Monday, December 16, 2013

More Woe for the Central African Republic

This blog was also posted on the blog of the Woodrow Wilson Center in December 2013

Often lost in the whirl of stories about conflict and misery in Africa is the tragic situation that continues to unroll in the Central African Republic. There the state has slid downhill for a decade into ineffectiveness and turmoil. So much so that today the CAR is arguably the continent’s leading failed state.  It is a distinction that no one would seek, least of all the citizens of the nation, most all of whom are victims of ineptitude, lassitude, violence and neglect.  Rule of law is feeble in the CAR. Bandit gangs of thugs, linked to the rebel movement Seleka that put current leader Michel Djotodia in power have looted their way from east  to west, including pillaging the capital city of Bangui.  Their latest predations in the northwest, home areas both to ousted president Bozize and his predecessor Patasse, have taken an especially vicious turn resulting in massacres of entire villages.  Hundreds of  thousands of people are on the run crowding into makeshift camps where food, sanitation and security are minimal.   Violence is driven by tribalism, political hatreds, vengeance and religion.  The religious element is pernicious because when predominately Moslem Seleka fighters confront largely Christian communities and meet resistance the specter of more widespread religious conflict grows.  Indeed it is this threat that has aroused the international community to greater awareness.   In recent weeks both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and French Foreign Minister Fabius have each decried the growing tide of violence, which Fabius described as “on the verge of genocide.” They promised a vigorous response.

 Blame for the catastrophe can be parceled out internally, regionally and internationally. First internally, the central government has been so inept and corrupt during the past decade that citizens longed for the days of Bokassa’s empire, when at least one could travel safely and send the kids to school.  Similarly, the promise of democracy, accountability and progress generated by free elections in 1993 was never realized.  Nascent institutions never developed. New President Patasse reverted to cronyism and tribal politics to rule.   Then violence from a collapsing Democratic Republic of the Congo spilled across the border accentuating internal divisions and leading to Francois Bozize’s coup d’etat in 2003. Bozize’s hold on power was tenuous and the government’s authority continued to erode.   By the late 2000s the combination of economic decline, an ineffective, bankrupt and corrupt central government, and nationwide insecurity rendered Bozize vulnerable.   In efforts to shore up his position, Bozize appointed a prime minister from the main line opposition and cut a deal for integration into the power structure with a political/rebel coalition from the east dubbed Seleka, a deal he repeatedly reneged upon.   Thus feeling betrayed, Seleka  recruited, mobilized and marched to Bangui where it took power in March 2013.  Rebel chief Michel Djotodia, a Moslem from the northeast, became chief of state. 

Historically African leaders have adopted hands-off policies towards their neighbors, but a regional consortium of states, led by Gabon, has maintained a small military force in CAR for years.  Authorized by the OAU/AU and recognized by the UN, it was particularly helpful in quelling violence during the early 2000s in Bangui, nonetheless,  the force never had the heft  - politically or militarily - to legitimize government or referee squabbles, so essentially it just extended the crises.   Just as conflict and fighters spilled over from the Congo, troubles in Sudan and Chad (not to mention the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda) also impacted upon the CAR.  A portion of Seleka combatants are former Darfurian or Chadian militiamen, now mercenaries. They are Moslem and foreign and as such have little sympathy or empathy for Christian villagers.

The Central African Republic, formerly the territory of Ubangi-Chari, was a French colony. Over the years France assumed responsibilities for the land, including peace and security.  French soldiers were based in the CAR and French advisors patronizingly financed and oversaw government operations.  The French/Central African relationship began to fray, however, when Ange Patasse was elected president in 1993.  Central Africans wanted to stand on their own and France was reconsidering and reducing its responsibilities throughout Africa.  Thus during the turbulent last twenty years in the CAR, France - while always present in some form or other - exerted much less influence and exercised little control.  Other powers, especially the United States, essentially pursued policies of neglect.  They trusted neighboring governments and the United Nations to handle problems.   However, the problems were too big for the resources and the commitments available, so the CAR stagnated and slipped inevitably into the vortex of violence where it now resides.

 So what happens next?  Chief of State, Michel Djotodia is not recognized as “president” by his neighbors, but only as a caretaker pending a 2015 election (never count an incumbent out, but Djotodia, a Moslem from a minority eastern tribe could never win a free and fair election).  Meanwhile he says he has disbanded Seleka, therefore diffusing even further what control he might have over its combatants and leaving unchecked the reign of terror in the northwest.  His government, although headed by reputable lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye, is constrained by lack of resources. Its writ rarely writes.

