While news networks have assiduously covered the tumultuous events taking place in countries like Syria and Ukraine, the media has largely seemed indifferent to a similar conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). As a result, much of the international public is unaware of a rapidly deteriorating situation. While camera lenses focus on places like the Middle East and Eastern Europe, this struggling African nation is being pushed further toward widespread slaughter. Increased media coverage of CAR is absolutely essential to spur the international community into action, inspiring them to do something rather than remain in a state of blissful ignorance.
Although the current episode of violence in CAR began in 2012, the country has had an unstable history since it declared independence from France in 1960. Corruption in government and a lack of political stability has led to numerous regime changes, coups, and counter-coups. The current conflict, though ostensibly between Muslims and Christians, is not truly a religious war. Rather, it is one stemming from mistrust and hopelessness. Feelings of political disenfranchisement and frustration born out of lack of economic and educational opportunity has led many Central Africans to join militias, often organized along religious cleavages. As a result, normal citizens have taken up arms, killing, pillaging and driving their fellow countrymen from their homes. The fact that no more recent survey has taken place than an Associated Press tally from September of last year speaks volumes about the lack of coverage. That outdated poll shows that more than 5,000 Central Africans have fallen victim to sectarian violence, a figure up more than 150% from the UN‘s April 2014 estimate issued along with their approval of the MINUSCA peacekeeping mission. According to a European Commission report released late last year, another 500,000 plus Central Africans have been internally displaced, while hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries. CAR’s entire population is only about 4.5 million. The sobering reality is that more than one out of every five Central Africans has been uprooted and forced from the security of home and routine into sometimes uncertain, often horrific living conditions. Clearly, the conflict has not been contained, let alone resolved.
The UN’s charter gives as one of its primary objectives the maintenance of “international peace and security.” Thus, the UN bears some of the blame for the lack of progress in solving thecurrent situation. However, the UN derives its power from member states. Without cooperation and active involvement from individual nations, the UN’s ability to respond to world crises is severely undermined. In 2013, several nations expressed hesitance during the planning stages for intervention in CAR; the UK placed higher priority on funding an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia, while the US balked at the potential cost of putting the plan into effect.
As far as individual nations taking on a leading peacekeeping role, France has displayed some willingness, and currently has about 2,000 troops in CAR. However, the country’s colonial history in CAR has produced resentment and accusations of favoring Christian victims over their Muslim counterparts. Resolving the conflict clearly requires wider cooperation and participation by more neutral participants –ideally both Christian and Muslim nations– whether it comes in the form of funding or manpower. And yet, the response from other leading nations continues to be subdued at best.
Although funding for funding for humanitarian aid has trickled in little by little, there is still a significant deficit. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the 2014 response plan for CAR is 40% short of promised funds; in other words, humanitarian efforts are operating with $220 million less than needed. With the number of displaced Central Africans growing steadily, increased spending, involvement, and coordinated efforts from members of the UN is vital to moving towards a solution.
Could it be possible that the events in CAR attract such little attention from world leaders, because they see nothing material to be gained in intervening there? CAR is not oil rich. Wood, not a particularly coveted resource, makes up 60% of the country’s exports. Further, CAR’s location offers no real strategic advantage; it is landlocked and military bases there would offer little benefit. Without any incentives to motivate them, any nation that intervened in CAR would have to act out of altruism. Needless to say, this hurts the African nation’s chances of receiving help.
However, the UN and its member states are not the only ones able to effect change in CAR. Just as the nations that make up the UN give it power, and influence its decisions, the citizens of those nations can influence their own government’s actions. The international public’s awareness of a conflict certainly plays a considerable role in conflict resolution. A sympathetic and active public can exert pressure on their governments to enact top-down solutions to the conflict, while supporting efforts in CAR by donating to humanitarian organizations on the ground. The international public has thus far failed CAR. On some level, this is understandable. Economic conditions hamper the average person’s ability to make the donations that non-profits rely on to provide relief. Further, citizens confronted with rapid-fire elections often confront the same kind of fatigue that may be at work here. Higher-profile world crises may drain the public willingness to respond to less visible conflicts like the one in CAR. While it is understandable that the citizens of many privileged nations are exhausted from intervening in foreign countries, one must look no further than Rwanda for a history lesson on just how quickly and severely a forgotten conflict like the one in CAR can escalate.
Whether it is the sight of entire cities reduced to rubble in Syria, the return to the international stage of an expansionist Russia, or the paranoia and fear brought on by the spread of Ebola, other stories have monopolized the world’s attention. Considering the gravity of the situation in CAR, why don’t our morning papers jolt us awake with grim pictures of militia members wielding machetes?The answer is they and their readers or viewers have already moved on to newer, fresher disasters and atrocities. Instead of shedding light on the conflict in CAR, the media has largely forgotten it, allowing the situation there to quietly unravel.
If the public is to be roused to insist on action in CAR, the media must play a critical role by providing more coverage. Instead of paragraph-long updates published on the 12th page of a newspaper or relegated to an unvisited corner of a news website, resolving the conflict in CAR requires feature pieces and exposés. If media coverage turned in the direction of exposing the misery of everyday life and the scarcity of essential, life-sustaining resources, the press could awaken human sympathy, stirring high-profile celebrities, powerful officials, and normal citizens alike to act. This surge of human energy and involvement could be a vital force in ending not just the conflict in CAR, but also many others in the often forgotten continent of Africa.
By Penn Scoble