Friday, August 04, 2006

Arms Across Central Africa

A July report by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (SAS) on the understudied Central African Republic (CAR) reiterates the fragile volatility of this land-locked, often overlooked nation. Despite having hosted four international peacekeeping missions in the last ten years, the civil wars and humanitarian disasters in neighboring countries (Chad, Sudan, Niger, DR Congo) routinely make headlines while CAR remains an unknown quantity to the outside world. My personal theory, not entirely facetious, is that the country needs a more memorable name, one that sounds less like an airport parking lot.

The July SAS report summarizes four years of research indicating failure by the central government to regulate weapons among civilians, and how this has led to a massive influx of arms into large parts of the country. The resulting inability of government security forces to maintain law and order is increasingly evident across the country, with large population displacement as civilians (women and children predominantly) flee waves of armed criminality by roving gangs. Populations of CAR refugees in the DRC, Sudan and southern Chad have grown into the tens of thousands over the last couple of years.

Besides addressing the usual causes and effects of uncontrolled arms proliferation, the spread of arms-related violence and its impact on social development and economic indicators, the report examines the ways in which international neglect of one African context (CAR, in this case) can fuel or trigger conflict in the wider region: Chad, Sudan and DR Congo all have experienced a domino effect from CAR's simmering instability. The government's assertion that 50,000 small arms are circulating beyond its control, for example, is shown to be grossly underestimated; its capacity to regulate weapons among civilians non-existent. Past disarmament efforts have been ineffective, as SAS argues in a chapter in its 2005 yearbook.

In November 2005 I visited the southern Chadian town of Gore where over 30,000 refugees had fled the violence in northern CAR. The UN refugee body (UNHCR) had set up makeshift camps and was draining tight resources from its activities in Eastern Chad for the 200,000+ Darfuri refugees settled there. Few aid agencies apart from UNHCR could spare the resources to respond to the refugee influx, a shortfall aggravated by the lack of media interest in the story.

Ass, grass or goats, nobody rides for free: bus en route for Bangui
(Photographer: Paul Dymond)

Small Arms Survey publishes periodic reports, such as this one, but its main mission is the massive yearbook, microscopically researched and often amazingly well-written. These annual reviews are on a par with similar annual tomes documenting, for instance, the state of global human rights (Human Rights Watch), or the state of landmine pollution and/or destruction (Landmine Monitor).

I've long held SAS in high regard, well before they published my report on the impact of armed violence on women's livelihoods and sexual health in Burundi. The indispensibility of the group lies in its capacity to generate, year after year, evidence documenting the countless ways that small arms proliferation impedes social and economic development in poor countries. The obvious irony that these weapons often originate in the same industrialized countries whose development aid budgets ostensibly save lives in places like CAR, is borne out through careful documentation.

No other think tank establishes with similar objectivity the causal link between arms transfers and underdevelopment in countries with notoriously dysunctional governance--a causality that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. The absurd logic of simultaneous arms transfers and foreign aid to poor nations by rich ones is so fundamentally wrong-headed it defies comprehension. Perhaps, in a daydream world, some invisible hand is guiding these inputs, and good will result. <Audience laughter cue here.>

Like most Africans I meet in my work, I believe that western donors, particularly the US, have no coherent strategy to deal with Africa, hence the competing forms of intervention and their tendency to mutually undermine one another. No one in the donor governments is willing to break some eggs, bust a few egos, and forcefully weave the various tentacles of our schizoid African policy into a coherent strategy. Why? Because at some reptilian level of the psyche, we are afraid of Africa ever becoming, God forbid, functional.

Contrary to many Africans and Americans, however, I do believe that the UN, bless its battered soul, does have Africa's interests at heart. Unfortunately, its meagre resources and capacity cannot stem the tides of (1) a venal political class in many of Africa's poorest countries and (2) the aid agendas of donor nations wiltering before the iron fist of their economic/power interests, which rarely match those of the UN.

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