CAR: Interview with Toby Lanzer – UN Humanitarian Coordinator in CAR

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Central African Republic, plagued by decades of mutinies, coups and rebellions, is in the midst of another cycle of deadly violence. Although two rebel groups are observing a truce with the government ahead of a national political dialogue, bandits who kill and kidnap have contributed to the displacement of almost 300,000 civilians in the north of the country. Although CAR has long been neglected by the international community, the last year has seen a surge in the presence of UN agencies and NGOs. The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator, Toby Lanzer, spoke to IRIN about the country’s problems and what is being done about them:

What are some of the main humanitarian problems in CAR?

“In northern CAR people have been turfed from their villages into the bush. They have been marked from all sides… People are terrorised and can’t go back to their villages, even to get water. It’s nice to know there are no camps [for the displaced] because they take away individual dignity. But this poses tremendous challenges because the displaced are scattered over vast areas of land, which makes the situation complicated logistically and expensive.

“Healthcare is another tremendous challenge in a tropical climate where a minor cut left untreated can quickly turn into a pulsating ulcer.

“The biggest problems in terms of humanitarian access are logistics. Either there is no bridge across a river or no road to a village. The northeast is a swamp for six months of the year.”

What is the attitude of donors to the situation in CAR?

“One of the challenges is that it is so terribly poor that it is easy to blame everything on poverty. But most poor people have roofs over their heads, they have access to fields and wells and despite being poor they can live a quiet life. In northern CAR people live anything but a quiet life…

“We’ve had to market education as an emergency to get money because development donors say they don’t have money for CAR… it’s not on any of their lists. Once you get a kid in school you can feed him, clothe him, provide a safe environment and vaccinate him.

“We’ve had to reach out to humanitarian donors and convince them that there is a crisis here, and they have appreciated this. The change has been dramatic. In 2006, UN agencies and NGOs received more money than in the previous three years combined and in 2007 we doubled the 2006 figure. I’m now calling on donors to maintain and increase their engagement in CAR in 2008 because the needs are high, the stakes are high and we can do the work.”

What are the main threats to civilians?

“It ebbs and flows. Now the main threat is banditry. It seems most bandits come in to CAR from Chad and Niger. They kill, kidnap and rape at random and it is very difficult for CAR’s fledgling army, which is in the midst of reform, to control the major arteries throughout the country.

“Another major issue is rebel groups who seem to have moved away from focussing on good relations with the local population and are increasingly engaged in violence against civilians, girls and young women in particular, but also entire villages thought to be partial to the government.

“The third threat is abuse by the army which continues to carry out reprisals and work outside the letter of the law in the north. But the government is making a genuine effort here, the Garde Presidentielle, for example [responsible for some of the worst abuses against civilians in the past] is now under control.

“But the fact that NGOs and UN staff are now driving down main roads, sleeping in villages, and engaging with local authorities and rebel groups means that people think twice before being violent.”

What is the healthcare situation?

“It’s diabolical in two ways: there is the threat of simple ailments killing people and the collapse and destruction of the healthcare infrastructure to prevent and cure illness. This means that many diseases, from gangrene to malaria, become quick killers which disable societies.

“If you can give people clean water, you’ll halve their health problems. But this is a real challenge because of the nature of the displacement and because this is the only country I know in Africa where people are so poor and downtrodden they don’t even have a transistor radio. This is a huge problem because it prevents us doing advocacy about the importance of washing, boiling water and digging deeper wells and we can’t announce food distributions.”

Why has CAR been ignored for so long?

“You can’t ignore something unless you know it exists. In spite of its name, nobody knows where the Central African Republic is. Very few people know it is a county and even fewer have time to worry about it. Also, it is surrounded by bigger, more complex countries... Until we inform people of why CAR matters, it never will.”

Why does it matter?

“It’s loaded with resources; diamonds, gold, uranium, timber and almost definitely oil. It’s in the interest of the international community to keep CAR stable because it’s surrounded by unstable counties, and Darfur and Chad show no signs of improving in the near future. CAR is often used by trouble-makers as a safe-haven, a throughway, a launching pad for actions in Chad and Sudan.

“Development partners have to walk the talk when they say there should be more aid in Africa. When saying ‘we have to help the poorest of the poor’, their absence for CAR is difficult to explain.”

What’s the good news?

The best thing is that violence by state actors has decreased in the north, government troops are conducting fewer operations, and they’ve stopped burning villages. This is the fruit of advocacy, lobbying and reporting.

“There are now 75,000 children in bush schools [in locations to where entire village populations have fled. Tuition is conducted by parents after basic training]. Vaccination campaigns have prevented killer epidemics such as measles; water and sanitation programmes have prevented cholera; the number of NGOs here has increased from three to 30 since mid 2006.”

Source: IRIN