The British press is demanding Western intervention in the Central African Republic (CAR) after stories of atrocities and the threat of genocide.
Militias emerging from the former Seleka rebel alliance are said to have massacred people across the country of 4.6 million. But the West is not a disinterested party in this grim situation.
The country has major reserves of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium. And Britain is a major supplier of military hardware to the country.
It was the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who said this week, “The country is on the verge of genocide.” He added, “The United Nations will give permission to African forces, the African Union and France to intervene.”
Around 400 French troops are in the country, guarding the airport in the capital Bangui and French assets. Troop numbers could be raised to 1,200.
The French government is busy reasserting its position in its former colonies after what it regards as a successful military intervention in Mali earlier this year.
Some people argue that the solution is to put an African Union peacekeeping force in place. But the fact that dictator François Bozize had relied on South African troops to maintain power, before the Seleka overthrew him, shows that putting more troops in is not the solution.
The Seleka—which means “alliance”—overthrew the weak and unpopular government of the CAR in March this year. The alliance had little in common apart from their hatred of the existing regime.
The rebel forces were officially disbanded in September. Some have been integrated into the national army, but many others have refused to disband, effectively acting as bandits.
Up to 400,000 people have been displaced. Both bandit groups and the official army are implicated in attacks on civilians.
The Seleka largely come from the minority Muslim population. But they do not fit into a racist view of brutal Islamic fundamentalists, being neither ideological nor determined to impose their ideas on others.
Yet the last thing that will help is the presence of more Western soldiers. CAR has one of the world’s lowest life expectancies, just above Afghanistan.
The French authorities bear a lot of responsibility for the dismal state of the country.
France occupied the area at the end of the 19th century. It gave concessions to 17 companies to make the area profitable. The colonial government demanded both taxes and unpaid labour.
The republic gained independence in 1960, but it was France that imposed Colonel Jean Bedel Bokassa as president in 1965.
His increasingly brutal rule did not stop him becoming a favourite for Western aid. French paratroopers removed him from power after a massacre of 100 school students in 1979 for refusing to wear uniforms from a factory Bokassa owned.
The French weren’t fighting for freedom of the people of the CAR. They sought only to impose a slightly less embarrassing regime, one which they frequently defended with troops.
In 2007 French troops took part in an assault on the town of Birao alongside CAR forces during a rebellion. The 14,000-strong population was forced out, many fleeing to the warzone of Darfur for relative safety.