Robert I. Rotberg, of Harvard's Kennedy School, is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, in Waterloo.
"There are the people we need to kill. Why leave them alive? We need to kill them and take their things … We will kill the men first. Then we will take their possessions," a Christian militia leader told his followers as they attacked a compound sheltering Muslims in the Central African Republic. "You are going to die. We will exterminate you," the Muslims were told, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The clash took place in a diamond-mining town west of Bangui, the capital, a few weeks ago. But similar tit-for-tat killings have been taking place every day for months around the CAR. Muslims stay fearfully in their section of Bangui for fear of instant slaughter. What was once a poor but reasonably calm country of 4.5 million people has been turned into a massive killing field.
Religious strife was largely unknown before 13 months ago, when a cadre of Muslim insurgents called Séléka swept into Bangui from the north, ousted the government of François Bozizé and installed Michel Djotodia as a replacement.
Séléka may be been supported from neighbouring Chad. It had grievances about developmental promises Mr. Bozizé had failed to keep. But neither Mr. Djotodia nor the Séléka generals could keep their forces from looting and harassing Christian villages. Nor could Séléka effectively combat Mr. Bozizé's followers, who stormed back into the CAR from neighbouring Cameroon and joined the killing and stealing.
The so-called anti-balaka ("anti-machete") Christian militias were formed by city and village groups for protection against Séléka marauders. But they, too, have come to specialize in random mayhem against Muslims, the invasion of Muslim enclaves in Bangui and elsewhere, revenge killings or killings for killing's sake, and wholesale plundering.
The CAR has become a desperate and degraded place. But humanity is now even more greatly jeopardized than ever before. More than 600,000 of the country's citizens are displaced internally, 200,000 of them from Bangui. As many as 100,000 of the 600,000 have been living in makeshift dwellings and old airplanes for many months within the fenced confines of Bangui's international airport. About 80,000, mostly Muslims, have fled to Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 140,000 civilians have lost their lives in the past year.
Canada could play an important role in stanching the conflict and returning the CAR to peace. Late last year, France sent a force that now numbers 2,000 troops; as in Mali, the French legions were quick to attempt to separate Muslims and Christians and to try to impose order, particularly on Bangui. But a contingent of that number cannot patrol everywhere.
Despite the valiant French efforts, assisted at times (occasionally effectively) by 6,000 troops from various African Union countries – mostly Rwanda, Burundi and Chad – the carnage has continued. A European Union contribution of 1,000 soldiers from several countries is due in the next few months, but reinforcements are needed immediately, especially since the 900-strong African Union force from Chad has returned home after being accused of siding with Séléka and the Muslims, and being less than neutral with Christians.
With Syria, Afghanistan and the DRC continuing to boil, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's urgent call for 12,000 blue helmets and more than 1,000 police officers for the CAR cannot be answered. But the chaos will continue in the CAR unless Canada chooses to respond robustly.
Why Canada? Because all the other capable Western countries are otherwise engaged or extended. Because Canada has the francophone links. Because the CAR has been a country of concern for Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency. And most of all, because the CAR is a beleaguered, desperate, neglected country with no real friends beyond France.
With comparatively modest exertion – deployment of a few thousand soldiers and up to 1,000 Mounties – Canada could help the French, EU and African forces to restore order and the possibility of stability. Canada could make a difference.
Central Africans would greet Canadian soldiers with enthusiasm, even as saviours. Interim president Catherine Samba-Panza, well-intentioned but overwhelmed, needs all the assistance she can get from abroad. Right now, she needs what French-speaking Canadian troops and police could supply: integrity, incorruptible sense of mission and implacability in the pursuit of stability.
Canadian forces would be respected and capable of performing a service to world order and the Central Africans that no other country is currently available to supply. It would also help to fulfill Canada's historic mission in the greater world.