Dan Simpson: Reassembling Central Africa

The right mix of initiatives could repair the C.A.R.

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The Central African Republic is badly in need of being saved; whether the United States can or should play any role in that enterprise remains in question.

In recent months, the C.A.R., a country of about 5 million almost exactly in the center of Africa, has been experiencing major political turbulence, concomitant economic destruction, more than a thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands of its very poor population displaced by warfare.

The war, perhaps a normal outgrowth of bad, broken-down government, has had both a Christian-Muslim element to it, tribalism, a role for interfering outside powers, and a level of brutality — including reports of beheading of children and ritual cannibalism — that is supposed to be unknown in the 21st century.

I have a soft spot for the C.A.R., having served as U.S. ambassador there for three years, having been married in the city hall of its capital and continuing to consider Central Africans to be among the nicest people I have ever worked with, in spite of their considerable woes.

As far as I have been able to discern, in 2014 the United States has few if any interests there, apart from wanting to see stability and not wanting it to become a center of insecurity in Africa.

The C.A.R. is the size of Texas and has borders on six countries — Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Sudan. It has agriculture, diamonds, lowland gorillas, forest elephants and little else, not enough to attract the big commercial players.

In terms of America’s favorite perceived threat, militant Islam, it has few Muslims, no more than 15 percent, and they would be kept within limits by the C.A.R.’s Christians if the Chadians can be kept out.

The United States has had an embassy and ambassadors there intermittently since independence in 1960, but in recent years, due to shaky security circumstances, it has had thin or no staffing for significant periods of time. One result has been an uncertain information base from which Washington can work in trying to figure out what, if anything, the United States can do in the face of the cataclysm underway.

As far as I can tell, after discussing the matter in Washington last week at a meeting of five former American ambassadors to the C.A.R. and representatives of the State Department and other Washington agencies, U.S. interest is driven by one policy and one matter of personal politics.

The policy issue is fear that, if the United States ignores the C.A.R., it will transmogrify itself into a Rwanda or a North Waziristan, with Obama administration officials on the hook for not having acted to preclude horrible developments. The more personal issue is that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, a heavy hitter in the Obama administration, visited the C.A.R. recently, showing interest.

As far as I can see, none of this attention from U.S. officials has translated yet into a willingness to re-install a U.S. presence in the C.A.R., unless, like Dick Cheney’s whereabouts from time to time in the Bush administration, its presence is undisclosed.

It is categorically true that the U.S. government cannot do anything about the C.A.R. without a presence there, unless it is thinking of drones — please, no. The country has few leaders — relations are very personalized — and little can be achieved without someone there. He or she needn’t have substantial resources at hand, although it is useful to have something to work with. Ms. Power could help with that.

Three pieces are essential in any plan to try to put the C.A.R., or probably any fractured country, back together.

The first is a schedule, one that includes a broad national conference that would consider the question of whether the participants want to have a country. The schedule would then set a time to name an interim government and a date for elections.

The Central Africans have taken a first step in naming Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui, the capital, as interim president.

The second necessary element would be a hands-on effort to build on whatever national institutions are still functional. In the C.A.R., this includes the Catholic Church, with six dioceses across the country. My guess is that Pope Francis might be persuaded to join the effort. Other institutions include the courts and lawyers, the army, unions, the banks, the parliament, the French and other religious organizations, including Muslims and American missionaries (who have been active there for generations).

The third element would be security. French and other African forces are there but their reach is insufficient to provide much more than limited, isolated pockets of safety. It would need to be made clear to the Central Africans by a coordinated international effort that foreign forces were going to be withdrawn on a fairly rapid timetable and that they themselves would have to provide the security necessary for a return to normal life.

With these things, a little money and some energy from outside, and serious Central African effort, the place could be put back together again.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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