The Danger of Not Supplementing Aid to Africa with Arms: The Case of the Central African Republic

The Danger of Not Supplementing Aid to Africa with Arms: The Case of the Central African Republic

Marcel Plichta

Is it worthwhile to supply military equipment to developing countries? German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s answer to that question has drawn critiques from proponents of development aid. While French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most scrutinized for his controversial comments about Africa at the G-20 Summit, Angela Merkel also came under fire for her comments on arms. Speaking at a June meeting with African leaders leading up to the G-20, the German Chancellor argued that donors should be more open to supplying military aid, saying that, “For many years, we felt good that we didn’t focus on military equipment…but we have to be honest – only where security is ensured can development take place.”

Her comments drew criticism from some, including Professor Earl Conteh-Morgan of the University of South Florida, who argues that arms transfers would undermine development efforts in Africa because those resources would supplant humanitarian aid. Such transfers would be ultimately ineffective, Conteh-Morgan argues, because the continent is “already awash with small arms and light weapons.”

If Merkel is indeed off-base and arms transfers are as useless to peacebuilding as critics argue, then the Central African Republic should be the poster child for successful development efforts. Donor countries can’t transfer military equipment because the country has been under a UN arms embargo since the fall of the government in 2013.

Nor can the CAR’s government buy domestic. Those weapons that are illicitly smuggled in, notably from Sudan, have ultimately been limited because of the CAR’s lack of infrastructure. Lack of standardization risks making the government’s forces appear the same as the rebels, and while arms aren’t a rarity, some rebel groups, even with access to significant wealth from diamond and gold mining, have had to resort to improvised weapons and antique or craft-made firearms to fill their needs.

The only actors who seem unable to arm themselves at all are the CAR’s own security forces. The Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA), the CAR’s military, numbers about 8,500 disarmed soldiers, who are unable to act while the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA provides security in capital city Bangui and further afield. Of those 8,500 soldiers, only 650 have been trained to the standard the EU considers acceptable in the nearly 5 years international forces have been present in the country.

So how have things worked out? In short, they haven’t. Despite a framework agreement signed by the government and the multitude of rebel groups in the country agreeing to disarm and a free election in early 2016, intrastate violence continues to rise. 600,000 people are internally displaced, and accusations of genocide are emerging. A $2.2 Billion USD aid package from the EU is unlikely to change the situation much, and the government is hamstrung by the lack of a military to enforce the framework agreement and the need to appease international donors.

Aid cannot be administered effectively in an insecure environment. The rampant insecurity in the CAR, even with the presence of thousands of peacekeepers, stymies development efforts. The continual deterioration of the security situation has led to violence against aid workers, such as the tragic deaths of 6 Red Cross volunteers early this month, the withdrawal of some aid organizations from large sections of the country.

Peacekeepers can only help so much. While the president’s spokesman indicated that MINUSCA’s mandate was sufficiently broad and they can be extraordinarily effective when forced to fight, their defensive posture means they can only react to the frequent ambushes, rather than able to take proactive measures to protect themselves and the communities they are tasked to protect. Most recently, two peacekeepers were killed in late July after militants ambushed a supply convoy.

Failure to root out armed groups is not the Peacekeepers’ faults, UN missions will never have the ability to actively engage armed groups the way a sovereign state’s military and police can. Ignoring the issue of arming and training the FACA and gendarmerie leaves the CAR robbed of legitimate means to enforce the law. While standing up and army and police force is no easy task -- the CAR doesn’t need Security Sector Reform so much as a Security Sector at all -- the alternative is the perpetual lack of state authority beyond the capital that has characterized the CAR since independence.

A well-trained and competently equipped security sector is not just beneficial for the CAR government, but also for donor countries. A state able to combat armed groups unilaterally ensures that civilians and aid workers can go about their business freely, peacekeepers can take a passive role, and refugees in neighboring countries can return to their homes. Among the armed groups active in the CAR are the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Janjaweed militia, both of whom have drawn significant ire from the international community for their brutal campaigns. Many armed groups in the CAR turn to elephant poaching to finance their activities, a threat that under-supported park rangers and wildlife organizations need help combating.  

Critics of Merkel’s statements claim that African countries cannot afford more military equipment, but can the people of the CAR afford to live in a state of anarchy? Her comments reflect that development efforts in insecure regions are far more difficult to accomplish, an insight that has been sorely missed in countries like the CAR. While the tradeoff for some is that there are fewer resources for humanitarian aid if more is spent on military aid, what purpose does more development funding serve if it cannot reach its recipients? As long as states like the Central African Republic are unable to protect their citizens and development workers, the situation will not improve.

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