Why the threat of genocide hangs over the Central African Republic

The Central African Republic (CAR) – a byword for human rights abuses for decades – is slipping towards a bloodbath.

The word genocide does not easily trip off the tongue of senior United Nations staff. But now it’s been used by Adama Dieng, the UN special official with special responsibility to advise the UN on the prevention of genocide.  He warned that the Central African Republic (CAR) – a byword for human rights abuses for decades – is slipping towards a bloodbath.

“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion,” Dieng told reporters briefing the UN Security Council on Friday. “My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don't act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring."

This vast, mineral-rich country of 4.6 million people has seen terrible rulers in the past. Jean-Bédel Bokassa ruled for a decade after seizing power in 1966. In that time he proclaimed himself Emperor in a ceremony modelled on Napoleon’s coronation. He was feted by foreign leaders from Gaddafi to the French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, whom he presented with diamonds and took on hunting expeditions. Bokassa’s excesses almost certainly included cannibalism, with human remains being found stored in his fridge.

The present situation is the result of an attack by northern Seleka rebels who seized the capital, Bangui, in March, ousting President Francois Bozize. Since then the already fragile state has lurched towards total anarchy. 

Speaking to the New Statesman off the record, an international source still working in the Central African Republic said the country always was what they described as a “phantom state” – since it had so little impact outside of Bangui. Now even that had collapsed. “Virtually everyone who works for the state has now fled from everywhere except the capital.” Outside of the city, chaos now reigns. “There is a terrible combination of extortion, looting, beating and rape,” they said.

The Seleka rebels, led by Michel Djotodia Am Nondroko, who came from the North East, are predominantly Muslim, with some of its fighters coming from neighbouring Chad or Sudan. The majority of the population – particularly in the West of the CAR - are Christian. The current conflict has taken on a distinctly religious character.

This is reflected in an investigation by Amnesty International, which contains detailed reports of attacks on Christian communities. A senior Christian leader is quoted as saying that he and other religious leaders had told the authorities of their fears of religious persecutions. “He said that the Seleka leadership did little to stop soldiers from targeting Christian institutions. The perceptions and fears that factions within Seleka are persecuting non-Muslims in the CAR must be urgently addressed in order to prevent religious conflict,” warns Amnesty.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports that tens of thousands have fled from their homes, fearing fresh attacks. In Bossangoa an estimated 28,000 people are sheltering in the Catholic Mission, too frightened to return to their houses and fields, even though they are just a few hundred yards away.

Ellen van der Velden, who heads the MSF mission in the country, told the New Statesman that what is urgently required is for international experts to be sent into the country by the UN and other aid agencies. “We need to have experienced aid workers deployed in all areas of the country where humanitarian needs have increased because of the extreme levels of violence. We have noticed that the provision of assistance has a re-assuring influence on people, even in Bossangoa where aid workers provide vital support for the basic survival of this displaced population, terrified by indiscriminate killings,” she notes.

The descent into chaos is taking place despite the presence of international troops. France has maintained a small presence in the capital for many years, but the 410 soldiers are there solely to protect the embassy, the airport and French nationals. African Union and regional troops number just over 1,000, according to Amnesty. They face the Seleka rebels, whose numbers have been swollen since they took Bangui from 5,000 to around 20,000. But even self-proclaimed President Djotodia’s orders reportedly carry little weight, and arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions continue with impunity.

The difficulty for the African Union and the United Nations is that there are few countries willing to provide outside support. Burundi has offered to send 500 soldiers, but other African states have been reluctant to commit their military to join this morass.

South Africa would be an obvious troop contributor, but this is unlikely to take place. On the eve of the coup, Seleka killed at least 13 South African soldiers. Their deaths resulted in scathing criticism of the South African government’s handling of the mission and in April this year President Jacob Zuma pulled the remaining forces out of the country.

French President Francois Hollande and his South African host discussed the situation in the Central African Republic in Pretoria last month. “We [South Africa] agreed that we need to do something and act quickly,” declared President Zuma. “We have committed... that we are going to be ready to be part of the solution to help the Central African Republic come back to its normality.” But with an election looming in 2014, President Zuma is unlikely to risk the lives of his troops in another foreign mission.

Despite the dire warnings of genocide and the deteriorating situation in the country, the people of the Central African Republic are likely to be left to their fate. Only a slaughter on the scale of Rwanda could really mobilise the international community, already preoccupied with Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and all the rest of the global agenda.  But this time no-one will be able to argue that the alarm bell was not sounded.

