On 31 October, France formally ended Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic, almost three years after the military mission was launched in December 2013 in a bid to quell inter-ethnic unrest in the country.
The operation initially ran alongside an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, which was known as MISCA and which later morphed into the UN’s MINUSCA force, which aimed to help restore stability in the capital city Bangui. The mission has however, for the most part, failed to end violence elsewhere in the country, as clashes have continued to erupt in recent weeks and tensions remain high.
At its height, France had more than 2,500 troops from various French units that took part in the mission. In June 2016, France indicated that it had reduced its force in the CAR to 350 soldiers, who would serve as tactical reserve force for the UN peacekeepers, effectively announcing the end of its military mission there. The number of soldiers is due to fall below 300 by early next year with the remaining troops deployed as part of a European military training mission, to support UN drone operations or as a rapid reaction unit supporting the national army.
France’s withdrawal has effectively left security largely in the hands of MINUSCA, the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, however in recent weeks, criticism of the force has increased, with local people accusing the peacekeepers of not doing enough in order to protect them. The National Assembly president, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, has expressed concern that the French troops’ departure would exacerbate a deteriorating security climate.
About 3,500 French troops are currently stationed in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane in order to fight militancy in West Africa and the Sahel region.
Overview of Operation Sangaris
- 5 December 2013 – Widespread clashes erupted in Bangui, leaving hundreds dead in the streets.
- Christian milita groups, known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) attacked a number of areas in the capital city, targeting Muslims and triggering revenge attacks by the mainly-Muslim Seleka rebel alliance. Seleka fighters has already targeted the majority Christian population, a key reason as to why the anti-Balaka group emerged. Attacks by both sides, mostly targeting civilians, plunged the CAR into a humanitarian, political and security crisis.
- Several hours after the violence broke out, a French operation force began deploying across the country as part of a UN-mandated effort to quell the deadly wave of sectarian violence. The operation was named “Sangaris” after a small red butterfly that is common the region.
- At the time, French President Francois Hollande disclosed that the troops would remain in the country “as long as necessary,” noting however that the operation was “not designed to last.” Paris, which had already deployed troops to Mali in January of that year in order to battle jihadist groups, watched the situation in the CAR continue to deteriorate following the overthrow in March of Francois Bozize by Seleka rebels who were led by Michel Djotodia.
- An initial force of about 1,200 French marines, paratroopers and engineering units was official deployed to back up the AU’s MISCA force, however they quickly found themselves on the Front line. Their mandate was to “disarm all milita and other armed group s that have terrorized the population” and the fist objective was to secure the capital city and tis 4.5 million inhabitants.
- Between February to September 2014 – Combat troops also secured a road link from Bangui to neighbouring Cameroon.
- September 2014 – Un soldiers from MINUSCA took over the MISCA troops.
- 14 February 2016 – Faustin-Archange Touadera is elected president, effectively capping a chaotic political transition. Three months later, President Hollande visited Bangui, declaring that stability “has been restored.” Elsewhere in the country however armed groups continued to plague the population. Former Seleka units remain active and a total disarmament of militia groups appears to be unlikely.
- Since July 2014, the force has been under growing pressure following the emergence of allegations of child rape by French soldiers deployed in the CAR. French prosecutors opened an investigation, however the allegations did not become public until April 2015. Since then, other reports have emerged about troops’ alleged involvement in sexual attacks and giving children food and sometimes small amounts of money for sexual services. Currently, the Sangaris force is subject to three investigations into separate allegations of sexual abuse of children in the CAR. In June 2016, Paris prosecutors also opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that French troops beat up, or stood by while others beat up two people in the CAR.
- France has intervened military in the CAR a number of times. The CAR, which is a former French colony, won independence in 1960.
On Sunday, the newly elected president of the Central African Republic (CAR) vowed to unite the country while thanking his opponent for conceding defeat in the runoff vote.
Faustin Archange Touadera, a former prime minister, was declared the winner of the 14 February runoff on Saturday night, having garnered 62.71 percent of the vote. While his rival, Anicet Georges Dologuele, who won 37.29 percent of the vote, expressed concern about irregularities, he did promptly acknowledge his defeat.
While many in CAR are hoping that the vote will strengthen the country’s tentative peace, after more than two years of sectarian fighting that has left thousands dead and force nearly 500,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries, Touadera does inherit the enormous task of trying to restore order in a country where heavily armed rebel groups continue to control large swathes of territory.
