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French intervention in the Central African Republic: more effort is needed

​Originally published in Le Nouvel Observateur

Introduction by editor Hélène Decommer:

France intervened militarily in the Central African Republic (CAR) on the 6th of December. The operation ‘‘should be short, around 6 months’’, assured Laurent Fabius (French foreign minister). Even if this military objective turns out to be feasible, Myra Bernardi argues that political and humanitarian support will need to be much more long-term. Myra Bernardi was the European Commission aid and cooperation officer for the Central African Republic from 2009 to 2011.

When French President François Hollande arrived in Bangui (for a four-hour visit) on the evening of 10 December, he commemorated the death of the two French soldiers (which had taken place the day before) by reminding his troops of the reasons for French intervention. ‘It would soon have been too late,’ he said.

The African Union/French operation is very important and is going to save many lives, returning security to Bangui. However, the period following this emergency intervention will be even more important, and needs to be planned now. If we look back to the lessons of the past ten years of international involvement in CAR, it looks like the errors of the past are at risk of being repeated.

A similar situation to 2003

Are we getting déjà vu? The current situation does present many similarities with that of 2003, when the then Prime Minister François Bozizé, deposed by the coup in March this year, also came to power by means of a violent coup. That coup has also received external political and military support. At that time, also, the events led to a humanitarian and economic crisis, and involved serious human rights violations.

Since 2003, intervention from not only France, but also the European Union, UN and the African Union, among others, has not managed to build the durable peace they desire.

In reality, one of the biggest difficulties for CAR is the lack of interest which it suffers from, being known, as it is, as an ‘aid orphan’. The donors present in CAR – not only in the past decade but since independence in 1960 – brought minimal aid, not bothering to hide the fact that this small, complicated hopeless country was not their responsibility.

Dramatically weak engagement from the international community

Sadly, the current situation doesn’t give much hope for increased commitment from the international community. At a recent meeting for Fragile States and their international partners in Nairobi, the CAR representative M. Bienvenu Hervé Kovoungbo from the Economy, Planning and International Cooperation Ministry spoke passionately about the needs of his country: ‘I appeal to donors in the name of the Central African population, in the name of those living in the bush for months, and of those internally or externally displaced who lack everything: basic services, food, and who are still living in unimaginable situations.’  For the moment, this has led to few concrete responses. The European Union mobilised funds quickly, but appealed to international donors to be compassionate and generous for a crisis which remained forgotten far too long.’

Long-term support is indispensable

Experience from fragile states shows that the reconstruction – or construction, even – of a state and an economy takes time. A study by ODI highlighted the need for sustained and predictable support: building public institutions does not take place in a linear fashion, and progress is often accompanied by setbacks. It requires the establishment of security, political dialogue, forming a civil service, setting up appropriate bureaucratic systems and procedures, and much more. In other words, the commitment for external actors will be difficult and long.

Since 2003 in CAR, the conflict has already had effects at the borders with Chad, Cameroon and the Sudanese region of Darfur. The Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Kony is said to be hiding in CAR, having travelled from Uganda through the Democratic Republic of the Congo to get there. In the absence of the state, human trafficking, child soldiers and other international illegal actions have space to expand.

In France and in the rest of Europe, austerity can be felt. However, the price of repeating our errors could in the long term be much more expensive. Although the situation in CAR is very complex, history shows us that half an effort won’t be enough.