Africa-Press – Rwanda. In this November 25 interview, The New Times’ James Karuhanga, sat down with Amb. Valentine Rugwabiza, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA), in her office in Bangui.
He asked her about, among other things, her day-to-day activities as she works to help the sparsely populated country with an area of 623,000 square kilometers – just about 24 times bigger than Rwanda – to get back on its feet after decades of conflict, and her assessment of the country’s resilience.
Rugwabiza explained how her Mission has made clear and measurable progress when it comes to the protection of civilians, despite challenges that have to do with access and mobility in a large country. She also noted that she is deeply grateful to her own country, Rwanda (the biggest troop and police-contributing country to the Mission), for what has been achieved in CAR.
Let’s talk about what you are doing to help the Central African Republic get back on its feet. But, first, shed light on what you do on a day-to-day basis. What does your typical day look like?
Well, my days are very long days. And, as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Central African Republic, I do hold two hats in the Central African Republic, as Special Representative of the Secretary-General, and then head of MINUSCA, the mission. This implies, really, leading the mission on a daily basis, in all its key components, and to ensure that we implement the mandate given to us by the United Nations Security Council. That mandate is quite a wide mandate, it’s a heavy mandate, it’s a mandate of protection of civilians, and it’s a mandate of support to the Central African authorities to extend their authority over their entire territory. It is also a mandate to facilitate humanitarian access. It is a mandate, as well, of protecting the UN personnel across the country, the UN personnel, and property across the country.
So, you can see that’s quite a wide and large mandate. It means that on a daily basis, I work with all these different components to ensure that we really implement this mandate optimally.
There are no couple of days that I’m not in close contact with our Force Commander to be appraised about the security situation and the challenges across the country. There is not a single few days that I’m not in touch with the Police Commissioner to be appraised about the police challenges across the country. And there is not a single day, I’m not in touch with my deputy. I have two deputies who assist me on a daily basis. One of the deputies is in charge of coordinating the entire UN system that is in Central Africa and coordinating the humanitarian activities.
Amb. Valentine Rugwabiza, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA),inspects a guard of honor.
So, I’m also in touch with him on a daily basis and he appraises me about the issues that the humanitarian [teams] are confronted with. Now, it’s not only about, of course, about being appraised about the issues. We need to respond to those issues on a daily basis. We need to anticipate some of the movements. So that’s, that’s what makes my day.
But if I have to summarise; it is to ensure that we really implement optimally the mandate that is given to us. That mandate is a mandate of support to the Central African authorities and to the Central African people. We cannot support the Central African authorities and people without working with the Central Africans. So, I’m also very regularly in touch with the authorities at all levels of the government.
I visit upcountry very regularly, which is quite a challenge in itself. It is a large country without road infrastructure, outside Bangui. You’ve seen Bangui yourself. You’ve been here for a few days. It’s quite challenging in terms of infrastructure. It’s insufficient in Bangui but outside Bangui, to get to parts of the country that are, for example, more than 1,000 kilometres from Bangui, there is only one way of getting there. It is by flight. So, we have to use our helicopters. And even when using our helicopters, we are confronted with challenges of runways that are not quite fit to receive helicopters of a certain size and capacity, to land. So, these are some of the challenges we are confronted with on a daily basis.
What other challenges are there?
The main, main challenges, I will really say, can be summarised into two.
The main challenges have to do with access and mobility in a large country. This is a country of more than 600,000 square kilometers. And it’s a landlocked country. It is a country that is really rich in rivers all across. But it is a country that has eight months; between seven and eight months, of a heavy rainy season per year. And during the rainy season, even those paths that have been put in place, are simply impractical.
The challenges have to do with mobility and getting to the people. You can’t protect the people if you can’t access the people. So, the challenge is for our force; you can imagine, how a force with APCs [armoured personnel carriers], and heavy vehicles, gets to those locations without roads. So, we do have to use planes to even get heavy equipment there. We can use the roads only during the four months of the dry season because, during the four months of the dry season, those paths can be practicable.
So, given the reality of the many other forces on the ground including the Rwandan bilateral forces, and the Russians, what is the UN Mission’s role in securing the Central African Republic? How are you making things happen?
How we make things happen; I will come back to what I have just told you. It is really the main thing. It’s about the mandate. But we do have priority tasks in that wide mandate.
And the priorities are protecting civilians and supporting the country to extend its authority throughout its large territory. What does that mean in practice? It means supporting the Central African security forces to deploy in this large country of theirs, simply where access is nonexistent.
It means supporting them logistically with planes to deploy throughout the country. So, that’s what it means in practice. We have been doing that. And just to give a recent example, the Battle [Group of the] Rwandan forces is deployed in the northeast of the country, almost very close to the border with Sudan. That was a part where there was no presence of a regular force in the last more than 16 years until the moment we deployed, in August 2022.
And of course, our objective cannot be sustainable if it is only MINUSCA forces deployed there. So, we need, once MINUSCA is deployed there, to work very closely with the Central African army, with the Central African Ministry of Defence, with the Ministry of Interior Security, to then deploy their own forces to those areas because that is what will make it sustainable. A peacekeeping mission is to support, and accompany…
A peacekeeping mission can never be a substitute to what is the primary responsibility of the country, which is to secure its territory and to secure its people. Now, having said that it is clear that it takes time.