In his first remarks since the provisional results were announced, Touadera stated Sunday that he hoped to make the CAR “united, cohesive and prosperous” while creating jobs and reducing poverty. He further stated that “Central Africans from all regions and religions, we are going to transform our country into a vast worksite offering job opportunities to the youth, creating wealth that can be evenly distributed.” The constitutional court now has a week in order to validate the results.
On Monday, the Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People (MLPC) party disclosed that a top candidate in presidential elections, Martin Ziguele, wants a manual recount of the first-round votes because of alleged irregularities.
According to the party, Ziguele, a former prime minister who came fourth out of thirty hopefuls in the 30 December vote, plans to go to the Constitutional Court in a bid to “demand a manual recount of the voting slips.” The party has accused the National Authority for Elections (ANE) of breaching the electoral code as it released figures “each day muddling up different (administrative districts) with varying rates of vote counting, rendering any checks and follow-up impossible.” Provisional first-round results have shown that former government heads Georges Dologuele and Faustin Archange Touadera are posed to face off for presidential office in the sound round on 31 January after leading the field. However Ziguele has argued that the jumbled release of results made it “impossible for each candidate to verify that all votes in their favor, constituency by constituency, polling station by polling station, have been fully taken into account.” A statement released by the MLPC further indicated that the party questioned “a sharp and unjustified fall in the number of votes” between partial results that were issued on 6 January and the full provisional figure, which was released the following day. According to the MLPC, around 230,000 votes went “uncounted and thus were not attributed to candidates.” The latest tensions surrounding the presidential elections come after a score of presidential candidates last week denounced alleged fraud in the election and called for a halt to the process. Eighteen of those candidates went on to jointly back Touadera, an outsider which they called “the only real political alternative.”
In a presidential decree, which was published on Tuesday, the Central African Republic (CAR) set legislative and presidential elections for 27 December. According to the decree, the polls will be preceded by a constitutional referendum, which will take place on 13 December. If required, a second round of voting will take place on 31 January 2016.
Some analysts have warned that premature elections could do more harm then good. The international community however has continued to press for elections to be held by the end of this year in order to replace the current interim authority, which has been plagued by internal fighting. On Tuesday, a diplomat disclosed that while the mandate of the interim authorities is due to expire next month, a regional summit later this month is expected to renew it through February in order to cover the election period.
While the interim government has attempted several times to hold elections in a bid to fully transition the country back to democratic rule, ongoing violence has forced officials to postpone the election date. With no current end in site to the latest wave of violence, which erupted in September, many are questioning whether elections will be held this year.
A United Nations official and an aid worker have reported that clashes between fighters in the CAR killed at least three people and wounded five others on Monday. Sources have reported that the latest fighting centred in and around the town of Bambari, which for the last year much of it has been controlled by the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), which is a faction of the former Seleka rebel alliance. According to a UN official, “two people were killed during the fighting in a village 10 kilometres (6 miles) away (from Bambari) and one other died of his injuries.” A spokesman for the UPC has disclosed that the dead were members of the faction. Witnesses have since reported that their deaths triggered more widespread violence in Bambari, with gunmen opening fire in the town, burning houses and sending hundreds of people running for cover. The sound of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard across the town. Eyewitnesses further disclosed that anti-balaka forces descended into Bambari on foot, opening fire as UPC fighters roamed the streets on motorbikes while UN peacekeepers attempted to restore calm. Earlier in the day, dozens of Muslims had marched through the town, protesting against the proposed rearmament of the country’s fractured armed forces, which many distrust.
According to UN figures, the successive waves of fighting in the CAR have forced at least 360,000 people form their homes across the country, with up to 40,000 displaced in Bambari alone. Many in Bambari have found temporary shelter near churches, in disused factories or near the bases of the UN MINUSCA peacekeeping force. Speaking about the situation in Bambari, Nicolas Peissel, field coordinator for medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Ouaka province, has stated that “this is the worst violence we have seen in Bambari since the end of September.” On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it is deeply concerned by the worsening violence in the CAR, adding that since the end of September, dozens of people have been killed and hundreds more wounded in the capital Bangui. The ICRC has urged all parties to the conflict to spare civilians, their schools, houses and medial facilities.