A young Seleka coalition rebel poses on March 25, 2013 near the presidential palace in Bangui. Image: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Donald Trump’s offer to talk to North Korea tests the “madman” theory to the limit

Nixon also allegedly played up his unpredictability in the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. 

Is Donald Trump’s announcement of talks with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un his Nixon goes to China moment? As recently as last October, Trump publicly rebuked his (now former) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for leaving the door open to talks, concluding that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. This followed Kim’s promise “to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”. Now we are told that dotard and dictator are due to meet.

As Trump continues to break all the rules of post-Cold War international relations – on anything from alliance management to trade and nuclear non-proliferation – it is worth remembering that the so-called madman theory of diplomacy at least has a distinguished heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote that “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”. Richard Nixon was said to test the same proposition at the height of the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. According to his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, Nixon had played up his unpredictability – supported by a back catalogue of ferocious Commie-bashing that stretched back two decades – in order to send a signal to Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi that he was prepared to countenance nuclear war.

According to Haldeman’s account, this was a lesson he had learned at the feet of Dwight Eisenhower, who had sought a truce to the Korean War in 1953 by getting word to the Chinese that he was willing to drop the bomb to bring hostilities to a close. By 1972, the year that Nixon went to China, his secretary of state Henry Kissinger also reflected on the president’s tried and tested strategy to “‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further”.

So Donald Trump may yet become a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. If he succeeds in denuclearising the Korean peninsula he would be a more worthy recipient than Barack Obama in 2009. In truth, the gamble on direct talks with Kim Jong-un is based on an exaggerated sense of his own genius for deal-making rather than a careful reading of history or a painstakingly constructed plan. As such, it has none of the chessboard choreography that underlay nuclear diplomacy in the Cold War era. And it comes against the backdrop of continued chaos and confusion in the White House.

The story of how the opening for talks came about may well become a fable of the dysfunction in the court of Trump. On 8 March, Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, arrived at the White House for a scheduled meeting with his counterpart, HR McMaster. On learning of his presence, Trump asked to see Chung himself. In that discussion, Chung revealed that Kim Jong-un had made an offer to meet Trump in person. A meeting with a US president is something that the North Korean regime has sought for decades, but has resurfaced in the context of the improved relations between the two Koreas following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Before his officials could intervene to urge caution, Trump appears to have jumped on the suggestion of a summit and told the South Koreans to go public with the news. A surprised Mr Chung said that he would first have to call President Moon, who subsequently gave the green light. At 5pm, Trump popped into the White House briefing room to hint to reporters that a major announcement was coming on Korea. By 7pm, Chung found himself in the dusk on the White House driveway making an impromptu statement that the president of the United States had expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader.

The meeting has been pencilled in for May, though it is unclear where it will take place and on what terms. With Kim likely to refuse any visit to the White House, and the Americans eager to avoid handing a propaganda victory to his regime with a pageant in Pyongyang, the most likely outcome would be on it taking place in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

That is if it happens at all. Both defence secretary James Mattis and McMaster (whose position is said to be under threat) are thought to be opposed to a meeting. The befuddled Tillerson, on an official visit in Africa, was taken ill and initially unavailable for comment. On 13 February, Trump tweeted that he had a new secretary of state.

If Trump calculates that his hard line has yielded this opening, then one could be forgiven for guessing that Kim might believe the same. Meanwhile, the apparent willingness to consider “denuclearisation” is so ambiguous as to mean almost anything. Having witnessed the fate of the last nuclear-armed dictator to “come nicely” and give up his missiles – Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – Kim is unlikely to be in a hurry to dispense with his greatest bargaining tool.

 At the end of last year, the view from White House watchers was that Trump was gearing up for war. Much was made of the saga of Victor D Cha, an academic and former Bush administration official, who had been expected to be confirmed as ambassador to South Korea before Christmas. Despite being known as a hawk, Cha had expressed opposition to a “bloody nose” or “limited strike” military option against the regime. Having set himself against some prominent voices on the National Security Council, his nomination was withdrawn. Now the administration is attempting a different course but Cha, writing in the New York Times, warns the stakes are just as high. If handled with care, a meeting might provide a unique opportunity brought about by an unlikely combination of bluster and force. But a failure would increase the likelihood of war by raising the stakes and exhausting the diplomatic last resort. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game