Stability is not a term one would use to describe the Central African Republic – particularly in light of the recent conflict which has engulfed the country. Last December, the Séléka rebel coalition challenged then-President François Bozizé’s grasp on power and eventually ousted him in March 2013. At first, the international response to the humanitarian and human rights crises that have ensued was muted. Eventually, over the summer, the African Union launched an International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA), with an authorized force strength of 3,600, to help protect civilians and provide security throughout the country. MISCA, which may not be operational until 2014, replaced the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic (MICOPAX) in August 2013, which had been in CAR since July 2008 with 400 soldiers. Former colonial power France, which abstained from preventing Bozizé’s collapse earlier this year, has 400 soldiers in the capital city of Bangui to protect their interests, and is in the process of deploying 1,000 more. Finally, the UN Security Council is also considering authorizing a peacekeeping mission for CAR, but it would not be able to deploy for at least two to three months – even with a speedy UNSC Resolution. Therefore, the French and AU forces would have to act as a stopgap measure until the UN would be able to put boots on the ground.
The question is, after this crisis has been unfolding for almost a year, why is an international response only coming together now?
- Perhaps the international community was inundated by the response to the crises in Mali. Note that France’s Opération Serval commenced in January, accelerating the deployment timelines for the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) from September to mid-January. The Séléka rebel coalition that eventually toppled Bozizé commenced their rebellion around mid-December 2012, agreed to a ceasefire in mid-January 2013, and entered Bangui to overthrow Bozizé for failing to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire at the end of March 2013. If you think about it, the time period between the initiation of the Séléka rebellion and the current rumblings of an international response has been more or less dominated by the French intervention in Mali, the AFISMA deployment, transition to the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Mali’s presidential and legislative elections. And now that Mali is in a better pace than it was last year at this time, the international community now has the bandwidth to turn to the next pressing crisis on the continent – the Central African Republic.
- Perhaps the humanitarian toll has risen too high. Approximately one-tenth of the country’s population, or 460,000 people, have become internally displaced fleeing the communal violence between Christians and Muslims (15% of the population), and over 220,000 people have become refugees in neighboring countries. Recent Human Rights Watch reports have documented the destruction of over 1,000 homes between March and June 2013. (See satellite images of ‘what war crimes look like from space’).
- People are starting to say the “T-word.” As the Central African Republic continues to spiral into anarchy, there is speculation that terrorist groups, like Nigeria’s Boko Haram, could set up shop in the country. Although such reports are unconfirmed, the mere presence of an unstable territory may make it an attractive safe haven for terrorist or criminal actors with regional or even global agendas.
- People have started using the “G-word.” Whether genocide is – or is not – occurring in a given conflict, using the “G-word” is supposed to trigger an obligatory international response. My personal view is that the term genocide tends to be overused, and as a result, genocide has been conflated with “mass killing,” and more generally “human rights abuses” or “crimes against humanity,” thus distancing it from its true meaning. Therefore, whether or not genocide is actually occurring in the Central African Republic, any response would have to be measured against the international community’s failure to respond to allegations of genocide in places like Syria and Sudan’s Nuba Mountains.
In any event, the true reason for the recent focus on the conflict in the Central African Republic, albeit belated, may be a combination of two or more of the aforementioned factors. Now, as with regional and international attempts to respond to previous crises in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we shall see if the international community can put its money and military might where its mouth is.
Yesterday, the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre released its quarterly report on Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, which highlighted the rise in pirate attacks in West Africa – mainly in Nigeria. While there were 10 reported pirate attacks in Nigeria for all of 2011, in the first three months of 2012, there have already been 10 attacks. Attacks perpetrated by Nigerian pirates have also been occurring elsewhere in the region, such as the one additional attack in neighboring Benin. Furthermore, incidents are occurring further away from land (in excess of 70 nm), which suggests that Nigerian pirates are using fishing vessels as motherships to increase their range of operations. This is a contrast to attacks perpetrated in the early days of Niger Delta piracy, which were actually cases of armed robbery at sea – cases where vessels were attacked in port or in Nigeria’s territorial waters.
The expanding range of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea emphasizes the ever-increasing need for not only increased maritime security capabilities of regional countries, but also greater regional coordination and information-sharing to address this transnational problem. However, in the Gulf of Guinea, there are many challenges associated with regional cooperation to counter maritime threats, including insufficient maritime assets (i.e., air, sea, surveillance, and communications) to pursue suspected pirates or respond to information that suspicious activity is afoot in their waters; disparities in maritime assets and capabilities due to a lack of continuous funding from land-focused governments; lack of appropriate relationships or communications mechanisms to share information on real-time cross-border illicit activity; and finally, the operational seam between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), whose member states are most affected by maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea.
I always appreciate opportunities to learn about these issues up close, and as luck would have it, I was able to do so when I observed a multinational counter-piracy exercise from an operations center in Douala, Cameroon last March. After the exercise’s pre-sail, I was offered the chance to ride the pilot boat from the port of Douala out to the point where the Wouri River meets the Atlantic Ocean in order to meet the NNS Kyanwa that had sailed down from Nigeria. The next morning, I awoke to reports that heavily armed pirates had sailed down from the Niger Delta, all the way up the Wouri River (past the Cameroon Navy base), moored their speedboats, walked into the Bonaberi neighborhood, and proceeded to rob two banks for a few hours before hopping back in their boats, speeding down the river, and heading back towards the Niger Delta.
Having traveled part of that path the day prior (although at a much slower speed than pirates in speedboats), I gained an appreciation for how long it took to travel between the port of Douala and the point where the Wouri meets the Atlantic. And although there had been three similar bank robberies in Limbe, Cameroon in September 2008, I was also pretty amused at the sheer irony of having several warships either in the port of Douala or anchored in the Atlantic for a multinational counter-piracy exercise…when a cross-border pirate attack occurred. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the pirates), Cameroon’s Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) caught up with the pirates just before they entered Nigeria and either killed or apprehended many of them after a firefight.
In spite of the outcome of this attack, this story calls attention to the fact that individual countries cannot address this transnational challenge alone. In order to facilitate regional cooperation on maritime security, U.S. Africa Command and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies coordinated a Maritime Safety and Security Conference last month that brought together over 250 members of over 20 countries that are members of ECOWAS and ECCAS. This conference was a continuation of earlier efforts to increase regional cooperation, and allowed ECOWAS and ECCAS to respond to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2018 (2011) and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2039 (2012), which encouraged regional organizations to develop cooperation mechanisms to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The conference ended with the signing of a communiqué to recommend that ECCAS, ECOWAS and their member states continue to develop a Memorandum of Understanding and Operational Agreement and submit it to their respective Regional Economic Community Secretariats for eventual adoption by their member states.
Clearly, regional states are recognizing the importance of a regional maritime security framework that would focus on coordinating each country’s maritime security operations and facilitate information-sharing on ongoing pirate attacks. And although these countries will have to overcome the aforementioned challenges to regional cooperation, we will continue to see examples of increased cooperation due to the increasing scope and scale of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
For additional information on maritime strategy at the level of the African Union (AU), check out this part of their webpage. Also, for a discussion of some of the efforts that have taken place within the AU and subregional organizations to address maritime threats, consult Toward an African Maritime Economy: Empowering the African Union to Revolutionize the African Maritime Sector.