Humanitarian priest: ‘It is easy to divide the world into armed mobs’

Father Aurelio Gazzera

The global aid operation in the Central African Republic risks failure unless proper monitoring and verification procedures are put into place, with help from better-coordinated peacekeepers, in for the long-haul, says Father Aurelio Gazzera.

Father Aurelio Gazzera is a priest, peace mediator and blogger working in Bozoum, in the Central African Republic. He was talking to EURACTIV’s development correspondent, Arthur Neslen.

A news report based on this interview is online here.

The UN is asking for $274 million of aid for the Central African Republic. The EU a few weeks ago said that it would give another €81 million.  Is that enough?

This might or might not be enough. It depends on how it is going to be used by the state agencies. Definitely, it has to have very clear checks [applied] that are currently lacking. Otherwise it is going to be more of a problem than a help. It is also very important that from the very beginning, there is a participatory process, as recipients in the government have to demonstrate their own serious engagement in the projects that they say they will do. In our own projects, we first put a condition down that they show they are interested themselves.

When you say checks and accountability, has there been a problem with any of the aid that has gone to the Central African Republic so far?

There has definitely been a victory for money that never arrives where it should. Civil society has never had any serious control over it, and they never see the colour of that money.

Where has that money ended up?

In the pockets of people who have absolutely no right to keep it – government ministers, their families, friends or whoever they choose to give it to.  It is also important to have a system to assign how the money is used and distributed. The NGOs that receive this aid themselves don’t have a systematic approach. They end up buying things that are not necessary, or that will only benefit village elites. Recently, NGOs in my area bought plastic covers for the roofs of houses that had been burned down. They started distributing them without verifying who was receiving them, and now you can’t see any trace of those covers – and the houses are still without a roof.

Ban Ki-Moon says that only 20% of the resources that are needed in the Central African Republic have arrived. What are the key priorities for aid delivery now?

The UN is applying a lot of pressure on the donors and that’s very good. The Central African Republic is a large country with very few people, and therefore the donors are not sufficiently interested.  The most pressing needs right now are to do with agriculture. We prioritised rebuilding the lives of the people whose houses were burned, but then we had to make sure the others didn’t feel left out, so we started with a very strong redistribution of seeds as it is the season to plant. At the same time, we have to go heavy with food distribution or else people are going to eat the seeds. The EU is giving the money for this, and its working.

There has been some reconstruction of houses destroyed by armed mobs, and of those roads and bridges that were destroyed. Of course the schools also have to be restarted. I’m also starting a programme of school meals. I managed to open the schools, making this the only part of the Central African Republic where the schools are regularly open and functioning. If I give food to the children there, it will make them stay and the parents will be able to stay, and for me that’s a priority. In the near future, it will be very important to have a structure of mediation for peace-building. We have to have educational programmes – mostly on the radio – to reach out to the largest possible numbers of people so the living together can start again.

Do the people in your area want to see the Muslim refugees return?

More and more people in the area are starting to regret the departure of the Muslims, and they hope that they will want to come back. But personally, I have some doubts. I think that we have to wait until things have calmed down. And we have to make sure when they come back that they are really of a peaceful disposition, that they are and not wanting revenge, or that some extremist elements are not accompanying them.

Do you agree with the analysis of those world leaders who have talked about the potential for a genocide in the Central African Republic?

The potential for a genocide always exists, but the term is probably exaggerated. It increases tension and creates a bad environment. Even in Bozoum, a small town of 25,000 people, in just one and a half months, the Seleka killed 140 people, mostly civilians. But since they left in February until now, only two people were killed. This is mostly because we have been working in a mediation effort and trying to get understanding among the people and most of the parties. Nevertheless, in other villages there is still a lot of killing.

So who would be the aggressor if there was to be massive blood-letting, the Seleka or anti-Balaka forces?

Both of them for sure. But for the moment the Muslims are very well protected not only by the Misca multinational forces in the cities they still live in, but also in the churches. They tend to stay in the church institutions where they are cared for and fed. But it is clear that the potential for destruction by the Seleka remains, as they have always been better armed than the anti-Balaka. They moved out of the area but they didn’t leave their weapons at all.

Some people talk about a division of the Central African Republic as one possible end game. What long-term solution can you imagine?

