As South Africans cheered President Barack Obama’s speech at the funeral of Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a nation of 4.6 million people 2,500 miles north was being torn apart by religious hatred.
Muslim civilians in the Central African Republic, clutching machetes and crude, homemade weapons, prepared to fight off marauding Christians. Christians were forming self-defense militias in other parts of a country the size of Texas, to prevent Muslims from slitting their throats.
“We drove through some villages where every single person has picked up arms,” Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told me in a telephone interview from the republic on Tuesday. “Children as young as 11 have picked up daggers or have knives or even hunting rifles.”
As world leaders praised Mandela’s legacy of tolerance and reconciliation, the international community was still struggling with how to respond to one of humanity’s most depraved acts—mass killings. Chaos and sectarian killings have steadily spread throughout the Central African Republic since predominantly Muslim Seleka—“Alliance”—rebels ousted the Christian president, Francois Bozize, in March.
Rebel leader Michel Djotodia lost control of his forces, which have carried out atrocities against Christians across the resource-rich, but unstable former French colony. Over time, Christian militias retaliated. Last week shootings, stabbings and lynchings spiraled across the country.
At least 465 people have died since last Thursday, according to the Red Cross. United Nations officials have warned—in unusually blunt terms—that the country contained “the seeds of a genocide.” After failing to halt genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, the United Nations now faces what the New York Times called a “reckoning” in the Central African Republic.
With the United Nations already carrying out 15 peacekeeping missions worldwide and Western militaries focused on counterterrorism missions, a new approach is unfolding in the Central African Republic. Last week the U.N. Security Council authorized sending 1,600 French peacekeepers to bolster the poorly equipped African Union force of 2,500. The Obama administration has offered $100 million in equipment and assistance.
Wealthy nations are funding a poorly-equipped regional peacekeeping force instead of authorizing more costly United Nations troops. It is still unclear whether the approach will work—but it reflects new political realities in Africa, Europe and the United States.
An increasingly assertive African Union, which has won praise for recent peacekeeping missions in Somalia, said it wanted to deploy forces in the Central African Republic, rather than use U.N. troops.
With the continent now home to several of the fastest-growing economies in the world, African leaders are arguing they can sort out their own problems. Bolstered by economic growth sparked by Chinese investment in the continent, African Union leaders are eager to assert their growing economic and political power and remove all vestiges of Western colonialism.
Given the slow pace and high cost of creating a U.N. force to operate in the landlocked Central African country, American and European diplomats agreed to the joint AU-French intervention. In the United States and Europe, war weariness and fiscal crises have tempered the appetite for costly U.N. interventions.
For years, Western governments demanded the United Nations shrink or eliminate its large, outdated peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. They also called for the U.N.’s 21,000-troop, $1.5 billion mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to shift to the country’s east. U.N. officials, however, have generally resisted the changes, saying large missions remain necessary.