The international community wants local forces in Central African Republic to shoulder more responsibility for security. But reform of the nation's defense sector is fraught with problems.
Even the name "Training Mission" was a source of bewilderment to local residents in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Who was training whom and for what? In theory, the European Training Mission for the Central African Republic (Republique centrafricaine), also known as EUTM RCA, has a clear mission. It is to advise the Central African Armed Forces in strategic questions and matters of training and organization. The European Union (EU) gave the green light for the mission in July 2016 and some 170 civilian and military personnel are now assisting in the reform of CAR's armed forces, along the lines of similar missions in Somalia and Mali.
But there is a problem. The armed forces the EU personnel are supposed to be helping have never really existed. Even at the best of times, the CAR's army never consisted of more than 1,000 combat troops in a country the size of France. "These few troops created more insecurity than security and committed numerous atrocities," Tim Glawion from the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for African Affairs told DW.
"In post conflict environments, you almost always have to start from scratch, even if there are somehow armed and security forces that are operational," Mody Berethe, the UN official responsible for defense sector reform in CAR told DW. In addition to EUTM RCA, the UN, which has more than 10,000 blue helmets in the country, has also been charged with assisting the reform of the CAR army.
The UN mission MINUSCA has 13,000 peacekeepers on the ground, but some civilians complain it does not do enough to protect them against dozens of armed groups
EUTM RCA's mandate expires in September 2018. By the end of 2017, it is scheduled to have trained up 1,500 Central African combat troops, according to its commander Herman Ruys.
Since Central African Republic gained independence in 1958, most of its rulers have regarded the military as their private property, allocating top posts to members of their own family or ethnic group. A recent French military survey concluded that former President Francoise Bozize, who was head of the armed forces for ten years until the outbreak of civil war in 2013, "contributed to the collapse of discipline and the spread of a culture of impunity in the armed forces." When the Seleka rebels seized power in March 2013, the army gave up without a fight and many of the troops joined the anti-Balaka militia, who later became notorious for their human rights violations.
Integration of former fighters
The issue of integrating former rebels or militia members into a regular army is controversial. Thousands of former fighters demanded that they be part of the new armed forces but many observers believe their recruitment should not be encouraged. It would convey the fatal message that rebellion pays. There are also numerous armed groups in the country who could feel they have been left out of any such arrangement and would then use force to press home their demands.
"There needs to be a priority on ensuring that that those who have committed the worst violations of human rights cannot be involved and should not be integrated," Evan Cinq-Mars from the US-based Center for Civilians in Conflict told DW. UN's Mody Berethe insists that such controls are already in place. The new recruits are checked not only for their physical and mental health. They are also vetted as well. Berethe also says that "soldiers who are already part of the new armed forces and who have committed serious crimes have been discharged."
Central African Republic has been plagued by inter-religious violence since 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters (above) seized power, prompting reprisals from Christian militias, known as anti-Balaka
Glawion has difficulty in understanding why the international community, anxious to establish a modicum of security in CAR, should place so much emphasis on a national army. "Just the idea that one could somehow use an army to solve domestic problems is absolutely wrong. It would lead to a militarization of social tensions," he said.
Glawion believes the international community should give instead support to local police forces and village self-defense groups. "There can be problems, but these groups often have the right approach," he said. "A national army can wait."
The UN blue helmets in the CAR have faced repeated allegations of abuse and rights violations, but observers generally view their mission in a positive light. "They are at least trying to establish a security presence throughout the whole country. They are filing a security vacuum probably more effectively than the government would have done," Glawion said. Given the prevailing conditions, they also have no alternative other than to prepare for a lengthy mission. "They will be in the CAR for another ten years at least," Glawion said.