Hope in the Central African Republic

The first impression on arrival in Bangui, the capital of the conflict ridden Central African Republic, is the horrendous pillaging. Many people have fled their homes and ended up in the refugee camp right there at Bangui airport. The abandoned homes, hospitals and government buildings have been looted in ways causing great damage while providing minor value to the looter. Seleka militants were stealing doors of Christian family homes for firewood, bartering expensive hospital equipment for a chicken or pulling down telephone lines to sell the copper wiring as scrap metal. Anti-balaka combatants responded by driving almost the entire Muslim population of Bangui and into neighboring Cameroon and Chad. Sixty percent of the city's trade disappeared with them. These scenes represent both the human tragedy and the economic devastation of conflict.

The current crisis in the Central African Republic started about a year ago when Seleka rebels from the north, supported by elements from neighboring states, seized power. They increasingly started plundering and terrorizing the civilian population. The army and police dissolved and reappeared as street gangs, Seleka fighters or merged into the armed groups called Anti-balaka to fight the Seleka. The fighting intensified in scale and brutality as the conflict increasingly took the form of ethnic cleansing, forcing French troops and the African Union to intervene. The conflict in Central African Republic is not based on religion, but religion is used as a pretext for robbing neighbors and as an ethnic marker with which to organize conflict.

Thousands have since been killed. One-quarter of the population has fled their homes and 250,000 Muslims are now refugees in neighboring countries. Half of the country's 4.6 million people depend on aid for survival and the economy has basically come to a complete standstill. Nearly all services are currently provided by aid organizations. Schools and hospitals have been looted and government employees have no jobs to go to. The main planting season is just a few weeks away, but farmers are badly prepared as hoes, rakes, seeds and watering cans have been plundered and workers forced to flee.

The Central African Republic will suffer the economic consequences for a long time and it will take many years just to get back on their feet. The African Development Bank estimates that the cost of civil war in Africa can be as much as 30 years worth of development. The glimmer of hope is the no-nonsense and highly skilled interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. I recently visited the Central African Republic with the EU commissioner and the French and German development ministers. Everyone we met praised the new leaders and we got the sense that people felt the country had good leadership for the first time ever. The next year provides a window of opportunity to get the country on the right track. President Samba-Panza will need full support and there are three things the international community can do to support the new government.

Security is crucial and there can be no peace and development while there is violence and fear. France and African Union troops have done a great job, but the current situation is neither viable nor sufficient. Samba-Panza has repeatedly called for more troops to disarm the gangs and keep the peace. This is urgent and the UN can give legitimacy to a peacekeeping force that will have to remain until a national security force can be built from scratch.

More money is needed for humanitarian assistance and to support the interim government. The humanitarian needs are great. The major donors have committed 500 million euros, but so far only around a fifth has been delivered. Additionally, the government must be given more resources so they can start deliver services, re-establish a presence in the cities and establish themselves in the east where the government never really existed. Teachers, paramedics and civil servants were recently paid their first wages for over six months. A small sign of normality, but a huge step forward for the government and people's trust in it. The European Union, France and Germany have been the main contributors of assistance and more development partners must step up. A new deal for the Central African Republic is needed to raise the necessary funds for the developments needs as identified by the Central African government.

Reconciliation is necessary for longer term stability. People who have seen their children or parents murdered do not forget easily and the impunity must end. Pacifying armed gangs will not be possible unless law and order is restored. The Muslim population is now only 2 percent, down from 12 percent a year ago. Bringing 300,000 refugees back home from neighboring countries will require some sort of process of reconciliation to restore trust. The good news is that religious leaders such as Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama have protected people of all faiths and spoken out for peace throughout the carnage. They have important roles to play in order to bring communities together. These religious leaders for peace are truly shining stars in the darkness of this land.

A lasting peace will require a regional solution. A security arrangement focussed solely on the Central African Republic could push fighters into neighboring countries. A regional security arrangement could limit flows of weapons and fighters into the country and help put pressure on the various armed groups. In any case, this must be a national effort under the leadership of the more than capable Catherine Samba-Panza. She herself led reconciliation efforts after a previous internal conflict. The international community can support the president's priorities with development assistance. Foreign presidents and prime ministers can use their diplomatic abilities to bring the region together.

Men got the country into this mess, and only a woman can get us out of it -- said the displaced man in Bangui to journalist Bate Felix. In order to get her country out of the mess, the president has asked for troops, development assistance and political support.