Less than two weeks after the overthrow of Central African Republic (CAR) President François Bozizé in a rebel coup, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, leaving civilians in the capital, Bangui, in critical need of aid, said a senior humanitarian official.
“The main humanitarian needs in Bangui are access to health and nutrition and clean water [and] security and protection of civilians,” Amy Martin, who heads the Bangui branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN.
Bozizé was ousted on 24 March after the rebel Séléka coalition overran Bangui, exacerbating the country’s already precarious humanitarian situation. Insecurity had already been rife before the coup, especially in the northeast, and access to basic services was inadequate.
Now, only two hospitals are functioning in Bangui, schools are closed nationwide and civil servants are not yet back to work. Water and electricity services have been interrupted, and insecurity has worsened.
“Insecurity is persistent, with the circulation of arms and poor discipline by the Séléka elements,” said Martin.
Following the coup, there were reports of widespread looting and violence in Bangui. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that 10 metric tons of emergency supplies were stolen from its main warehouse.
“The looting continues in Bangui as well as in towns where Séléka are expanding their presence, notably to the west and northwest of Bangui,” Martin continued.
Regarding the number of people affected by the crisis, she said: “We are using the population figure of the entire country, 4.5 million people, [as the number of people] affected. The most vulnerable people - women, children, elderly, [people living with HIV/AIDS] - are most at risk.”
The insecurity has led to population movements.
“In the northwest, people are fleeing to the bush; in Bangui, a few thousand crossed the River [Oubangui] to Zongo [in DRC], but as the situation calms down they are returning,” said Martin.
Insecurity could also worsen in southeastern CAR, an area affected by activities of the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Following the Séléka takeover, Ugandan troops and US military advisers in CAR suspended their search for LRA leader Joseph Kony.
“It is unclear whether the Ugandans and the Americans will leave, but if they do, there will be no security forces left in the southeast of CAR to offer any sort of civilian protection,” Ledio Cakaj, an independent researcher focusing on the LRA, told IRIN.
“It is unlikely that the new CAR regime has the capacity to provide security for an area close to 1,000km away from Bangui, same as was the case under the previous government.”
Cakaj added: “It is not clear yet how Kony will respond to the recent developments, but given the history of attacks in CAR it is likely that LRA attacks against civilians will intensify given the lack of protection of civilians [should the Ugandan and American forces depart].”
The insecurity, which has intensified since December, has affected farming and commercial activities raising food security fears.
“In the interior of the country, people need seeds and agricultural inputs for this agricultural season… Commerce needs to restart to allow people to access goods in markets,” said OCHA’s Martin.
According to a 28 March OCHA update, “The border with all neighbouring countries is closed, which directly affects movement of commercial [goods] and fuel from Douala, which is Bangui’s main commercial and supply line from Cameroon.”
“Land preparation, which should have started in January, is behind schedule in parts,” stated a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) March update.
“The food security situation, which was already alarming… has deteriorated from December 2012 onwards, when the civil conflict escalated,” added the update, warning that the “situation is projected to further deteriorate until the next harvest, in July 2013, especially in the north of Nana-Grebizi, in Ouham and Vakaga regions.”
“It is worth noting that before the crisis erupted, floods in Nana-Gribizi, Ouham and Vakaga prefectures had already affected agricultural activities,” Alessandro Costantino, an economist with FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System on Food, told IRIN.
And more flooding could become a problem: “Every year, flooding occurs in CAR in the middle and towards the end of the rainy season, which spans from April until October in the South, from July to October in the rest of the country,” he said.
Rebels from the northeast
The Séléka rebels mainly come from the restive northeast of CAR, a region that is “geographically isolated, historically marginalized and almost stateless,” according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Circumstances leading to the coup included the “absence of [a] solution to the problem of the armed groups of northeastern CAR; the lack of a programme of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) for these fighters; and a crippled security system,” said a 27 March ICG blog post.
“The disarmament of the fighters has been planned since the agreements of Libreville in 2008, but it has never taken place due to the lack of political will of the Bozizé regime,” it said.
Séléka leader Michel Djotodjia named himself president after the coup, and “if he remains in power, he will be the first CAR president from the remote, neglected and largely Muslim northeast”, said a blog post in African Arguments.
Djotodjia was the leader of the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR) rebels, who merged with rebels from the Convention Patriotique pour le Salut Wa Kodro (CSPK) and Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) to form the Séléka coalition.
Djotodjia’s government plans to hand over power to an elected president after a three-year transition period. But challenges are already emerging, with opposition critical of the composition of the new cabinet named by Séléka on 31 March, days after the suspension of the constitution and the dissolution of CAR’s National Assembly.
At present, hundreds of thousands of people remain cut off from aid and essential services.
According to UNICEF, children are among the worst affected, with some two million lacking access to basic social services and exposed to violence.
“Children in the Central African Republic were some of the most vulnerable in Africa even before the recent upsurge in fighting,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa, in a 29 March statement.
“It is imperative to have full and secure access to communities affected by the conflict. With every lost day, every thwarted delivery and every stolen supply, more children may die.”
Fontaine added, “The time has come for the Séléka coalition, which took power last weekend, to really demonstrate how committed it is to humanitarian principles and human rights for all Central Africans.”