As part of the campaign to free Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, Enrica Picco reflects on how his work has helped and can help the United Nations. To support the campaign, follow @FaribaRoland on Twitter.
In January 2014, I met Roland Marchal for the first time at the United Nations headquarters in New York, during a meeting I attended as Humanitarian Affairs Officer for Médecins Sans Frontières. I was familiar with his work, but I had never been in a meeting with him before. Nine months after the coup d’état, the Central African Republic (CAR) was in total chaos and at the height of inter-communal violence. The United Nations knew almost nothing about the Central African Republic, though it was preparing to take over management of the crisis from the African Union, and to launch a peacekeeping mission. It was therefore a matter of providing them with the elements they needed in order to understand and try to resolve the ongoing conflict.
I distinctly remember the mood of the participants around the table, as well as other small details, but I have very little recollection of the discussions. We must surely have talked about the number of peacekeepers that needed to be deployed to stabilise the country, and the conditions that would make it possible to go ahead with elections – a set of elements that proved inadequate for bringing the crisis to an end. Yet I do remember the input of this “little researcher” (as he likes to call himself), who I had only just met. While most speakers were looking in the peacekeeping manual for answers, Roland was looking at the economy: an injection of money would have encouraged people to buy goods and trade, bringing the Christian and Muslim communities closer by creating a process of “reconciliation based on necessity”.
Roland’s contributions to the UN meetings are always like this: original, fairly unconventional, going against the flow. His advice – too progressive for UN standards – is rarely followed, but always leaves its mark. Because of his many academic commitments and his travels to Somalia (the other country he carries in his heart), Roland rarely travels to Bangui. Yet this has not stopped from establishing a solid network of contacts in the CAR. As well as keeping him informed in real time, this network also enables him to formulate analyses that are always relevant. Over the past five years MINUSCA (the UN mission in the CAR) has been able to take advantage of his insight on more than one occasion.
After the 2016 elections, every possible scenario seemed open. We were more optimistic about the chances of lasting peace in the Central African Republic then, than we are now. While MINUSCA and other international partners focused their attention on new president Faustin Archange Touadera and his government, Roland suggested that we look further afield, seeing potential to be tapped in the newly-elected members of parliament. Many of these people were arriving from the provinces to take a seat in the National Assembly for the first time, which could have helped the Bangui elites open up towards the outskirts and their all-too-often forgotten populations, as well as to the rebel leaders awaiting an approach (and an offer) from the new government.
Beyond Bangui there was a whole country in need of rebuilding, and initiatives to restore state authority were beginning to take shape – from security system reform to the redeployment of civil servants in the provinces. At the same time, how could we ensure that the new Central African state had the financial means to emerge from the infusion of international aid? At the time, MINUSCA and the government were studying a plan to deploy special police brigades to mining sites, to secure the areas of exploitation and ensure the state’s revenue from its subsoil. With his in-depth knowledge of Central African realpolitik, Roland suggested that instead, they set up a system to co-manage the mines with the rebels. This could have prevented the outbreak of open conflict, with armed groups controlling mining areas. It would also (and above all) have allowed the state to edge into areas in which it had never had a presence, and gradually strengthen itself. These are just a few examples of the ideas that only a researcher like Roland dares express, in meetings at the highest level.
Roland is a rigorous – but not detached – observer. His empathy with the suffering of Central Africans, his disappointment with the corruption among part of the country’s political elite – in short, his profound humanity – only serves to enrich his research. The frustrations that sometimes make him sound harsh, at some meetings, have also generated new ideas and perspectives for analysis.
In 2017, when the Central African Republic experienced its worst year after the spiralling violence of 2013-2014, Roland and I shared the same perspective. Faced with an escalation of clashes between armed groups and a rise in intercommunity violence, MINUSCA showed its own powerlessness, and the national authorities seemed to be locked in the Bangui “bubble”, where pre-crisis habits of bad governance were being reaffirmed. At that time, Roland warned MINUSCA of the risks of institutional support that could re-establish the model of centralisation of prerogatives and powers that had been typical of President Bozizé’s era. He also claimed that no reconciliation was possible unless economic crimes were an integral part of transitional justice processes. Even today, this observation is of the utmost relevance.
The last meeting I attended with the United Nations was in August 2019 – two months after Roland Marchal and Fariba Adelkhah were arrested. The peace agreement signed earlier this year between the Central African government and 14 armed groups has served only to crystallise the status quo – without resolving the political crisis or stopping the violence against civilians. In addition, the implementation phase of the agreement was expected to be extremely complex, due to the multiplicity of interests involved. At an impasse like this, the feeling of going around in circles, listening to the same problems and suggesting the same solutions over the past six years, was beginning to weigh heavily on us. I hope that Roland’s analyses and enlightened pragmatism will soon bring fresh impetus to the discussions.
Enrica Picco is a lawyer and researcher, a specialist in Central Africa and a former member of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Central African Republic.