Central African Republic and the Great Lakes Region — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:31 pm on 18th November 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 7:31 pm, 18th November 2013

My Lords, I shall begin with the good news. The M23 rebels have been defeated militarily, so their only option is now the negotiating table. Towns in North Kivu, in the eastern DRC, are celebrating, and the UN has shown its capability, along with national Governments, to deal with an intractable conflict. The BBC reported that M23 officials in Uganda said that their fighters had retreated because government and UN forces had launched a joint assault. However, the UN has yet more work to do, as one of the newest threats to regional security now lies in the little-known country of the Central African Republic. A landlocked country, it lies at 180th out of 186 on the UN developmental index, bumbling along near the bottom but never getting the attention of being in the relegation zone. It borders Sudan, South Sudan, DRC, Chad, the Congolese Republic and Cameroon, is about the size of France and is rich in oil, timber and diamonds. After independence in 1960, there have been many coups and the notorious brief existence of a Central African Empire under Emperor Bokassa.

Why, then, would the world pay much attention to the latest coup, which happened on 24 March of this year? The Foreign Secretary expressed his concern the next day but his plea,

“on all sides to make every effort to show restraint and to respect human rights”,

was not heeded. However, not only are there flagrant human rights abuses, but the world needs to pay attention, as this time CAR has gone from coup to failed state. In August 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that there had been a,

“total breakdown of law and order”.

Unicef goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow visited the weekend before last and one of her tweets stated:

“I see no evidence of any functioning government”.

Not only have I found the reports of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and CAFOD invaluable, but I have also, through a UK charity, been receiving reports directly from CAR, from people on the ground, and it is their stories and pleas for help that led to this evening’s debate.

There is basically no security for the civilian population. The new President Djotodia is a militant Islamist and has no effective control outside of the capital Bangui and not totally within it. He used three groups of rebels, now known as the Seleka coalition, to gain power, and now those rebels are left to control sections of the country. Many of them, perhaps 80% or 90%, are foreigners, recruited from Chad or Sudan. The rebels have taken control of key customs towns and diamond mines. They have become the local police force, and most schools and hospitals are not functioning. I was told:

“At the end of August when there was a deterioration of the security situation in the Rabe and Boeing districts of Bangui the inhabitants went and occupied the runway at the International Airport, believing this to be the only safe place to go”.

This very weekend, Modeste Martineau Bria, the director of judicial services, was killed in the capital, Bangui, by Seleka rebels. The UN and all NGOs agree that these rebels loot, rape and pillage with impunity. Whole villages, such as the village of Bohong, 25 kilometres from Bouar, have been burned down. According to CAFOD, there are 40,000 internally displaced persons in Bossangoa, and 65,000 people have fled the country. Sometimes the rebels will spare lives in return for money, but often they rape, and resistance means execution—literally being hacked to death with a machete—said Thibault Ephrem to the Guardian newspaper in July.

The rule of law has vanished. In the same report, in the town of Kaga-Bandoro, the town’s catholic priest recounts that many families are still in the forest or the bush and that people are dying without any assistance. He estimated that 60,000 of the region’s population of 130,000 were hiding in the jungle, living ferally in a malaria-prone region, with no clean water and where 11% of the population aged between 11 and 45 is HIV positive. If there can be a worse report, my stomach churned on seeing a photo sent to me, of an elderly lady with the caption:

“A lady forced by Seleka to eat human flesh”.

In August, the AU took over the small group of peacekeepers from ECCAS member states, namely Gabon, Cameroon, Chad, Congo and the DRC. Including civilian police and human rights monitors, this new force, MISCA, should be about 3,500-strong, but there are currently only 1,000 troops, and only Burundi has promised a further 500. Some estimates put the numbers of the Seleka rebels as high as 23,000, so how will the MISCA force be sufficient?

Will my noble friend please outline whether Her Majesty’s Government will support the transfer of MISCA to a UN-led operation, such as the one that has been so successful in the DRC? Can he also outline how the United Kingdom will vote in a Security Council decision at the end of the month?

The particular results of this coup also necessitate the involvement of the UN, not only the AU. This failed state for the first time has broken down along sectarian lines. The most recent reports by the BBC and the Guardian accept this, but early accounts contained warning signs. On Sunday 14 April, the Brethren church in the Cité Jean XXIII quarter was shelled during a worship service, leaving a number of people, including children, killed or seriously injured. Some of the children’s feet were amputated in the attack, but there was no comment from either the President or the Prime Minister.

After the coup in March 2013, a letter dated April 2012 began to circulate, whose authenticity President Djotodia has not denied. The letter, from him to the OIC, allegedly outlined his vision to form an Islamist republic from CAR, Darfur and part of Chad. Of course, much if not most of the Muslim population of CAR does not support the Seleka rebels or the president, but they are powerless to stop this dynamic.

Anti-Seleka rebels, called “anti-balaka”, meaning “anti-machete”, have now formed. The name says it all. Vicious reprisal attacks are now being reported against the Muslim and Fulani populations. Father Anastasio Roggero, a missionary who has worked in the CAR since 1975, said in an interview with Fides:

“We are in the heart of Africa, and the danger here that a centre of terrorism is set up is real, in my humble opinion”.

He did not need to be humble. As the UN director of humanitarian operations in CAR, Mr Jing, said:

“We are seeing the seeds of a profoundly dangerous development between communities … It’s a tinderbox that can ignite into something very, very big and very, very bad”

A genocidal interfaith civil war is a risk, and needs to be averted. The religious leadership in CAR is trying to bring about reconciliation, and travels the country trying to talk to the anti-balaka rebels, and the four major Christian leaders signed the Bangui declaration, which includes a request for the UN, not the AU, to be involved in peacekeeping. However, will Her Majesty’s Government please outline their view on the alternative request in that declaration of the MISCA force being at least 10,000 strong?

Such conflict and insecurity of course means that there is a humanitarian crisis at the moment that affects the entire country. Subsistence agriculture is the primary livelihood for the majority of CAR’s population, and many were previously self-supporting, if not exporting food. However, due to fighting and looting of agricultural equipment and cattle, 1.1 million people face food insecurity, 1.4 million people are without access to clean drinking water and up to half a million people require urgent, immediate food assistance.

In July, the UK pledged £5 million, but the UN emergency appeal for the Central African Republic remains one of the most underfunded appeals. To date it has received only 42.5% of the £121.5 million that is required. So far, the UK’s prompt contribution amounts to just under 6% of the funds received. The UK is a leading humanitarian donor, so will my noble friend outline whether the amount of UK aid is going to be increased and whether aid is managing to get beyond the capital, Bangui? One further urgent priority is to secure the mineral wealth that is the future of this country. Will my noble friend outline what discussions Her Majesty’s Government are having with the French Government on the general situation in CAR and particularly in securing these mineral sites?

I find it so sad to hear my good friend Pastor Nims Obunge, who spent his teenage years in Bangui, remembering,

“the beauty of a peaceful city ... and the beauty of the people was reflected in their well crafted art and rhythmic music and dance ... I recall Bangui with the beaming smiles of local people”.

It will take a long process of reconciliation to get back there, but if the world acts now, it is possible. If it does not, CAR may become well known, like Rwanda, for all the wrong reasons. As UN Resolution 2121 makes clear, such genocide will be with guns, not just machetes.