The Central African Republic has gone through a number of conflicts. So it takes time, but also it takes support; effective support.
The Rwandan forces are not only training but contributing to securing Bangui. But also training the Central African [Armed Forces]. Well, that is very much welcome, including by MINUSCA, because we don’t have the mandate of training the national forces to combat. So, it is complimentary.
Considering the examples set by Rwanda in different bilateral arrangements with Mozambique and CAR, and Kigali’s call for a more effective approach to peacekeeping, isn’t it, maybe, time this UN arrangement is phased out in favour of a different approach?
Well, that’s a conversation that the members [of the UN] will have to have. It is not a conversation for me as the head of the mission.
It is a conversation that the member state will have to have. What, however, is factual, is that just on the 15th of November, our mandate has been renewed and extended for one more year.
It means that it is the assessment of both the members of the Security Council and the government of Central Africa. It is their clear assessment that the contribution of MINUSCA to pacifying, to securing the country, its mandate to the protection of civilians, but also to the extension of the state authority to secure humanitarian access, [and] to support the implementation of the peace agreement.
So, there is no stronger indication that the members and the Central African authorities consider that that contribution has been palpable and that contribution is still needed and required. And their best way of expressing that is by the extension of our mandate by one more year.
But as I said, I think looking at, you know, thinking about your question more specifically, one needs to look at [the fact that] peacekeeping cannot do everything. Peacekeeping has its own limitations. And one needs to look, more specifically, at the limitations of peacekeeping, and then be able to leverage some bilateral partnerships where peacekeeping cannot act. I do believe that members will have to start thinking about that. But again, not my call.
Shortly after you were appointed as head of MINUSCA, you made a point of asking for a readjustment of the UN force. The main thing was, to adopt a proactive and preventive posture of exactions on the civilian population based on reliable information. What’s the progress?
Indeed! And, the progress and our own indicators… The progress has been clear and measurable. And the way we measure the progress is that we have seen a drastic reduction of attacks, important attacks on civilians. So, we have been taking a pre-emptive approach and a proactive approach based on the information that we can collect by having proximity to local communities. Where they live, they see the movement of the armed elements. And once they trust the [UN] forces enough to share that information, that allows us to react and intervene pre-emptively before attacks are conducted against the population.
And we have seen a clear impact of that. Part of that approach has also been to rationalize what I call rationalizing the presence of the force. We had our force scattered in several small, temporary operating bases, too small to really repel an important attack by armed groups. So, we have been consolidating those forces; taking a much more mobile approach by closing some of these very small, temporary operating bases, and making sure that we reinforced other bases. But also taking a different approach by conducting more frequent long-range and short-range patrols. And that has also had an impact and is very much appreciated by the population.
Is the Rwandan contingent’s unique way of doing things, in ways such as doing Umuganda [community work] appreciated, or even embraced and used widely?
Without a single doubt, it is appreciated by the population because they are the beneficiaries of those activities. But to be fair, we do have a number of other contingents that undertake activities such as having medical days where they provide medical services to people in the communities where they are deployed. So, we do have a few other contingents that provide such activities. And it is appreciated by the population. I believe that while it is appreciated, those are ad hoc activities. We need, and that is the other part of my responsibilities as Special Representative of the Secretary-General, to make sure that we also mobilize all the agencies of the UN country team. They are doing quite a lot, but [we need to] mobilize and mobilize resources so that they can do much more, and instead of having ad-hoc activities, make sure that we all work together to empower the population to conduct the activities for themselves.
But also support the government at local levels by providing them with the capacity to provide medical services, and schooling instead of having to depend on ad-hoc activities and ad-hoc interventions.
In your New Year’s message in December 2022, you wished the Central African people and government, particularly peace, so that the women, men, daughters, and sons of the Central African Republic can live safely and in dignity. You sent wishes for resilience and success in realizing their objectives, as well as joy and serenity. Let’s talk about CAR’s resilience …
The Central African population is a very resilient population. It has gone through a lot. But whenever I have the opportunity, and I create those opportunities and make it a point of creating those opportunities – every month, I undertake a visit to the field outside Bangui.
During those field visits, I interact with the population directly, with their representatives. And they are very resilient because despite all that they have gone through, despite all the recurrent conflict, the population is still very clear. And, I will say, ready, to really contribute to making sure that there is reconciliation even where communities have really gone through very costly conflict. Humanly, they are ready to undertake reconciliation. They are demanding very little; they are demanding what they are entitled to.
They are demanding security, all over. They’re demanding security so that they can undertake their activities, they are demanding a minimum of social services; having small health centers, and having schools where they can send their children and ensure that their children will have better chances than themselves.
So, what they are demanding is what every government owes to its people. Their rights. Not more.
Your parting shot?
Well, my parting shot is that as the Head of MINUSCA and SRSG, I’m really deeply grateful, deeply grateful to my own country, Rwanda.
I’m deeply grateful to the government of Rwanda because what has been achieved in this country, what is being achieved, or some of the achievements, as I just shared with you, are achievements of Rwanda. And Rwanda should be proud of [the achievements].
It is the largest troop-contributing country to MINUSCA. So, the achievements I’ve just shared with you could not have been possible without the contribution of Rwanda to MINUSCA.