Under-Fire UN Peacekeepers Struggle in African Nation at War

(Bloomberg) -- Scanning the road from a police armored vehicle, Martine Epopa says she isn’t fazed when people make throat-slitting gestures at her United Nations convoy patrolling the capital of the Central African Republic.

Sometimes men jump in the road brandishing machetes, while others just stand and scowl, said Epopa, a 29-year-old Cameroonian police officer and the sole woman in a six-vehicle UN patrol that included Portuguese special forces and Mauritanian troops.

Under-Fire UN Peacekeepers Struggle in African Nation at War

“We just wait until they give up and leave,” she said, clutching her rifle as her vehicle bounced over potholes. “We’re here to make people understand that the UN is here to protect them and their country. It can be challenging.”

Yet the threat is real. Fourteen peacekeepers have died this year in the Central African Republic, and public hostility is increasing toward what’s already one of the UN’s most difficult peacekeeping operations. A series of sexual-abuse scandals hasn’t helped, nor has the perception that the “blue helmets” favor the minority Muslim population over their Christian countrymen. Hidden from sight behind huge blast walls in central Bangui, the capital, the UN headquarters are often a target of violent protests.

In what the UN ranks as the world’s poorest nation where most state institutions crumbled after a 2013 coup, the peacekeepers face a near impossible task of shielding civilians from armed groups roaming the countryside.

Emergency Aid

The 13,750-member force, known by its acronym Minusca, also does everything from helping ship emergency food supplies across a territory as large as Afghanistan to providing logistical support to aid agencies whose workers themselves are under attack.

The UN force has little choice. Fighting rages on in parts of the country and state authority barely extends beyond Bangui. While a few hundred men have been trained for the new army, a UN arms embargo means the government can’t import weapons.

UN peacekeepers face dangers across Africa. This month 15 troops were killed by militiamen in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, believed to be the deadliest assault on UN forces in a quarter-century.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who paid a four-day visit to the country in October, has tried to step up support. About 160 Portuguese commandos have arrived to engage in combat with rebels, and Guterres persuaded the Security Council to expand the mission with 900 military personnel, probably Brazilian.

That makes the UN operation in the Central African Republic the only peacekeeping force worldwide that’ll be increased rather than reduced as the U.S. has pushed to trim about $600 million from the UN’s $7.3 billion peacekeeping budget for the fiscal year ending in June 2018.

Just three years ago, when the UN set up a peacekeeping mission to replace an African Union force, expectations were high, with many residents thinking their arrival would be “a silver bullet,” according to Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Anti-Muslim Attacks

“There are moments when Minusca really didn’t step up and protect civilians,” Mudge said. “I’ve seen some contingents bravely protect and others lock themselves in their bases at the first sign of trouble.”

Most attacks on peacekeepers have been carried out by militias in the southeast who accuse the UN of favoring Muslims, tens of thousands of whom were driven from their homes, often in apparent revenge attacks for abuses perpetrated by mainly Muslim rebels who overthrew President Francois Bozize four years ago. 

The top three contributing countries to Minusca are Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, heightening local perceptions that the UN force is mainly Muslim.

“The international community is throwing a lot of money out of the window,” said Joseph Bendounga, a well-known radio commentator who heads a small political party. “We have a crisis in a country where the majority of the population is Christian or animist and where the troops who come to secure the country are essentially Muslims. It’s just making things worse.”

No Quick Solution

While UN officials in New York say the situation in the Central African Republic is close to catastrophic, there’s no quick solution in sight for a country that’s suffered decades of bad government and armed conflict. About a fifth of the nation’s 5.5 million people have fled their homes, half a million of whom are sheltering in neighboring countries.

Brazil, which has just wrapped up operations in Haiti, will decide in the next few months whether to send between 700 and 900 troops to the Central African Republic, Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes said in an interview.

“What we see is a political conflict that is a consequence of the total collapse of the state’s authority,” Nunes said.

The Portuguese special forces have been very effective and professional, said Human Rights Watch’s Mudge. “If the new contingent would do the same, it could make a big difference.”

(Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, as part of the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.)

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