Ethnic partition is of course possible. In fact it’s becoming a de facto partition, and the current government has no capacity to do anything about it. The international community present – the Misca, the Sangaris of the French army and above all, the African Union – should be able to do something but they need to have the will.

Some people blame outside powers for the conflict in CAR. They say, Rwanda, Uganda, Chad and other neighbouring countries all have interests in prolonging fighting and supporting proxies.  Some people say that more powerful actors like France and China are also supporting proxies to gain control of the country’s natural resources. Do you think that’s the case?

It is clear that there are foreign interests, because there are great riches in oil, diamonds, gold and even exotic woods growing in the Central African Republic. Another factor that few people pay attention to is that there are grasslands in the Republic. We are surrounded by countries that have large herds and nowhere to put them to pasture. They want to have these pastures. There are also politics and traditions that are very good at hiding whose interests are being protected by whom.

For example, there is the oil. Production hasn’t started yet but it exists, and France and China are sitting on that possibility. There is also uranium, and the fact that there is a very weak government allows them [companies] to have a potentially larger control of all contracts or concessions for resource exploitation. The de facto partition that is already appearing on some UN maps is leaving the Seleka living in the area with diamonds and other resources. It is said that the Seleka were originally financed by the diamond extractors and cutters but a minister of [former President] Bozize closed them all down and only kept his own ones open.

To your knowledge, have French troops or other peacekeeping troops been deployed to protect current or future potential commercial interests in the CAR?

It is possible. It is quite probable. The French troops don’t even try to hide it. In principle they are there to protect the interests of the French companies and citizens and it is ok, as they are the same interests of the country. They create jobs and they create income. But by the same token, we cannot discard [the possibility] that there are other interests being protected. Nonetheless, the intervention of the Sangaris and the Misca has limited the damage that could have been caused by the armed mobs. But they have demonstrated no joint common strategy or vision. Two months after the deployment of French troops, even the World Food Programme has had to implement an airlift of food, as the only highway in the country doesn’t have any patrols or security. That’s the most shocking thing. It is as insecure as it ever was. 

If the French haven’t secured the main road, can you give examples of the commercial interests that they have secured?

I haven’t been able to go to Bangui since November because of the violence. But then I could see that the French cigarette factories were still functioning. In Bangui, there are only 3 industries – beer, cigarettes and sugar – and I know for sure that the sugar factory had been damaged, and they were trying to see if they could make it work again.

Would you like to see more troops arrive?

Yes, of course, but they have to come with a better strategy, clear objectives and organisation, so that they don’t work alongside each other, but with one another. We are repeatedly being told that the Misca have financial problems too. That’s why they don’t come to help us. On 10 April in Bangui, there was an incident where people called for help and the Misca were only 60 km away, but they couldn’t come because they said they didn’t have any fuel. Considering the amount of funding they have, that could be looked into a little bit more closely. It is really a risk to their missions.

Have there been any problems with attitudes to civilians or partisanship in the conflict, from some of the foreign troops?

When they first arrived in Bozoum, it was clear that they were there for everyone and took no side – apart from the contingents from Chad, who were clearly perceived as being on the side of the Chinese and the Muslims, particularly in Bangui. Things there are not under control there as they are here. In Bozoum, they rotated the contingents every week until a fortnight ago when they finally left a fixed contingent which didn’t know the population – and the population didn’t know them. Because the people are very tense, they sometimes react in a very exaggerated manner to things.  There have been attacks on the Misca by the population, when they believed they were supporting one side or the other too much. But this hasn’t happened often, and it hasn’t happened in Bozoum.

Would you like to see the mediation and conciliation model that you’ve used taken up across the Central African Republic?

Of course I’d like to see this happen, but the situation is different in different places. It is important to encourage people to take these kinds of roads.

What are the key lessons you learned from your peace mediation experiences?

That peace mediation is a very long, laborious work, but that it is very important to keep courage, and always have a very firm attitude and stick with the people, and face your responsibility towards the civilian population. Otherwise it is very easy to divide the world into armed mobs. It is also important to let the people know very clearly when they’re committing war crimes.

Would you like to see war crimes trials in the Central African Republic?

Yes, but you would first need to have a structure. There isn’t even a court for normal people in Central Africa, so how can you have one for war crimes?

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