Heart of darkness

Another anti-government rebellion is under way in the middle of Africa

This time it is in the Central African Republic (CAR) and so far nearly a dozen towns, including the major settlement of Kaga Bandano, have fallen into rebel hands. The dissidents, who are threatening to march on the capital, Bangui, complain that the CAR president, Francois Bozize, has not stuck to the terms of the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement (LCPA), which was forged between the government and all but one of the country’s armed groups. (The one gang which did not sign the original LCPA belatedly put its pen to paper in June this year.)

But this upsurge in violence has worried Western nations. The US has moved its ambassadorial staff to safety and on 26 December protesters threw stones at the French Embassy building in Bangui, tearing down the tricolore in anger at the rebellious movements in the north of the country. The CAR government has asked for help from Paris in sorting out the malcontents but the French leader, Francois Hollande, is reluctant to get back involved in the internal politics of his country’s former colony. (On a recent trip to Algeria, another ex-French subject state, Mr Hollande described colonialism as “profoundly unjust and brutal”.)

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the ‘Seleka’ rebel attacks and called for both sides to come to a peaceful solution. Surprisingly, the rebels seemed to have been aided in their assaults on many places due to the withdrawal of the troops stationed there, many of whom are from the CAR’s northern neighbour, Chad. But the idea of an internal rebel advance, taking towns and villages along the way, feels remarkably familiar and fresh in the memory. Just to the CAR’s south is the huge rough rectangle that forms the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and this other acronymed African country has had recent rebellious problems of its own.

On 20 November soldiers from the M23 rebel army stormed the town of Goma, in the far east of the DRC, close to the Rwandan border. The M23 group defected from the Congolese army in a dispute over a 2009 peace agreement that saw rebels reintegrated into the military; the group takes its name from the date of these accords (23 March). After the fall of Goma, the M23 soldiers wrested control of several other towns in the region from the UN-backed national Congolese forces. The M23 rebels retreated from Goma at the start of this month after a frail peace deal was agreed between the two sides.

The rebel movements in both the CAR and the DRC arose from peace accords that were meant to have put a stop to all this mutiny. The incendiary nature of fractured rebel factions, government crackdowns and other cross-border rebel influences mean that the current situation of a fragile peace in DRC and an ongoing insurrection in CAR is dangerous. Added to this mix are further international groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. These outlaws are headed by globally wanted man Joseph Kony and they are infamous for mass recruitment of child soldiers and for a growing list of crimes, from robbery to rape. They are based around and about this general central/east-central African region.

This region is certainly bubbling. CAR shares a frontier with the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, which is still completing a slow, complex and often violent divorce from Sudan. Al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants Al-Shabaab have been willing to pop over the south-western border to Kenya to carry out suicide attacks in markets and nightclubs. When a few nations are involved, it is more likely that they will be able to get together themselves and sort out their problems. But the growing entanglement of national influences and interests amongst the jungles and red-dirt roads of the area may now signify the moment for an ‘outside’ power to step in and mediate. However, as we have seen from the plea from the CAR for help from their former colonial master, it would be nearly impossible to find a mediator who is not tarnished by current, former, overt or covert ties and partialities.

Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.