Conflict continues in forgotten heart of Africa

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After a short period of fragile peace, this week rebel groups in the forgotten heart of Africa are threatening to take up arms once again

Across December and January the Central African Republic – a sparsely populated country in the very center of the continent - was mired in conflict. The Séléka coalition of armed groups from the north of the country launched an offensive and began moving south towards the capital city of Bangui. Séléka forces captured and occupied thirteen strategically significant towns and cities before halting within 80 kilometers of Bangui and agreeing to begin peace negotiations with the government. Those talks and the cease-fire they brought are now at risk of collapse and the Central African Republic is on the brink of falling back into a cycle of conflict, violence and fear.

The march of the Séléka towards Bangui caused many Central Africans to flee their homes and towns for neighboring bush, fields, and villages. Violence raged across the country and incidents of sexual and gender-based violence were reported across the north and central eastern regions. As many as 1,257,000 people (or nearly one-quarter of the country’s total population) live in areas affected by the conflict, and on top of this the 700,000 inhabitants of Bangui live with the ever-present threat of battle on their doorstep if the current cease-fire fails to hold.

These communities are vulnerable and have little cushion to help them withstand political and economic shocks. They struggle to cope with the shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies conflict brings, as well as the breakdown of essentials like communication and transport infrastructure.

Mercy Corps and other humanitarian organizations are on the ground and trying to help, gradually gaining access to affected areas and assessing the needs of local people. Recent assessments suggest a looming food crisis, with 81,000 people in Séléka-held territory likely to experience severely limited access to food this summer. The conflict is keeping prices high and farmers from their fields. To make matters worse, widespread looting of humanitarian organizations’ offices by Séléka forces and the local population has been reported in all captured towns, including the looting of 200 metric tons of humanitarian food supplies from the World Food Programme in Bria and Bambari. And despite the significant humanitarian needs the conflict has created, 0% of the $129 million of emergency funds appealed for by the UN and key humanitarian organizations have been received to date.

The grim outlook the Central African Republic faces should be a call to action for the international community, which historically has ignored the pronounced humanitarian needs there in favor of interventions in more politically and geographically strategic countries in central Africa. The Central African Republic does matter. An absence of state infrastructure and fluid, unpatrolled borders with its conflict-affected neighbors allow armed groups from other countries - such as the Lord’s Resistance Army - to roam unencumbered in and out of Central African Republic with almost no interference from the Central African Army. Such movements of armed groups, including the Séléka coalition, are a destabilizing influence not only for the Central African Republic, but also for the region at large.

Action to tackle this cycle of need and conflict must include both short-term emergency solutions as well as long-term interventions that focus on economic growth, infrastructure, education, transparent governance, and building an inclusive society.

Since Mercy Corps began work in the Central African Republic in 2007 we have worked to address these twin priorities. We provide immediate emergency assistance in a range of ways, including giving women and child survivors of violence in conflict-affected regions access to legal support, counseling and medical services. Our long-term support activities range from helping farmers increase their crop yields, to providing access to clean water, building the capacity of local women’s groups with mentorship and micro-grants and providing micro-credit and basic financial services for poor rural and urban Central Africans.

Short-term solutions to provide emergency food, water, fuel, and medical assistance must be part of an immediate assistance package for the Central African Republic. But stability in the long term will only be brought about by long-term initiatives: investment in economic opportunity, particularly for youth and women; improved access to credit and basic financial services for rural Central Africans; education and literacy programs, especially for women and girls; and an investment in training and resources for civil society, local authorities, and the police, health, and social service sectors.