Pursuant to United nations Security Council discussions in late November,  a bigger more powerful Peace Keeping force will be assembled for the CAR. Meanwhile France has increased its troop presence to 1200 in the capital, one hopes in anticipation of participation in the UN force. But if nothing else the increase sends a message to Djotodia, Seleka and the nation that the international community will again engage.  It is encouraging to see French leadership again regarding the CAR.  As for the U.S., its policy of minimal involvement continues apace.  Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, Ambassador Robert Jackson told the Congress on November 19 that the U.S. would provide assistance to the African Union force, would maintain humanitarian operations and would continue to cooperate with France, the UN and the African Union in pushing for reduction in violence and re-establishment of security.   That is diplomatic speak for not much.   Even though the U.S. has interests in protecting Americans, re-establishing regional stability and security, promoting democracy and human rights and capturing Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony,  the U.S. embassy in Bangui is closed and not expected to re-open.

The best possible outcome in the next few months would be insertion of a French supported Chapter VII UN Peace Keeping operation with a mandate to pacify the nation.  Should security be achieved, the next step would be to revive competent government from Bangui outwards and thus begin the agonizing process of reconstruction and advancement.  Accomplishment of these objectives has to be a partnership among all the parties - domestic and international alike.  Sierra Leone and Liberia provide examples of how failed states can be resurrected.  The Central African Republic now needs that opportunity.   

Despair, Hope, Perseverance - AIDS in Uganda

Following is a piece I wrote about the impact of AIDS in Uganda during the late 1980s when I was posted there.  A version of this article appears in the December 2013 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

AIDS cut a wide swath through Uganda in the late 1980s.  Newspapers were replete with notices advising  death  “after a short illness,” but everyone knew the code.   The disease struck down those in the prime of life, many from the burgeoning middle class. Despite the presence of dozens of medical researchers from around the globe focusing on the malady, no cure was available and there was little knowledge on how to retard the inevitably lethal progress of the disease.  There was, however, knowledge about how AIDS was hetro-sexually transmitted and a growing conviction that if peoples’ sexual practices changed then the rate of infection in society at large could be diminished. To that end President Yoweri  Museveni and his government team undertook to campaign publically about the ravages of AIDS.  They promoted condom use - there was a television clip of the minister of health in the city market demonstrating condom use by putting one on a banana.  The slogan “zero grazing” resonated with the populace who understood the metaphor of a cow tied to a post who could then only eat in a circle, a zero. The cow-to-post linkage symbolized connection to a single partner while the zero reienforced the idea of not straying into other pastures.  There were many other efforts to deal honestly and effectively with the scourge and a growing network of counseling centers for those infected and their families.  Indeed, part of Uganda’s successful endeavor to curtail the spread of AIDS was to diminish the shame attached to its sexually transmitted origins.

Still against this backdrop AIDS continued to take a toll.  Local employees of the U.S. government convinced the embassy administrative officer to rework their benefits package so that upon the death of an employee his male relatives (in accordance with tribal custom) could not seize remittances to the detriment of his spouse and children.  This change was unfortunately necessary as during the last three years of the 1980s, at least seven FSNs died along with a dozen local guards. All organizations were hard hit.  The colonel in charge of training for the army confided to me that he had to have ten soldiers tested for AIDS in order to find two non-infected and thus eligible for US  training.  While he was on leave, however, a subordinate falsified records and subsequently two Ugandan soldiers died of the disease while in the states.  Along with several embassy personnel I joined the Mountain Club of Uganda that grouped rock climbing and hiking enthusiasts.  We mounted expeditions to nearby rock faces and to the Mountains of the Moon. Over half of the members were twenty-something Makerere University graduate students.  Sadly, over the next decade virtually all of them died from AIDS.

Yet hope always flourished.  East African newspapers made much of the discovery of an AIDS cure dubbed Kenron by a Kenyan scientist and took the opportunity to proudly proclaim that Africa too was in the forefront of science.  Because further trials proved the remedy marginally useful, the story faded away.  Similarly one day Kampala’s New Vision newspaper headlined that a woman in Masaka - about sixty miles south of Kampala - had found that eating the clay from her backyard had cured her daughter of “slims.”  Thus began a rush to the site, hundreds of persons converged and shortly turned her yard into a deep pit.  I asked several well placed, well educated contacts about the allegation and expected to find them skeptical, but they too were believers.  “Eating it might work and if not, it’s just dirt. I am going this afternoon.”   Of course, it did not work and that story soon faded away as well.

What did work, however, was the effort to teach about AIDS, removal of the sexual stigma, the use of condoms and changed sexual behavior.  Combined, these approaches reduced the infection rate and held the line until anti-retroviral medicines were available.   Today Uganda remains afflicted by AIDS, but in the context of thirty years experience is coping with the scourge.  Now Ugandan society is thriving and its economy prospering.  Thinking back makes you wonder what might have been if those tens of thousands of citizens had not been struck down early in life?