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U.N. forces from Rwanda patrol the streets of Bangui, Central African Republic, Feb. 12, 2016 (AP photo by Jerome Delay).

In the Central African Republic, Peace Requires More Than a Bigger U.N. Force

Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017

On Nov. 15, the United Nations Security Council will meet to decide on the fate of the U.N. mission in Central African Republic, known by its acronym MINUSCA. In stark contrast to the debate over the U.N. mission in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which the U.S. pushed to reduce last April after citing its ineffectiveness and cost, few in New York expect cuts to the Central African Republic (CAR) mission.

To the contrary, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited CAR at the end of October and called for increasing the mission’s authorized troop ceiling, currently just over 12,000, by an additional 900 troops. Adama Dieng, his adviser on genocide prevention, and Stephen O’Brien, the undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, both also visited the country in recent months and warned of the escalating violence and a distressing humanitarian catastrophe there. The troubling situation and the pockets of success the U.N. force has achieved so far have left the U.S. relatively favorably disposed to increasing troop numbers, despite serious concerns over allegations of sexual abuse by some contingents.

The U.N. mission is in an increasingly complicated position on the ground. Having made some gains in late 2016 and early 2017 by pushing armed groups out of some towns and deterring some attacks, the U.N. force has since appeared overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis as well as by its own rigidity. Poor mobility—the mission has two operational helicopters in a country larger than France—a lack of intelligence, and an unwillingness to react quickly when such intelligence is available have rendered it ineffective in the face of rising violence among competing militias.

This has put the U.N. under intense pressure in the capital, Bangui. When Guterres spoke to CAR’s parliament on Oct. 27, government and opposition politicians managed a rare moment of unity, criticizing the U.N. for its passivity and, according to some, even complicity in the face of the violence. Aside from wanting a far more proactive posture from the U.N., the parliamentarians want to see CAR’s national army up and running, despite slow progress on training and its history of incompetence and abuse. Guterres, sensing the mood, acknowledged that the army would start deploying soon. Unless his U.N. force can up its game, calls for ever greater—and ever riskier—deployment of the national army will increase.

The U.N. force certainly needs more troops, and the Security Council should increase the ceiling. It also needs greater mobility and a stronger willingness to react quickly and decisively. But these measures alone would still limit the U.N. mission to merely putting out fires. The U.N., and other international actors, also need to address the incentive structure that is driving the violence.

First, international actors need to clarify exactly what role they will play in mediation between the armed groups and the government. In recent years, it has looked like a shopping mall, with the U.N., the African Union, the Catholic Church, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and neighboring countries having all laid out different “offers,” especially concerning amnesties and government jobs for insurgent leaders. This has allowed CAR’s belligerents to play mediators off against one another and has undermined efforts to promote peace. Furthermore, the suspicion that neighboring countries have a lenient view toward armed groups and their leaders has clouded the debate.

The Security Council must address the incentive structure driving violence in Central African Republic so the U.N. mission can move beyond putting out fires.

While such suspicions have not gone away, the current convergence toward a single African Union-led mediation plan is welcome, on condition that real pressure is put on insurgents, especially by neighboring countries that in the past have given them sanctuary. President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s recent decision to include people close to armed groups in the government and his presidential team must not be an open door to concessions that lack impact in terms of peace on the ground.

Second, measures need to be taken to chip away at the war economy that is sustaining different armed groups. At just one gold mine in the center of the country, the U.N. panel of experts investigating sanctions-busting found that armed groups were controlling a production of around 2,500 grams of gold a day, a huge revenue loss for the government. A good starting point would be a more muscular approach to reducing the illicit mining economy. Using U.N. forces to control and police the major mining sites would give some warlords pause for thought, even if some would have to be negotiated with. It could pave the way for more transparency over this vital sector for the national budget.

Third, the U.N. can help address chronic conflict between herders and farmers, and between herders and armed gangs, by encouraging collaboration between CAR and its neighbors over protection of grazing rights and cattle movements. This issue, at the heart of communal conflicts in many areas of the country, has the merit of being a potential win-win for all countries concerned, none of which want to see escalating cross-border conflict between herders and armed gangs. Progress on this front could help create better relations between distrustful neighbors, with potential benefits further down the line.

Finally, the U.N. mission, which is mandated to use its good offices to help reconcile the country’s antagonistic factions, should pressure the government to take further steps to promote national cohesion. This could start with the contentious but vital question of citizenship for its Muslim minority, many of whom have no national identity papers and struggle to get them from hostile government officials. Their feeling of exclusion is exploited by armed groups.

The U.N. is struggling to get a grip on the violence ravaging the Central African Republic. It is trying to maintain its support in the country and outside, and is weakened by its own deficiencies. In such a situation, long-term thinking is understandably difficult. But without attacking the underlying dynamics of violence, there is a risk that putting out fires could become the new normal.

Richard Moncrieff is the Central Africa project director at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organization.