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The CAR is crashing

The irony is hard to ignore. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, stopped over recently in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), on his way to a 20th-anniversary commemoration in Kigali of one of the 20th century's most appalling atrocities - the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Nothing, he said, could have prepared him for what he witnessed on his arrival. "More than 70,000 people are crammed in horrendous conditions on the airport grounds," he said. "The lucky ones are living under weather-beaten tarps just yards from the runway. Others sleep in the open … Women and men shared horrific accounts of gang rapes, extortion and brutality."

To his credit, the UN chief appears to be shaken by the fact that there's little his organisation can do in the short term. His plea for a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force has been accepted, but deployment will entail a six-month wait. It's surely pertinent to recall that the massacres in Rwanda exacted a toll of up to a million a dead within 100 days.

Ban realises that the time lag is intolerable, but there is little he can do about it. The UN's structure tends to facilitate temporary impotence in the event of emergencies. Rwanda is a case in point.

As Philip Gourevitch writes in The New Yorker, "The season of slaughter that decimated Rwanda 20 years ago is one of the defining outrages of humankind. At no other time in the history of our species were so many of us killed so fast or so intimately." It's not as if foreign forces were entirely disengaged, though.

France was not represented at the anniversary ceremonies in Kigali because Paris took umbrage at Rwandan president Paul Kagame's suggestion that French troops were complicit in facilitating the escape of many of those responsible for organising the killing spree by Hutu militias against the Tutsi minority. The Tutsi forces led by Kagame that eventually assumed power, meanwhile, benefited from American support.

The forces pitted against each other in the Central African Republic do not bear comparison in this particular respect, although there are some parallels. The Tutsis in Rwanda comprised about 15 per cent of the population; CAR's Muslims, who are bearing the brunt of the current violence, account for a similar proportion. The Tutsis were resented for being relatively privileged; the Muslims in CAR were deemed to be better off than the Christian majority.

The massacres are partly a response to the assumption of power in Bangui last year by the mainly Muslim Seleka militias, apparently sponsored to some extent by neighbouring Chad and Cameroon, which perpetrated atrocities against CAR's Christians. Some of the local Muslims evidently participated in the outrages. Many did not. But the so-called anti-balaka militias that have lately gained the upper hand are determined to exterminate or expel all Muslims from the country.

The massacres would no doubt have exacted a considerably larger toll but for the presence of some 6,000 African Union (AU) peacekeepers, supplemented by 2,000 or so troops from France - the former colonial power, whose military presence is controversial.

The United Nations peacekeepers are meant to supplant the AU forces later this year - and that too will depend on whether enough nations volunteer to contribute troops. No country outside its immediate neighbourhood appears to have much of an interest in the Central African Republic, and many of the neighbours have their own axes to grind.

Routinely described as one of Africa's poorest states, CAR has been pretty much dysfunctional since it gained independence in 1960. It is perhaps best remembered as the base of the grotesque "emperor" Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Before and since, there have been numerous coups, as well as elections with predetermined results.

One of the few recent signs of hope has been a mission in which the nation's archbishop and chief imam have requested assistance from European capitals and domestically have jointly preached a return to some semblance of sanity. It is also notable that Muslims have frequently found temporary refuge in churches.

A couple of months ago, CAR swore in its first female president, Catherine Samba-Panza, a seemingly well-intentioned former mayor of Bangui. She gives every impression of knowing what needs to be done in terms of reconciliation, but lacks the power to enforce her wishes.

The United Nations fiddled while Rwanda imploded 20 years ago, and has sporadically been wringing its hands ever since. The helpless Ban knows that, in the context of CAR, a six-month wait means leaving it much too late. Cue another bout of vigorous hand-wringing.


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