUSCA and Sangaris operation that drove the ex- Séléka out of the town. Women and youth NGO representatives also addressed Council members. Members appear to have been particularly impressed by the work of the Committee for Awareness Raising, which seeks to bring together the Muslim and Christian communities of Bria to overcome religious tensions that have afflicted the CAR. Members also had the opportunity to pose questions to ex-Séléka members who had given up their arms, and claimed that they now wanted to pursue their grievances through political dialogue.
In his briefing the mayor described the security situation in Bria as having worsened. This led Council members to seek clarity on the apparent discrepancy from MINUSCA’s briefings, and ask how the situation had changed since MINUSCA’s arrival. A representative from an elders group said that the center of Bria had indeed improved with the presence of the UN peacekeepers, but in its peripheries, ex-Séléka remained present. It seems the discussion prompted Tumenta to reiterate that the security situation in Bria had greatly improved over the last month.
Before returning to Bangui, Council members had the opportunity to observe a locally-managed Quick Impact Project supported by MINUSCA that provides income opportunities for ex-Séléka and youth through construction projects. In general, Council members appeared to have gained a positive impression from their interactions with the local population, of the apparent progress since the town was taken back from the ex-Séléka a month ago.
Meeting with EU and French forces and Internally Displaced Persons
On their return to Bangui, Council members met with representatives of Operation Sangaris, and the EU Force in the CAR. (The EU Force’s mandate expires on 15 March, leaving in place a military advisory mission to advise the CAR armed forces, while Operation Sangaris is expected to drawdown the majority of its troops by the third quarter of the year.) During their interaction, members acknowledged the role of Sangaris and the EU Force in stabilising the country. It seems that some members asked about whether having MINUSCA take on a greater role would create further instability, an issue that may have been raised because there have been concerns over the equipping of some of the MINUSCA contingents.
Members then toured an IDP camp in Bangui housing around 530 people. Council members heard from residents that they would return home if they felt secure. Asked by one member about the impact of MINUSCA’s presence, one of the IDPs said that MINUSCA is present on the main streets but not the side streets, and therefore they still did not feel comfortable returning to their homes.
Meetings with Political Leaders
A key part of Council members’ schedule on Tuesday was a meeting with interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, her cabinet and the President of the National Authority for Elections Dieudonné Kombo-Yaya. The president expressed her government’s commitment to organising the Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation (currently scheduled for April) which is intended to be the starting point for a longer term reconciliation process for all levels of society and to foster a common vision for CAR’s future, such as the reform of the military and the constitution.
Samba-Panza also affirmed her commitment to holding the elections but indicated that they were unlikely to be held by August. It seems that Council members did not stress the need to strictly abide by the election deadlines but pressed home the point that the country needed to continue to work towards holding the elections. Apparently they also stressed the importance of the authorities moving forward in the transition with transparency and inclusiveness. Following the meeting, Delattre and Gaspar-Martins held a joint press conference with Samba-Panza.
Following the meeting with Samba-Panza, a number of members appear to have been encouraged by her remarks and commitment to reforms. Some members, on the other hand, had concerns about her possible intention to run in the elections, in contravention of the N’Djamena Declaration of 18 April that prohibits members of the transitional government from running.
Members then met with the National Transitional Council (NTC). Similar issues were discussed such as the importance of the Bangui Forum, including the need for funding for this process, and the organisation of the elections. Members of the NTC and Council members also spoke of the importance of economic development towards overcoming decades of instability. Two members also stressed the need for the NTC to swiftly adopt a law creating a National Penal Court, following the cabinet’s decision to set up this court, which would play a key role in combating impunity.
Meetings with Civil Society
To conclude their day, Council members had a wide-ranging discussion with a number of CAR civil society groups. One of the issues raised was violations against children during the conflict. The ex-Séléka coalition and associated armed groups are listed in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report for children for recruitment and use, killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and attacks on schools and/or hospitals, while the anti-Balaka is listed for recruitment and use, and killing and maiming.
There was also a discussion on the sanctions imposed by the Security Council on the CAR. These sanctions, which were renewed by the Council on 22 January, include an arms embargo and target individuals undermining the peace, stability and security with a travel ban and assets freeze. It seems one civil society group requested that the Council remove the sanctions so that people can defend themselves.
(Members had initially planned to meet with CAR religious authorities but this meeting was not possible since key religious leaders were traveling out of the capital.)