On Tuesday, following a clash with Muslim Seleka rebels, a UN peacekeeper was killed. According to a UN spokesman, the soldier from the MINUSCA force was found dead in Batangafo, which is located north of Bangui. A statement released by spokesman Stephane Dujarric has indicated that “following an outbreak of violence between armed anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka elements at an internally displaced persons camp in Batangafo, ex-Seleka elements confronted MINUSCA troops at a nearby MINUSCA checkpoint,” adding that “during the incident, one peacekeeper went missing and was subsequently found dead.” A UN official has disclosed that the peacekeeper was from Cameroon. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the killing and has called for swift action in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The latest attack comes as the UN mission is trying to bolster security across the country ahead of elections, which are due to take place on 27 December and which are shaping up as a test of the country’s progress in its political transition. It also comes as France has announced that it will resume withdrawing its troops from the CAR following the elections.
On Tuesday, a UN official announced that the UN is sending hundreds of additional peacekeepers and its first drones to the CAR in a bid to bolster security ahead of next month’s elections. The new deployments may be in place for a planned upcoming visit by Pope Francis to the CAR at the end of this month, however the Vatican has already warned that it may be forced to cancel the trip due to ongoing security concerns.
Speaking to reporters, the UN official disclosed that Egypt will deploy a battalion of 750 troops while 140 police officers will be sent by Mauritania. The official further indicated that two companies of peacekeepers serving in West Africa may be temporarily sent to the CAR in order to bolster security after clashes led to the cancellation of the first round of voting in October. The new deployments will effectively boost the strength of the current 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping MINUSCA mission by about 1,140 troops.
MINUSCA officials are also planning to deploy its first surveillance drones over Bangui in order to better track potential trouble spots in the capital. The UN has also disclosed that they have been in talks with the Vatican about security in the country, with one official indicting that “the mission plans to have reinforcements to boost security for the elections. Some reinforcements should be in theatre before the pope’s visit.”
Separately, the head of the UN mission has requested the UN Security Council to allow purchases of weapons and equipment for the country’s police and gendarmes. The CAR has been under an international arms embargo since December 2013. Furthermore, UN officials have warned former presidents Francois Bozize, who is now in exile in Uganda, and Michel Djotodia, who lives in Benin, against meddling in the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced on Tuesday that France will resume withdrawing its troops from the CAR after elections take place in December.
Speaking on the sidelines of a security forum in Senegal, Le Drian told reporters that a resent surge in violence had forced France to put its withdrawal plans on hold. He further disclosed that “we decided to stop the process of winding down Sangaris to allow our force to support MINUSCA during the electoral period. Then it will be up to the new authority to decide how to organize its own army.”
France began withdrawing some of its troops, who numbered around 2,000 at the peak of the mission known as Sangaris, earlier this year. The UN mission in the CAR however has struggled to restore and maintain order.
Paris deployed soldiers to its former colony in late 2013 in an attempt to stem the bloodshed, which began after the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power earlier in the year provoking a backlash from Christian anti-balaka militias. Since late September, militia violence and inter-religious reprisal attacks have killed around ninety people in the capital Bangui. French troops have been instrumental to containing the situation. Last month, French troops helped halt a column of Seleka fighters, which was advancing on Bangui.
A government spokesman disclosed on Tuesday that three hostages seized in the CAR this week were killed and three more seized later by another group were also killed.
Sources have indicated that three officials from the mostly Muslim Seleka alliance were attacked on Monday as they were driving through a neighborhood controlled by the rival milita. Later that same day, three young Christians working in a Muslim enclave of the capital Bangui, known as PK5, were abducted in an apparent act of revenge. Security minister and government spokesman Dominique Said Panguindji has since indicated that all six hostages have been killed.
Political sources in the CAR have reported that the assassination of the Seleka members is surprising as they belonged to a moderate faction known as the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), which is mostly composed of ethnic Peuhls. The missing men included the UPC’s spokesman, Ahmat Nejad, and its secretary general, Ahssan Bouba. The abductions come just days after anti-balaka militiamen briefly seized a senior figure in the transitional government outside of Bangui.
The incidents risks derailing talks that are aimed at restoring order in the country. The Seleka members had been participating in the talks, which were convened by interim President Catherine Samba Panza. Tensions have been running high in the capital since late September, when a Muslim man was killed – an incident that set off a new explosion of reprisal attacks. On Tuesday, hundreds of youths erected barricades made of lead pipes and wooden planks in the second district of Bangui in order to protest the Christian men’s abduction. They were later dispersed by security forces.