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Brooks Newmark MP: Central African Republic - A forgotten crisis

Newmark_brooks Brooks Newmark has been Conservative MP for Braintree since 2005 and is an Opposition whip. He writes here about the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic, which he witnessed at first hand at the end of last year.

Last year I spent a week in the Central African Republic (CAR) with international health relief organisation, Merlin.

If you are wondering exactly what and where CAR is, unfortunately you are not alone. Some may have heard of the self-styled Emperor Bokassa and his alleged penchant for cannibalism, but today this landlocked country at the geographical heart of Africa and its 4.4 million people are the least reported on in the world. Even the estimated 300,000 who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict have not registered on the global radar.

Yet, statistics alone make CAR worthy of attention: one of the lowest GDPs in the world at nearly $1.8 billion, the same as Sierra Leone and only one fifth of Haiti, with a male life expectancy lower than Somalia and the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the region. The country ranks 172nd out of 177 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index and 67 per cent of the population live on less than 1 dollar a day.

I arrived in the rusting capital, Bangui, on the only weekly flight from Europe, as the first British MP to visit this intriguing country in recent memory. While flattered to be a first, this lack of interest only hints at the deep abyss CAR has fallen into, far from the scrutiny of the international community and the popular conscience.

I quickly learnt that CAR is a country infused with tragic juxtapositions: abandoned villages, burnt out huts and unpaved roads stand in contrast with the gold and diamond deposits and uranium reserves I know the country has. Lush vegetation and trees brimming with fruit contrast with the swollen bellies and market stalls selling just half an onion. “If you drop a seed anywhere in this country, food will grow,” explained Merlin’s country director, Bruno Fugah. Why then are one in three children under the age of five chronically malnourished?

Persistent clashes between rebels, Government soldiers, bandits and civilians have left families constantly on the move – a transient population unable to send their children to school, to cultivate their land or to settle long enough to call somewhere their home.

As I travelled with Merlin through the north of the country I saw a health system in crisis. Hospitals lacking NGO support contained wards left in darkness by broken generators, and stood empty bar a few rusting mattress-less beds. Holes in the ceiling let in rain and medicine cabinets stood empty.

In Bouar Hospital we saw only a handful of patients in a hospital that serves a community of 258,000 people. But why was this hospital lacking in patients, particularly when the area has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country and another meningitis epidemic looming? People are desperately in need of healthcare, but they simply do not come to the hospital. With virtually no government support and staff who have not been paid for over two years, Bouar Hospital is forced to charge for its services. Unable to pay, people simply stay away, left to suffer and in many cases die at home.

The number of international humanitarian agencies working in CAR may have increased from 3 in 2006 to more than 20 now, but more needs to be done to save this country from collapse. CAR needs long-term peace and stability, and international donors, including Britain, need to make the commitment to be here for the long-haul.

Porous borders and a lack of control in the north have led to a relatively open circulation of light arms. This, in combination with an absence of real economic opportunity, has encouraged violent banditry.

“CAR is caught in a cycle of conflict,” the Prime Minister explained to me, referring to the long line of coup d’etats the country has suffered since independence from France in 1960. Insecurity prohibits development, yet the failure to develop brings about more conflict.

Accompanied by UNICEF, I went into the bush to meet Lakoue, a regional leader of the Popular Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy (APRD), one of the many rebel groups in CAR. Stereotypes of a ‘rebel’ were quickly dispelled – Lakoue is articulate, educated and highly focused, and explained why insecurity is the biggest roadblock standing in the way of CAR’s future development. “While I am talking to you, children are dying,” he began, “the government is doing nothing for its people, nothing to protect them from the bandits. Fear is engrained in everyone.”

However, the culmination of last month’s national peace talks raises hope. Just last week a new cabinet of national unity was announced, with a ministerial line-up including ex-rebels and members of opposition parties. Yet, this shaky new Government faces challenging times ahead of municipal and legislative elections later this year, and the presidential elections in 2010.

CAR’s future is crucially intertwined with that of its neighbouring countries. With the Democratic Republic of Congo in the south, Sudan in the east and Chad in the north, CAR borders some of Africa’s most notorious killing fields. Yet while Sudan’s Darfur crisis hits the headlines almost weekly, more Central Africans flee into Sudan than the other way round.

CAR’s strategic location at the heart of this “triangle of death” does give stability here a much wider regional significance. Without help, its porous borders and lack of security may serve as a vacuum for the region’s various rebel groups and a dangerous trigger for further unrest. Yet, its own peace could hold the key for regional stability for millions of people. This alone surely merits it a place on the world’s agenda.

However, it is not only the international press that has forgotten CAR, so too have donors. While development aid to sub-Saharan Africa rose by 87% since 1985, it fell by 49% for CAR. The UK Government gave a mere £2.7 million to CAR last year, compared to £50 million to nearby Rwanda. To a country in disrepair, more aid would provide a lifeline to the people of CAR – in every sense of the word.

CAR is a country with much to offer; it has a ready pool of skilled people eager to work and a plethora of untapped natural resources. CAR’s problems are by no means insurmountable. However, it needs partners, it needs aid, it needs stability, and it needs investors. Boarding my flight back to Paris, words from a meeting with the minister of health earlier in the day echo in my ears: “We need help.”


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