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The ‘New York Times’ Got More Right than Wrong About the Central African Republic
A New York Times column about the Central African Republic (CAR), “Conflict is More Powerful Than Peace”, from two-time Pulitzer winner Nick Kristof, is a big deal. The African nation’s ongoing conflicts constitute one of the least-known political crises of our time. The only substantial coverage CAR received before Kristof’s article was ongoing allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers that came to light in 2015. The article has come under fire from commentators for its portrayal of the country, but, despite some egregious errors, Kristof got more right than wrong about the Central African Republic.
Kristof’s March 25th article in the Times was an introduction to CAR for most Americans. But for regional experts, Kristoff’s initial portrayal of CAR as possibly “the world’s most wretched country” was objectionable. Sarah Knuckey of Columbia Law’s Human Rights Institute was particularly critical of the column, pointing out via Twitter and statements to NPR that the article’s lack of consideration for the work Central Africans themselves are doing, and the underlying causes for CAR’s current crisis produced a “shallow” analysis of the country.
Knuckey has a point. Kristof’s overwrought characterization of CAR is reminiscent of Blood Diamond, Black Hawk Down, and every other piece of Western media portraying Sub-Saharan Africa as a violent and hopeless place. Kristoff’s claim that CAR may be the “capital of human misery” only serves to reinforce popular misconceptions about CAR and Sub-Saharan Africa in general, rather than honestly portraying the country’s deteriorating security situation as something abnormal.
But Kristof is not entirely off the mark. The window-dressing of his article was full of the same tired rhetoric that has pervaded portrayals of Africa since Heart of Darkness, but the attention the article draws to CAR’s issues is vital. While belaboring the point about how awful life is for Central Africans is unnecessary, Kristof’s assertion that CAR “constitutes one of the most neglected crises in the world” is exactly right. At a time when the Trump Administration is attempting to cut as much foreign aid as possible, France is focusing on extremism in the Sahel, and the EU is being rocked by democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, CAR is being left by the wayside.
In this geopolitical context, the discourse coming from Kristof’s critics, such as U.S. Institute for Peace program specialist Igor Acko’s qualification that CAR is “not the most miserable” country, misses the broader point. What Kristof has hit upon is that the current efforts to stabilize the country are not cutting it. Despite the UN mission’s presence in the country for the last few years, the majority of CAR is controlled by over a dozen non-state actors, which makes it extremely dangerous for aid organizations to help underserved areas. Central African aid workers, as Knuckey rightfully pointed out, work very hard to help their compatriots, and too often pay for it with their lives.
The international community’s commitment has been lacking. CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra asked the European Union for a $3.16 Billion USD package to help with reconstruction over the course of five years, but the final sum was nearly a billion dollars short, and is being delivered inconsistently. EU efforts to train the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) have been slow going, and less responsible actors such as Russia have begun picking up the EU’s slack by sending arms and advisors to the beleaguered country. Without a functional military, it will be hard for President Touadéra to continue the peace process with rebel groups after the UN packs up and leaves.
Leaving CAR to its fate not an option. Even if the moral imperative to help Central Africans build a brighter future doesn’t matter to some policymakers, allowing the situation to continue deteriorating threatens UN efforts in the region. Rebel groups such as the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and Sudanese Janjaweed militias take advantage of the porous borders to regroup, exploit the local population, and poach endangered species for financial benefit. These groups threaten the stability of CAR’s neighbors, many of which have UN missions of their own.
Kristof’s critics should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Days after Kristof’s article came out, major outlets such as The Washington Post and the Thompson Reuters Foundation ran pieces on the country. The more media attention CAR’s situation gets, the more pressure there will be for the US and international organizations to take the crisis seriously and fight just as hard as Central Africans themselves for CAR’s future.