A backlash against foreigners in Central African Republic threatens to disrupt peacekeeping and aid supplies in one of Africa’s most fragile countries.
Since an Italian missionary was identified as CAR’s first coronavirus case last month, xenophobia has been on the rise. Unfounded stories widely published in the country’s newspapers and on social media have portrayed foreigners as unwelcome importers of a disease that could further impoverish the country.
Thousands of non-nationals are employed in CAR by UN agencies and aid organisations, which provide about 70% of the country’s health services.
The UN has extended a curfew for employees due to “recent incidents of verbal aggression and intimidation as well as risks of stigmatisation of UN staff, international NGOs and humanitarian actors”, according to an internal memo.
The UN peacekeeping force has suspended most internal travel and stopped bringing in new contingents of “blue helmets”.
Alarmist rhetoric in CAR’s media is stoking animosity. One tabloid has accused Emmanuel Macron’s administration in France of using coronavirus “to destabilise French-speaking African countries”. Others described the arrival of the infected Italian as “the poisoning of an entire people” and have raged about “a genocide” against Africans.
“The spike in threats and violence against foreigners and humanitarian personnel, also spread by the media, pose significant safety and security risks that can result in reduced operations when they are needed the most,” said the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) in a recent report. “The aid pipeline could face ruptures and stock-outs, depriving the most affected people from the only existing safety net.”
Humanitarian groups fear the impact of the pandemic in CAR could be disastrous. After years of sectarian violence, the country’s health infrastructure is virtually nonexistent; rebel militias control three-quarters of its territory, and 600,000 people have been uprooted from their homes into overcrowded displacement camps.
Less than a dozen coronavirus cases have so far been registered, although many more are suspected given the lack of testing equipment.
“People are very worried about this new disease,” said Maaike Hersevoort, chief of Médecins Sans Frontières in CAR. “They associate foreigners with corona. If engagement is not done well then there could be an escalation.”
CAR’s government has made moves to rein in the sensationalist coverage of coronavirus. On Wednesday, health minister Pierre Somsé released a code of conduct for reporting on the outbreak responsibly, asked for “respect for human rights [and] solidarity, both nationally and internationally”.
There are warnings that displaced people living in host communities could be denigrated as virus-spreading outsiders too, as could members of CAR’s Muslim minority – long marginalised as “Arab foreigners”.
Growing tensions could lead to fresh clashes. “Increased xenophobia against several segments of the population poses a high risk of resurgence of intercommunal violence and conflict,” said Ocha.
There is widespread distrust in CAR of the French, the country’s former colonial rulers, while regional neighbours Chad and Sudan have interfered with CAR’s internal affairs for decades. More recently, Russian troops have arrived to shore up the beleaguered government, and the Chinese are active in the mineral industry.
Foreign aid workers face regular assaults, burglaries, carjackings and even murder. There were 300 incidents recorded last year. Public support for the UN mission, known by its French acronym Minusca, is already low following a sex abuse scandal and its failure to protect civilians. In recent months, an influential pressure group in CAR’s capital, Bangui, has targeted Minusca with an aggressive smear campaign, calling the peacekeepers “the Minuscavirus”.
“Other international organisations are paying the price for the UN mission’s mistakes,” said Fridolin Ngoulou, a Central African journalist. “But this should not be a reason to attack foreigners.”
The challenges were brought into sharp relief by an incident last week, when paramedics in protective gear arrived to collect a member of Minusca’s international staff in Bangui, who was showing symptoms of Covid-19, and had to face down a hostile crowd.
“Of course there’s frustration,” said Denise Brown, Minusca’s humanitarian coordinator. “People’s everyday lives are really difficult. They suffer from armed conflict, tuberculosis, horrible malaria, diarrhoea, and now all of a sudden there’s something called the coronavirus that might arrive and infect lots of people … All of that contributes to tension. We need to understand that tension.”