FOREIGN donors are ramping up aid to remote, neglected Central African Republic because they fear cross-border conflicts in neighbouring Sudanâ€™s Darfur and Chad could expand and feed on a vacuum of state authority there.
Plagued by decades of dictatorship, unrest, coup attempts and rebellions, the vast but sparsely populated former French colony is ranked among the worldâ€™s least developed states.
Basic infrastructure is in ruins, bandits roam the bush unchecked by the army or police and borders are left unguarded.
“Everyoneâ€™s heard about Congo, Darfur, and the Great Lakes, but weâ€™ve suddenly realised there is this big empty country in the middle of it all with very permeable borders,” Fiona Ramsey of the European Commissionâ€™s delegation in Bangui told Reuters.
“Though itâ€™s a much smaller conflict, it is a large land mass. It allows smuggling of natural resources. It allows the circulation of arms,” she added.
Landlocked Central African Republicâ€™s strategic significance at Africaâ€™s heart went largely ignored until an anti-government rebellion in Sudanâ€™s western Darfur province erupted in 2003, triggering a political and ethnic conflict that sent raiders and refugees spilling into neighbouring states like Chad.
Fighters from both Chad and Sudan, states which analysts say are waging a proxy war through each otherâ€™s rebels, are known to have used CARâ€™s lawless north to seek refuge or launch attacks.
More recently, the feared Ugandan Lordâ€™s Resistance Army rebel group also targeted the CAR, where in February and March they raided southeastern villages, looting goods and kidnapping civilians to be fighters or sex slaves.
These external conflicts added to the chaos already caused by several internal rebellions against CAR President Francois Bozizeâ€™s government, which, combined with rampant rural banditry, have displaced some 300 000 people in recent years.
“(CAR) is, if anything, worse than a failed state: it has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful institutional capacity at least since … 1979,” the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group said in a report published last year.
Last month, Bozize signed a peace deal consolidating ceasefire pacts with three northern insurgent groups, and a national conference is due to bring together the government, rebels and civilian opposition for reconciliation talks.
Foreign donors hope this will help to focus more international attention on CARâ€™s needs.
In 2006, CAR received as much humanitarian assistance as it had in the three previous years combined. That amount was tripled in 2007 and is expected to again double this year.
“Together this year, between development and humanitarian aid, CAR will probably receive US$350 to $400 million,” Toby Lanzer, UN humanitarian coordinator in Bangui, told Reuters.
A small unit of the European Union military force deployed in eastern Chad to protect refugees from Darfur is based in northeast CAR. But critics question the effectiveness of the EU troops in curbing cross-border raids by heavily armed groups. â€” Reuter.