President Barack Obama took the time while traveling to Nelson Mandela’s funeral on Monday to record a message to the people of the Central African Republic, calling for calm even as French and African soldiers struggle to restore peace to the chaotic country.
In the months since the government fell to an alliance of rebel factions, the Central African Republic has been wracked with violence that has wavered between indiscriminate looting and pillaging and targeted sectarian violence between Muslim and Christian armed groups. “I know that in your lives you have faced great hardship,” Obama said in the message, recorded in Senegal. “But I also know that you’ve lived together in peace — as diverse and vibrant communities, Christian and Muslim.”
Listing off some of the atrocities that have taken place at the hands of both the Seleka alliance of former rebels — who include many Muslims within their ranks — and the Christian militia known as the anti-balaka, the president urged his listeners to show restraint. “Today, my message to you is simple: it doesn’t have to be this way,” Obama said. “You — the proud citizens of the Central African Republic — have the power to choose a different path.”
Obama insisted that “every citizen of the Central African Republic can show the courage that’s needed right now,” calling on Central Africans to “show your love for your country by rejecting the violence that would tear it apart.”
Obama’s message comes as fighting in the country has spiked over the last few days, even as the United Nations approved the expansion of an African-led peacekeeping force and the arrival of French troops to back them. A total of 6,000 African Union troops will be sent into the landlocked country in the coming months, hoping to prevent more of the clashes that have killed 400 in the capital alone since Thursday. Refugees continue to stream across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo — which is struggling to handle its own internal conflicts — by the hundreds, making up the majority of the 68,000 civilians that have fled the country so far.
The United States, while not directly sending armed forces into the country, is aiding in other ways, including airlifting 850 troops from Burundi within the next 24 hours according to reports. The U.S. involvement came at the request of the French, according to Assistant Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog. “The United States is joining the international community in this effort because of our belief that immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the Central African Republic, and because of our interest in peace and security in the region,” Woog said in a statement.
“This is an atrocities prevention situation, and our response will be based on what is most appropriate for saving lives,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told reporters last Thursday. “What matters right now to the civilians whose lives are hanging in the balance is actually not the color of the helmet of those tasked to protect them. What matters is whether the troops there move out aggressively to protect civilians and to restore security.”
France has already deployed 1,600 forces into the CAR as part of the intervention, removing weapons from fighters on the streets of the capital in Bangui. Le Figaro quoted the French army as having declared that, after operations in Bangui against armed groups on Monday, “the population was no longer threatened.” French president Francois Hollande is due to meet with members of the transitional government in Bangui as part of a layover returning from Mandela’s funeral, French media reported on Tuesday.
Despite that insistence that all is going well, only hours later France announced that two soldiers had died in the intervention. The fighting affects both Muslim and Christian communities as the violence shifts towards retaliatory attacks against Seleka fighters — suspected and actual — and Muslim communities, such as youth burning down a mosque in Bangui on Tuesday. “Everyone in this small city has either lost a relative or knows someone who has died in these few short days of violence,” Amnesty International’s Susanna Flood wrote on Monday. “And this mirrors what has already happened across the entire country where entire villages have been wiped out.”
And while former rebel and current president Michael Djotodia officially disbanded Seleka in September, the fighters haven’t gotten the memo to lay down arms. “We are this country’s government. Leave power? Maybe if we are dead,” a Seleka commander in Bossangoa, where more than forty thousand Central Africans are seeking refuge on a Catholic mission’s grounds, told CNN.
Djotodia, who has had second thoughts about the presidency, recently admitted that he cannot control all of the fighters that were once under his leadership. “There are allegations that I cannot control my men. … I only know those who are with me,” said Djotodia. “Those who aren’t — how can I control them? I am not God, I hope. I am a man like you. And this country is vast — 623,000 square kilometers,” he continued, adding “You could bring an angel from the sky to govern this country and there would still be problems.”