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geoffrey york

The latest news from the Central African Republic is shocking and horrific. Villages burned to the ground; machete attacks; the cold-blooded execution of civilians; more than 120 bodies collected by Red Cross volunteers; thousands of terrified people hiding in the hills.

The European Union is calling it an "alarming" and "urgent" situation, with the entire population at "grave risk" because of the chaos and power vacuum. Rebels have overthrown the former government, but the new regime is too weak to stop the violent gangs that roam the countryside. Sectarian clashes are escalating, and more than 300,000 people have fled their homes this year alone, while the state has nearly collapsed.

It's an unfolding disaster that cries out for a large-scale military intervention – just like earlier crises in Somalia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet the world community has been frozen by indecision for most of the past year.

The reasons for this indecision tell us much about the difficulty in organizing a foreign intervention in a country without any strategic value to the global powers. Thousands of people can be dying, or a state can collapse, yet the world ignores the crisis if there's no powerful sponsor to lobby for an intervention.

The world's hesitation in the Central African Republic (CAR) also tells us much about the often-hyped new ideology of "African solutions for African problems" – a policy often touted by African leaders as the rule for the future.

In the old days, a colonial power such as France would simply swoop into a country like the CAR, deploying tough units of battle-hardened troops to crack heads and impose a solution. Those days are supposed to be finished by now, yet the locally led solutions have been slow to emerge.

French President François Francois Hollande came to office last year pledging an end to the old policy of "Françafrique" – a neocolonial policy in which France routinely meddled in its African sphere of influence to impose its own regimes or defend its own business interests. For months after the coup in Mali last year, he sought to encourage an "African solution." Only when Islamist militants were on the verge of sweeping into the heart of southern Mali did Mr. Hollande finally send in French troops to attack the rebels.

This time, the world powers are again paying lip service to the notion of an African-led solution in the CAR. But there are already about 1,400 African troops in the CAR, and they have been unable to bring any kind of peace to the country. There are plans to increase the African contingent to about 3,600 troops – a number that is still unlikely to resolve the crisis, especially since the African troops lack the military hardware and airlift capacity that a Western force would enjoy.

African countries have had suffered heavy losses in other "peacekeeping" missions across the continent, and most will be reluctant to get involved in a messy conflict like the CAR, unless there is strong support (and financial help) from Western powers.

South African president Jacob Zuma sent about 250 troops to the CAR last January, responding to a plea from ex-president Francois Bozize. Less than three months later, 15 of those South African troops were killed by the Seleka rebels who overthrew the Bozize regime. The deaths sparked a political uproar in South Africa, and Mr. Zuma hastily withdrew the rest of its military contingent.

Mr. Zuma has called for "urgent" action to help rescue the CAR from its looming catastrophe, but it is unclear whether he would send troops again. If he does, it would be a relatively small contingent, to avoid the political risks of the previous deployment.

Uganda and Burundi, meanwhile, are believed to have lost hundreds of their UN-backed troops in fighting against Islamist radicals in Somalia, although neither country has divulged their casualty toll. Both have kept their troops in Somalia, partly because the soldiers get above-average salaries, courtesy of their Western financial backers.

The United Nations is likely to approve a bigger African peacekeeping force in the CAR, but the planned force of 3,600 troops is still unlikely to arrive in the country until next year.

In the meantime, it may fall to France again to handle the tough work in the CAR. It currently has about 450 troops in the country, and it will reportedly increase its contingent to as many as 1,200 troops. Since they would be better-equipped and better-supported than the African force, they might have a greater impact.

Asked about the CAR crisis this week, two senior U.S. officials echoed the same alarm as their European colleagues. "It's a tragic situation in that country," said Gen. David Rodriguez, head of AFRICOM, the Pentagon's military command for Africa. He said the United States is "absolutely supporting" the French military efforts in the CAR – but he also emphasized that the response must be "Africa-led."

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the United States will provide "training and equipment" to support the Africans in their response to the CAR crisis. "We know any ungoverned space is welcoming to terrorists," she told African-based journalists in a conference call this week.

Geoffrey York is the Globe and Mail's Africa bureau chief, based in Johannesburg.