BANGUI, Central African Republic: With EU help, the Central African Republic is seeking to turn the page on years of bloodshed by retraining its army and by month’s end a first battalion is to present arms.
The European Union last year unveiled the launch of a two-year military training mission for CAR troops in the capital Bangui, along the lines of similar assistance in conflict-hit Somalia and Mali.
Some 70 instructors have been tasked with whipping the army into shape and rendering it democratically accountable following its failure to prevent a three-year civil war between mainly Muslim former rebels and mostly Christian militias, that started in 2013.
President Faustin-Archange Touadera took office a year ago to oversee the transition to peace in one of the world’s poorest nations, where the conflict has displaced about 900,000 people in a population of some 4.7 million.
Much of CAR is still lawless today, and independent UN expert Marie-Therese Keita-Bocoum in February deplored that “armed groups have taken over more than 60 percent of the country.”
General Herman Ruys, the Belgian officer in command of the EU’s military advisor team, expects the first force of CAR troops to be ready for active service by mid-May.
“The battalion is about 700 strong, comprising three companies and the general staff,” says Ruys, who announced that two more battalions will follow, bringing the total force to around 2,000 troops.
A 12,500-strong UN peacekeeping mission is currently the sole functioning military force, given that the national army is under an international arms embargo.
The soldiers are being trained at the Kassai military camp just outside Bangui, which was occupied by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels at the outset of the civil war that began in 2013 when they overthrew president Francois Bozize.
A counter-insurgency by mostly Christian militias saw the conflict spiral into a war that left thousands dead, but the majority of casualties were civilians.
At Kassai, French and Swedish instructors monitor trainee soldiers as they engage in target practice with AK-47 assault rifles.
“Not bad. But there’s no bullet in the head,” one young Swedish instructor notes as he inspects the bullet-ridden targets.
A few hundred meters (yards) away, Captain Innoncent Masse, commander of the army’s third territorial infantry battalion, closely watches a drill exercise.
The soldiers wear a motley collection of camouflage uniforms and carry weapons that don’t work. Some were recovered from armed groups by the UN Mine Action Service, says communications officer Sebastien Isern.
‘Work as a team’
“Most of the troops are not novices, but they haven’t seen action for a long time. It’s not just about training individuals but getting them to work as a team,” Ruys says.
UN peacekeepers vetted the soldiers to determine if they had committed human rights abuses during the civil war.
CAR’s armed forces were formed after independence from France in 1960, but mutinied several times against autocratic rulers, some of whom ran their own parallel ethnically-based militia.
Even as the first battalion readies for business, the soldiers are short of everything from guns to armoured vehicles after the UN Security Council recently extended the arms embargo first imposed in 2013.
Captain Masse stresses that Central Africans want to see an end to the ban, but Isern retorts that Bangui could ask for “exemptions for a partial lifting to arm soldiers trained by the EU.”
President Touadera frets at slow progress.
“We have qualified and competent instructors—but unfortunately not enough. What we are asking is to increase the number of instructors,” he told Agence France-Presse in a March 30 interview marking a year in office.
“The authorities want a credible army. But that can’t be done in five minutes,” is the response from the EU mission. “For instance, soldiers must learn to shoot with discretion if they intervene in urban zones like Bambari.”
Several armed groups are vying for control of the central town. But until a national army can stand on its own feet, security in such places remains the responsibility of the UN force, probably for some years to come. AFP