The current French involvement in the Central African Republic, which follows in the footsteps of its ongoing “Operation Serval” in Mali, has led many to wonder about President Francois Hollande’s goals in his African campaigns.
In recent months, the CAR’s ex-Séléka Muslim rebel fighters, bolstered by Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries, have waged a campaign of murder, rape and pillage against the country’s 80% Christian-majority population. With the government in disarray, Christians have organized defensive “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete”) militia groups that have carried out reprisal actions. The spiraling inter-religious violence has displaced half a million people and claimed a thousand civilian lives in December 2013 alone.
The French military “Opération Sangaris,” supported by the African peace-keeping force, MISCA, is engaged in a crisis intervention aimed at stabilizing the CAR and protecting its civilian population. Given the dramatic context, the French action to disarm the various militias, secure the infrastructure necessary for the distribution of humanitarian aid, and re-establish public order is admirable.
Yet, the ramifications of events in the CAR extend far beyond its own borders. The country’s descent into chaos, indeed, would be like a volcanic eruption in this combustible region, affecting the future of a strip of nations stretching from the Cameroonian port of Douala on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.
First, a power vacuum in the CAR would clear the way for Chad to seize the country’s oil- and diamond-rich north. Instability would also increase on its borders with Sudan and the DRC. A further menace would unfold in the form of attacks against Cameroon by the militant Nigerian jihadist group, Boko Haram, with Al-Qaeda, AQIM and Al-Shabaab likely to join the fray. Moreover, the turmoil would open the door to involvement by extremist groups in the illegal mining and sale of diamonds, precious metals and uranium, with all that implies for regional and global security.
“Opération Sangaris” is named for the Red Glider, a butterfly native to the area, as an expression of its planned short life. However, the chronic issues in the CAR will not be solved by temporarily imposing order only to allow the cycle of violence to begin again once the forces are withdrawn.
For it is the problem of failed states – ruled by dictatorial regimes that routinely disregard human rights and looting their countries’ wealth, while some Western corporations turn a profitable blind eye – that lies at the heart of CAR’s troubles and of those of the wider region. Among the consequences of this corruption is the tragic lack of economic development in a region abundant in natural resources. With few exceptions and despite limited economic progress (at least in statistical reports), Africa is the only continent to have been left behind the wave of socio-economic growth that raised up much of the Third World at the end of the 20th century.
Over the past decade, China, Russia and the Arab world have recognized this shockingly under-developed continent’s immense economic potential and invested heavily in certain countries. The United States and Europe woke to the opportunity more belatedly. As President Hollande acknowledged in 2013: “African growth pulls us along, its dynamism supports us and its vitality is stimulating for us. We need Africa.”
With their historical links to these lands, France and the United Kingdom, cooperating under the 2010 Lancaster House security cooperation treaty, are facing a moment of truth. It is becoming more and more difficult to ignore their obligation to assist the desire of the region’s peoples for a durable democratization process that will end the incessant cycle of military coups and civil wars.
Visiting Western heads of state routinely promote democracy, accountability, transparency and development. But unlike most of the countries now sowing the seeds of their future economic interests in Africa, the liberal democracies – and particularly France and the UK – have both the ideological incentive and the tools to act more responsibly. Their leaders have the statutory and executive power to prioritize business ethics, corporate responsibility and sustainable development in the way their nationals engage in commercial enterprises abroad.
Explicitly translating their national leaders’ words into deeds, corporations should adopt ethical “best practices” in their African business dealings, transforming their signature on commercial contracts into a hand extended in friendship to the local communities, to Africa’s people, to its youth. Just as they do at home.
To assist Africa with discarding its chronic socio-economic malaise, France should take a longer view in its current intervention. This would require turning “Opération Sangaris” into the kernel of a wider initiative to bring security, free-market economic growth and democratic rule of law to a “Douala-Djibouti Corridor” of model countries.
Such a corridor would serve three functions. First, it would create the prerequisite stability to improve its peoples’ quality of life. Second, it would benefit three of its major neighbours – Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya – still struggling with their own transitions towards “full democracy” status. Third, it would serve as a beacon of hope for the citizens of the authoritarian regimes outside the corridor, guiding them in their journey towards a brighter, freer, more prosperous future.
From Douala in the west through the CAR, South Sudan and Ethiopia to Djibouti in the east, the future of this strip of states will in large measure determine the futures of more than a billion Africans, from the Mediterranean to the Cape. The CAR capital Bangui is the pivot point, the key to the 21st century’s “New Frontier”.
France’s “Opération Sangaris” may, at cursory glance, appear more like simply another fire-fighting mission than the start of a recovery for central Africa. But with a little far-sightedness, it could lead to the creation of a “Douala-Djibouti corridor” of liberal democracies, a belt of freedom and hope for its ordinary men, women and children.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry revealed in the “The Little Prince,” work is needed before we can enjoy life’s glories: “We must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if we wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”
Jérôme Vitenberg is an international political analyst. He has taught Political Science and International relations for the LSE via the University of London’s International Programs at DEI College, Greece, and has been a Sales manager for Africa in the telecommunications industry.