Rwanda early this week deployed force protection troops to the Central African Republic (CAR), under an existing bilateral agreement on defence between both countries.
The deployment is said to be a response to the targeting of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) contingent under the UN peacekeeping force perpetrated by rebels loyal to François Bozize, the 74-year-old ex-President who returned to the country last year.
Rwandan peacekeepers in CAR have previously been targeted by armed militia groups there but they repulsed such attacks.
Despite the risks, Rwandan peacekeepers remain committed to the task of protecting civilians within the mandate of the UN mission in the Central African Republic, and other peacekeeping missions where they serve.
Tensions flared up in recent days after CAR’s top court rejected the candidacy of former president François Bozize. Photo: Courtesy.
Since 2014, Rwanda is one of the largest troop – both military and police – contributors to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).
Rwandan peacekeepers are providing security for high-ranking government officials and key state installations.
Securing an election
Currently, the CAR is undergoing an internationally supervised transition involving a constitutional referendum as well as presidential and parliamentary elections.
A general election is scheduled on Sunday, December 27.
Rwandan peacekeepers also intend to contribute to ensure a peaceful and secure general election on Sunday.
Tensions in the country rose recently after Bozizé’s candidacy for national elections was rejected by the country’s highest court.
On December 3, the CAR’s Constitutional Court ruled that Bozizé, who came to power after a coup in 2003 and subsequently won two elections that were widely seen as fraudulent, did not satisfy the “good morality” requirement for candidates.
There is an international warrant and UN sanctions against Bozizé for alleged assassinations, arbitrary arrest, torture and other crimes during his rule.
The UN and the government of the CAR also accuse Bozize – who led the country between 2003 and 2013 – of leading a coalition of rebel groups keen on disrupting the upcoming election.
Bozizé denies plotting a coup but opposition parties, including his, have called for the election to be postponed until the re-establishment of peace and security.
CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra, who is currently seeking re-election, has insisted the election will go ahead.
Touadéra, a former prime minister, has said that the presence of the army and UN peacekeepers means people have nothing to fear.
But, by and large, insecurity in the country, especially in rural areas, is hampering campaigns as rebels are reported to control parts of the country and are able to conduct sporadic attacks aimed at disrupting the elections.
The upcoming presidential and legislative poll comes 22 months after a peace agreement was reached between the government and 14 armed groups.
In February 2019, the country again attempted to seal lasting peace when an agreement between Touadera’s government and the rebel groups was signed.
‘Rumours, false media reports fuel panic’
Vladimir Monteiro, the MINUSCA Spokesperson, on Wednesday, December 23, told The New Times that media reports that rebels on Tuesday seized Bambari, the country’s fourth-largest city, in the west of the country, “are false.”
Most of the instability, he acknowledged, is in the country’s west but even that is “being taken care of” by the peacekeepers who are working to prevent a blockade.
In the country’s capital, Bangui, and in other regions, UN peacekeepers are on high alert to protect civilian populations and secure the elections, Monteiro said.
“With respect to the security situation, this morning we recorded a great panic in Bangui following rumours of the presence of rebel groups in Bangui. But it was just a rumour that caused the panic,” Monteiro said. “MINUSCA forces and government forces are occupying key positions in Bangui and we are also engaged in western parts of the country.”
The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in CAR, Mankeur Ndiaye, has taken to Twitter to reassure citizens that MINUSCA will do its utmost to ensure the security of the electoral process, and called on the country’ population not to panic.
“We are determined to make sure that nothing will stop the election process,” Ndiaye said on Tuesday, December 22, while meeting the ECCAS election observation team deployed to CAR.
Asked about the optimism of the upcoming poll being held without trouble, Monteiro said; “We are working on it.”
He underscored that pertinent international parties including the UN are seized with the matter and want the poll to go on uninterrupted.
Apart from Rwanda bolstering its contingent there, Russia has also sent an additional 300 military instructors to the CAR to deal with what its foreign ministry calls a “sharp degradation of security”.
Who are the main protagonists?
One of the key players in this crisis, Bozizé, a Christian, came to power after a coup in 2003 but he was ousted in 2013 by the Seleka – a rebel coalition drawn largely from the Muslim minority.
Ever since then, the nation has been embroiled in the conflict between the Seleka and the dominantly Christian anti-Balaka self-defence forces.
Bozizé returned to the CAR in December 2019 after living in exile for six years in Benin, Cameroon and DR Congo.
In July, Bozizé, who is reported to maintain a large following in the army and the country’s largest ethnic group, the Gbaya, announced his intention to stand in the December 27 election.
But Bozizé faces UN sanctions for his alleged support of the “anti-Balaka” groups in 2013.
He faces an international arrest warrant, initiated by the CAR in 2013, accusing him of “crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide”.
Elections were held in 2016 and won by President Touadéra but civil unrest and fighting among militias continued.
Last weekend, three main rebel groups announced their formation of an alliance called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), and then invited all other groups to join the alliance.
In a radio broadcast, Ndiaye indicated that the CPC was a coalition of Bozizé’s people, and rebel groups such as the Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation (3R), MPC and anti-Balaka.
Bozizé who led the country for 10 years was also previously Army Chief of Staff, Ndiaye recalled.
“The former President François Bozizé whose candidacy was invalidated by the Constitutional Court on December 3 and the armed groups: 3R, MPC, and Anti-Balaka formed a coalition and launched a series of coordinated attacks in several localities of the country, especially in the western region; attacks which the Central African population and the international community strongly condemn.”
These attacks, he added, had only one aim: to prevent the continuation of the electoral process and the holding of the elections.
Despite being rich in resources like gold, oil, diamonds and uranium, the CAR is one of Africa’s poorest and most unstable countries.
The country has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960 and the UN estimates that half of the population are dependent on humanitarian assistance.
It was plunged into more turmoil in 2013 when Muslim rebels under the Seleka umbrella group seized power.
Christian militias, called the anti-balaka, rose up to counter the Seleka until the latter handed power to a transitional government in 2014 under international pressure.
Tensions between Christians and Muslims continue.
And more than a quarter of the country’s 4.7 million population is reportedly displaced.