Thursday, March 4, 2010

Humanitarianism Under Suspicion

Since the rebel attack on Ndele on the 26th of November, the government has severely limited humanitarian and NGO workers' movement. The rebels occupy a stretch of road some 80km north of here (not far from the Chadian border). Before the attack, there were four international NGOs in Ndele. Now there are three, and they are allowed only to work in Ndele and on the road leading south toward Bangui. An NGO that hoped to do a risk assessment on the Golongosso road, another road to Chad, was told “nyet” (as many Central African francophones put it). That road has had problems with cattle rustlers and highway robber-type incidents (some perpetrated by the rebels), and past 84km from Ndele it's said to be more or less in the control of Chadians in uniform (which, given the pervasiveness of men-in-arms in Chad does not necessarily mean soldiers). But it's not particularly more dangerous than many other places where humanitarians work. The government's, and especially the military's, aversion to allowing humanitarian access seems to be motivated not just by security concerns but by a certain mistrust as well.

In a recent conversation, my interlocutor explained one version of the government's reasoning. For one thing, the humanitarians cannot help but support the rebels, he argued. The rebels have a road block, and they will demand “formalities” even of humanitarians. But this man went further, arguing that humanitarianism and rebellion are symbiotic. “If the rebellions end, there will be no more NGOs. In order for an NGO to exist, there have to be rebellions. You will at least agree with me on this one? So, if you want your career to exist there has to be rebellion. When the rebellions end, they'll tell you no, we don't need NGOs and that will end their careers. There won't be any more funding from over there either.”

The boom in NGO presence in CAR dates to late 2006 and 2007, when CAR was able to capitalize on its proximity to Darfur and the extensive fund-raising of a highly energetic UN coordinator to draw international interest. Not entirely incidentally, since then the number of rebellions has gone from two to five or so, depending on how you count (one of the groups is generally brushed off as Chadian and thereby an illegitimate contender for the upcoming disarmament program. Never mind that the leader of one of the other armed groups – Abdulaye Miskine – is also a Chadian/CAR citizen and under suspicion of the ICC to boot).

For the international NGOs there is always another crisis somewhere else, whether an earthquake or a war. But their local staff might have to scramble a bit to find new employment. One young man I met in Birao (the far northeast, near Sudan) a couple of years ago who was doing dance and games for kids courtesy an NGO contract now sells pilfered flowers outside a Bangui supermarket and, when he recognizes an NGO face, pretends that they were in fact a gift to this special person...and does she know of any job openings?

Many state employees have explained to me that, in contrast to “here one day, gone the next” NGOs, the biggest advantage of their posts is that once a public servant, always a public servant. You even get a pension. Not necessarily a regularly paid pension, but a feeling of entitlement to one. But the people who seem to have the most dignity and self-respect are those who aspire to use whatever jobs they hold to squirrel away money so they can buy a tract of land in the countryside where they can farm, raise animals, and live off the grid, free from politics.

Though the comment above exaggerates and simplifies, it reminded me of the reason a friend gave for leaving the anti-landmine world, where she had worked for a number of years. Getting rid of landmines, she said, is entirely doable. It takes nothing more or less than tedious work by humans (guinea rats and dogs are not reliable, meaning that the fields they “clear” are not really cleared). But she came to the conclusion that her fellow bureaucrats in Geneva were so comfortable with their modern offices and business class travel to international conferences that, whether consciously or sub-consciously, they stalled real progress. Sometimes it seems to me that all an armed group needs to do to go from highway bandit – criminal – to rebel – political opponent – is to adopt a patriotic acronym. And once one does that, recognition from the international system, with its peacebuilding programs and aid and all the rest, descend. Arresting the cycle of rebellion does not get easier as more disaffected politicians try to work these levers, with all the jobs they represent.


  1. No power for months, the food is going bad. People are starving to death. The government runs all the investors out. When will the blood letting begin? When will they start killing the leaders? I hope I am wrong here about the violence, but a corrupt election is due in April. Shame on these people, be safe around these fools.

  2. There is a rumor now that that a purported video shows President Bozzize himself torturing and murdering Charles Massey. I dont know if this guy Massey deserved to be killed, what we do know is that its time for FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS!!! ITS TIME FOR CHANGE.