The night’s mugginess was whisked away by the light breath of dawn through the open window. “It’s 4:30 a.m. Universal Time, 5:30 a.m. in Bangui” : the Central African Republic (CAR) is the first item of Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s African news bulletin, as virtually every morning since I arrived in early December.
I breakfast, looking out on the beautiful and peaceful garden of the ambassador’s residence, together with the gendarmes responsible for my protection and the steward. The weather is pleasant, and the kite nesting in the tall tree facing us circles before alighting. A brief moment of morning relaxation : two shots are fired from a 14.5mm machine gun, according to the experts. Three shots. I myself am now beginning to recognize the muffled, almost slow sound of those shots from that big Russian machine gun. I call the Defence Attaché who already knows what is going on : an exchange of fire is underway on the hill behind the National Assembly, several kilometres away, but the echo makes it all sound very close.
Just before leaving the residence for the embassy, the chief of gendarmes alerts me to a difficulty on the way. We have to wait. I again call the Defence Attaché who goes to find out what’s going on. An incident has occurred in front of the prison on the road to the embassy, which means it is blocked. A crowd has gathered, following an incident that occurred yesterday evening with ex-Seleka members. We go on waiting. Time passes : 8:00, 8:30, 9:00. The situation is at a standstill, it’s even growing tenser. Just when we are about to request a helicopter, a platoon from the Sangaris force gets through.
I am now escorted by three armoured vehicles and 30 troops armed to the teeth. The crowd’s not hostile but over-excited. We go through the roadblock. One hour later, events would take a dramatic turn : the crowd broke into the prison to get ex-Seleka members out to kill them, in retaliation for acts of violence committed the previous day by others from the same group. Four of them would lose their lives, two would escape.
The big armoured car is bumping over the road, creaking like a tall ship in stormy weather. We do our best to avoid the largest potholes. The “escort” car follows.
Beyond the roadblock, activity has resumed along the road lined by stalls of fresh fish from the river below, by sellers of cigarettes, of petrol cans. In December, the whole area was deserted, while now we again pass those overloaded handcarts that are the means of livelihood of those who carry goods in this way. And there are also the taxis and motorcycle taxis. Africa is coming back to life, gradually.
The residence is a five-minute drive from the embassy, five minutes along a deeply rutted road that passes the archbishop’s palace where five to six thousand people take refuge every night, as they do around all the churches in Bangui and at the airport, for fear of being killed in their sleep by a blow from a machete or a shot from an AK-47.
When I finally get to my office, work has long since started at the embassy : everything starts early here. I will catch up some other time on the evening and night emails. I’ve missed the 9:00 a.m. security briefing with the chancery and services managerial staff, but we have discussed this on the phone with the First Counsellor. This was the morning briefing on the information received that night from the Sangaris force, with its armoured vehicles and tireless troops under the emblem of the Sangaris red butterfly. A list of acts of violence, exchanges of fire, the frightful count of the dead. The telegram’s been sent. We meet forthwith in my office to finish preparing the visit of the French Foreign Minister who is scheduled to attend the inauguration ceremony of the CAR’s first woman President elected last Monday, 20 January.
I leave the embassy team to join, very late (but they know why), the Technical Monitoring Committee (TMC) at the headquarters of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The TMC is a group of diplomats responsible for accompanying the Transition on behalf of the international community. The agenda includes preparing future developments, the assistance to be provided to leader of the Transition and her plans. Discussions are open, direct, constructive.
Return to the embassy for a meeting with an EU delegation, followed by an interview with a researcher.
The Defence Attaché puts his head round the door : there’s shooting in Miskine, a difficult district. Who’s shooting, with what weapons, how long has it been going on ? In the PK-12 and PK-13 districts, the situation is tense but kept under control by MISCA and Sangaris troops who are holding this road, the main access to Bangui. The Forces are everywhere and hold the situation together. The general in command of the Force calls me immediately afterwards to make an overview of the situation and to discuss the extent of the protection to be given to Muslim districts.
I go to the journalists’ HQ – the restaurant where most of them have lunch (in the evening, one usually meets them on the terrace of the city’s big hotel). We know each other well by now and hold real discussions that provide interesting viewpoints and field feedback.
Quick impromptu TMC meeting in limited format. We are to visit the President at 18:00.
I arrive late for my appointment with the former German ambassador. I then settle a problem relating to the protection of the embassy site, a visa problem that’s dragging on, and sign two signature books of embassy accounting documents… the afternoon flies by. The First Counsellor has gathered a wealth of political class viewpoints on the new situation. The notion of “technical government” is unusual in the CAR and the political parties are finding it difficult to bow to this interim situation that has put them on the sidelines for a year. Yet, evidently, the President stands firm. The supporting Counsellor who has come from Paris to help with the post’s activity has continued to work with the NGOs and agencies on the site for displaced persons at the airport. I will meet both Counsellors after the appointment with the new President.
It’s nighttime and the curfew has emptied the city – it’s main roads, at any rate. The interim President is meeting with the Technical Monitoring Committee. We discuss priorities and the aid she may receive from the international community. She gives us her first indications on the government she is forming with the man who is to be her Prime Minister. One must act swiftly, fill the political vacuum, put an end to violent acts and restore security, reassure the population, and find a way of paying salaries that have been outstanding for more than four months. The meeting lasts almost an hour.
The Defence Attaché and the Internal Security Attaché join us in the First Counsellor’s office which is smaller than mine but more welcoming. We hold a further security briefing, the evening one, that will provide the basis for another telegram. The events at the prison have not only marked the day, but the entire situation : once again, the prison cannot be used and those who were guarding it failed in their task to ensure the security of the inmates.
I return to my office to reply to the emails received all day long and to call the Director of the Foreign Minister’s private office about the situation. Shortly afterwards, I sum up the content of this call in writing for my interlocutors in Paris.
I leave the embassy. The road is deserted. We are greeted by a Sangaris roadblock at the turn in the road in front of the Ougangui Hotel, a suspect pick-up truck is surrounded by armoured vehicles. The French embassy’s car pennant opens the way and we slowly go through. Further on, we go past the prison which is wide open and the President’s residence with its large fleet of personal protection vehicles, and past the archbishop’s palace where last night’s refugees have gathered once more.
At the residence, dinner is ready. The gendarmes and I dine together.
The Foreign Minister’s visit starts tomorrow.