Peace priest: CAR aid mission ‘a victory for money that never arrives’

Enfants dans une école en Centreafrique [Pierre Holtz/UNICEF]

Children in a school in Central African Republic. [Pierre Holtz/UNICEF]

The international aid effort in the Central African Republic (CAR) is beset by strategic ambiguity, unclear objectives, funding shortfalls, incompetent administration, and failing political will according to Father Aurelio Gazzera, a Carmelite priest, peace mediator and blogger working in the country.

Earlier this month, the UN secretary-general Ban-Ki Moon said that with half the country in direct need of humanitarian assistance, only 20% of the $200 million of humanitarian aid pledged to CAR by the international community as part of a broader $500 million commitment had arrived.

But even this sum might not be enough, in Father Aurelio’s view, and without a participatory and verifiable process involving the local population, it could be “more of a problem than a help.” 

Aid sent so far had been “a victory for money that never arrives where it should,” he told EURACTIV on a visit to Brussels. “Civil society has never had any serious control over it, and they never see the colour of that money.”

As a result, previous aid tranches had ended up “in the pockets of people who have absolutely no right to keep it,” he continued, “government ministers, their families, friends or whoever they choose to give it to.” Aid monitoring was crucial to checking this.

“The NGOs that receive this aid themselves don’t have a systematic approach,” he said. “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.”

Food distribution was another clear priority he argued, as was reopening schools and peace mediation efforts. Father Aurelio, who writes a blog called News from Bozoum, has been involved with all three, notably developing a comité de mediation for reconciliation and comité des sages for independent judicial hearings.

Last December, a massacre in Bozoum was narrowly averted, when the EU’s special representative for human rights intervened, and a contingent of French troops were sent to the town. But a disarmament operation begun under Aurelio’s auspices was suspended after just four days, when the troops withdrew.

Lynch mobs

Lynch mobs quickly reappeared on Bozoum’s streets, and Aurelio himself has been attacked and received death threats. His church protects vulnerable civilians of all religions from armed mobs.   

While more troops were needed to prevent bloodshed in the country, 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,” Father Aurelio said.

Two months after the deployment of the French forces, “they have demonstrated no joint common strategy or vision,” he explained, and had still not even secured the key highway linking Bangui to Cameroon. The World Food Programme was forced to airdrop its aid on Bangui as a result.

Enforcement of the Geneva Convention in the CAR would be a good idea, Aurelio agreed. “But there isn’t even a court for normal people in CAR so how can you have one for war crimes?” he said.

Ban Ki-Moon has described the Misca international peacekeeping force and French Sangaris contingent in CAR as “under-resourced and overwhelmed”. Father Aurelio concurred, noting that Misca troops were currently unable to respond to urgent help requests 60 kilometres away due to fuel shortages.  “Considering the amount of funding they have, that could be looked into a little bit more closely,” he said. “It is really a risk to their missions.”

French commercial interests

Even more seriously, it was “quite probable” that the Sangaris were being deployed to protect French commercial interests, in his assessment.

“The French troops don’t even try to hide it,” he said. “In principle they are there to protect the interests of the French companies and citizens,” and while this could be benign, “we cannot discard [the possibility] that there are other interests being protected.”

The CAR possesses significant deposits of uranium, oil and other minerals, and the Seleka is thought to have financed its original armed campaign from diamond mines that it seized.  

“Oil production hasn’t started yet but it exists, and France and China are sitting on that possibility,” he said. “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.”

A de facto partition of the country is taking place in the CAR as Muslim civilians flee to Chad and the country’s north and east. One result is that the Seleka, who have left with them, now control many resource-rich areas.

But other more local foreign powers have also had a stake in the country’s fate, particularly where exotic woods or grasslands are concerned.

“We are surrounded by countries that have large herds and nowhere to put them to pasture,” Father Aurelio said. “They want to have these pastures.”

A longer version of this interview can be read here

One of the world’s least developed countries, the CAR gained independence from France in 1960 but has been politically impacted by coups, foreign interventions and instability.

In 2012, the Muslim Seleka alliance seized power, ousting President Francois Bozize, and sparking a descent into communal violence. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians fled, as the Seleka were themselves overthrown by Christian anti-Balak forces.

The UN and other international institutions have warned of a high risk of genocide exists in the CAR. EU countries have agreed to send up to 1,000 soldiers to help stabilise the country

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