Former child soldiers who were embroiled in the Central African Republic’s civil war have now become frontline aid workers in the country’s fight against COVID-19. As part of UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) relief program, which began in 2015, the former soldiers are hired to provide safe drinking water by manually drilling wells and laying pipes. So far, they have installed wells for about 25,000 people, a critical service, especially during the pandemic.
The program offers a path to rehabilitation
Years of civil war devastated the Central African Republic’s already fragile healthcare system and left about half of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. For the child soldiers, the WASH program offers a path to rehabilitation; it has given them the opportunity to learn valuable skills and to earn a living. It helps to minimize the chances of them relapsing into fighting by joining one of about a dozen armed groups operating in the country.
It also encourages communities to accept these former child soldiers back into their communities. Rejection is another motivating factor for recidivism, even though the country’s militias agreed in 2015 to free all child soldiers and end child recruitment.
As the world continues to fixate on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is feared that efforts to combat malaria will fall by the wayside. Caused by a parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito, malaria is one of the most persistent and deadliest diseases in Africa.
In the Central African Republic, this concern is even more important as the country continues to painfully rebuild from a civil war that began in 2012 and wreaked havoc on the country’s already weak healthcare infrastructure.
There has been an uptick in malaria cases where artemisia-based treatments seem to be less effective than before
At the Pasteur Institute in Bangui, Dr. Romaric Nzoumbou-Boko is focusing his research on the possibility of a new strain of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite that may have developed a mutation that has made it resistant to treatments derived from the artemisia plant. Medical professionals in the capital of Bangui have noted an uptick in malaria cases where artemisia-based treatments seem to be less effective than before. If this were true, it would be a significant upset to public health in numerous countries, not just in Africa, where artemisinin extracted from the Artemisia annua plant has been used for prophylactic and therapeutic malaria treatments for years. The efficacy of this chemical extract has been proven in clinical trials.
Dr. Nzoumbou-Boko analyzed samples at two sites in Bangui between 2017 and 2019, and could not find a strain that had developed a mutation making it more resistant to artemisinin. Although his finding was reassuring, the noticeable decline in the impact of artemisinin on treating malaria is motivating Dr. Nzoumbou-Boko to pursue further research on a previously unreported Plasmodium falciparum strain that may have developed such a mutation. He is seeking to conduct further trials to map the parasite’s potential artemisinin resistance across the Central African Republic in order to develop more effective malaria treatments.
Troops, police, and civilians deployed under the auspices of United Nations peace operations routinely work under difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional level of challenges for the 95,000peacekeepers deployed across the world as part of thirteen UN operations, many of them in Africa. They have to continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, and promote human rights, all while applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to contain and otherwise help countries respond to the disease.
Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach efforts—a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates—to continue connecting with and supporting communities and local organizations while limiting the risks associated with social contact. Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups, social media, and other messaging platforms to reach audiences.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers
Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeepers operate, and it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.
Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80 percent of production has been shifted toward COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates, limited Internet reach, and multiple languages.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN secretary-general has called a global infodemic. Which is why public communication is central to helping dispel rumors, counter misinformation, and provide people with timely and accurate information.
Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing sixty-three community radio stations with prerecorded prevention messages in five local languages, and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.
Some missions are also now providing education over the airwaves while schools are closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces fourteen weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to educate children.
The Right Tools for the Right Audiences
Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.
Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites, and remote villages.
As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote-access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.
The mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon (MINUSMA Info Hut) whereby communities from different regions take turns each month to interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.
Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues; the debates are broadcast on national television. The mission also launched a digital trust-building platform focusing on multi-ethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger groups meeting in person.
Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a “captive audience” while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.
Empowering Through Partnerships
Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.
Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumors. Arts, sports, socio-economic, and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with the musical duo Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force UNFICYP has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.
Engaging with the media is yet another way missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities, and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech, and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to provide information on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops—held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines—more than fifty journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.
Patrolling and Informing
Strategic communications are part of UN peacekeepers’ daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. A community violence-reduction program such as the one in the Central African Republic also involves at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.
It is in this challenging context, and through the examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that the United Nations can leverage the power of information and its ability to build strong partnerships with local communities while saving lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.
Charlotte Morgan is an intern at the Strategic Communications Section of the United Nations’ Department of Peace Operations
Sophie Boudre is a public information officer at the United Nations
Soldiers of the Central African Armed Forces (Forces Armées Centrafricaines, or FACA) peacefully entered the rebel-held northeastern town of N’Délé on Wednesday, May 13, for the first time in eight years. They were greeted warmly by Abdoulaye Hissen Ramadan, the leader of the FPRC rebel faction, which had initially forced out government troops from the city at the beginning of the Central African Republic Civil War in 2012.
Senior government positions were offered to rebel leaders.
The peaceful reclamation of N’Délé is a major victory for the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic, signed on February 6, 2019, between the government and the fourteen principal rebel groups active in the conflict. Under the peace agreement, senior government positions were offered to rebel leaders to facilitate a power-sharing agreement ahead of presidential and legislative elections in December.
While the FPRC may be cooperating, however, other rebel leaders, such as Abdoulaye Miskine, head of the FDPC, have been placed under international sanctions by the UN Security Council for allegedly recruiting more troops after rejecting the government post offered to him.
Noureddine Adam, leader of the Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) rebel group, has once again called on Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada to grant influential government positions to his allies. He also requested clemency for arrested FPRC partisans, continuing a pattern of constant pressure on the prime minister.
Maintaining this peace deal has been akin to balancing a house of cards on a ball.
This is hardly new for Ngrebada, who has been forced to placate several rebel groups, granting them positions as ambassadors or ministers to form an “inclusive government” in keeping with requirements of the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic (APPR-RCA). Maintaining this peace deal has been akin to balancing a house of cards on a ball, with multiple clashes between rebel groups leading to the death of dozens of people and the displacement of tens of thousands more since the APPR-RCA was signed in Khartoum, Sudan, on February 5, 2019.
Within the Central African Republic (CAR) government, Ngrebada is also hemmed in by “Russophile” apparatchiks who have sought to convince President Faustin Archange-Touadéra that Ngrebada poses a potential challenge in the December 2020 presidential election. This same Russian contingent also seeks to drive a wedge between the CAR government and the United Nations MINUSCA peacekeeping mission.
Last week, dramatic arrests were made at Gbadolite Airport in the Nord-Ubangi province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR). A plane had touched down carrying explosives and ammunition for AK-47 rifles, cargo that the Congolese authorities seized after arresting several people.
Though the investigation into the arms shipment is still under way, preliminary findings suggest the intercepted delivery is part of an arms smuggling network extending from the capital Kinshasa into CAR, using Gbadolite as a way station, according to Nord-Ubangi governor Izato Nzege Koloke. Congolese intelligence believes the weapons and ammunition were to be delivered to armed groups in CAR and to local bandits.
Recent clashes in the Central African Republic point to a breakdown of the peace agreement.
The Central African Republic is one of several conflict theaters that the African Union is seeking to address with its Silencing the Guns initiative, part of which is concerned with halting the flow of illegal small arms into warzones. Analysts have lamented the slow progress of the African Union’s continent-wide initiative as recently as the annual summit held in early February 2020.
The situation in CAR may be less volatile than the conflicts in Libya, the Lake Chad region, and Somalia, but recent clashes point to a breakdown of the peace agreement signed between rebel groups and the government in Bangui in February 2019.