Change of leaders in CAR brings hope, though violence continues
The Central African Republic's new interim president warns clashing militias that 'the party is over.' Will they heed him?
Yet in the days since, hopes in the capital that a change in leadership would end or reduce weeks of violence have faded as Christians engaged in score-settling attacks on Muslim businesses and mosques.
Michel Djotodia, who seized power and named himself president last year, resigned on Jan. 10 along with Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye amid growing international pressure.
Regional leaders in the CAR, angry at widespread sectarian violence, delivered the final blow to Mr. Djotodia last week at a summit in Chad. Djotodia has since sought exile in Benin.
A well-known and experienced politician from Bangui, Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, was announced as the head of the CAR transitional assembly, and along with a group of more than 100 Central African Republic delegates, will consult on establishing a successor who will lead the country to elections.
Since the departure of the two CAR leaders Bangui, the crumbling riverside capital, has endured two consecutive nights of heavy gunfire claiming 13 lives and wounding 57 others in clashes, according to the Red Cross.
The French military was able to broker a ceasefire in the capital’s southern district, Bimbo, following days of bitter fighting between Christian and Muslim militias.
On Sunday night the capital seemed quiet, offering a rare glimmer of hope in what has been a bleak situation.
“There are still a lot of Séléka in and around the capital and unless their leaders can control them, they are likely to go on the rampage as they are pushed back into the north,” a security source in Bangui, who asked not to be named, told the Monitor.
Speaking at police headquarters Monday, Mr. Nguendet, the acting or interim president, declared that “the party is over,” a warning to Christian and Muslim militias to stop the violence.
The CAR became engulfed in turmoil last year when Séléka, a mainly Muslim alliance of rebel factions, ousted ex-president François Bozizé in March. That move led to instating Djotodia as the nation's first Muslim president. Djotodia later officially disbanded the Séléka rebels. But factions continued to loot and pillage the country, sparking a deadly cycle of retaliatory attacks from Christian militias.
The CAR has since witnessed increasingly violent tit-for-tat confrontations that had some worried a genocide could be possible. The country, tucked in the center of the African continent, is gripped by a humanitarian crisis that has dislodged over one million people - a quarter of the population – from their homes.
The International Organization for Migration said that 60,000 people from neighboring countries have asked for assistance to leave CAR, and that African governments have already evacuated some 30,000 of their citizens caught up in the violence.
France sought to stay out of its former colony’s affairs but sent 1,600 troops last month to bolster a beleaguered regional peacekeeping force. Yet violence has continued and more than 1,000 people were killed in December, including some French and Chadian soldiers.
France has made it clear that it will not get involved in leadership decisions. “We take note of the resignation. It is up to the [transitional council] to decide what happens now,” the French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Romain Nadal, told Reuters. “France does not interfere in any case with this process,” he said.
The European Union broadly backed proposals on Jan. 10 to send between 700 and 4,000 troops to reinforce the existing 1,600 French troops.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton proposed deploying troops to protect civilians. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted on Monday that the EU should deploy its "Battle Groups” to CAR.
EU battle groups are battalion-sized military units of around 1,500 troops designed to provide a military response within two weeks. Any EU operation would, in theory, act as a bridging operation until African Union troops or peacekeepers with a UN mandate are ready. A final decision by the European Union regional ministers will be made on Jan. 20.
Elections in CAR have been scheduled for early 2015 but France has called for elections to be held sooner.
“Leadership is uncertain and it will be a challenge to satisfy both sides – the rebel Séléka forces and the Christian militias,” the security source in Bangui said. "But if Nguendet can keep to the promises that he has made today and can stem the bloodshed – he could be a potential candidate.”