Civilians at Heart of the mission
A conversation with Lt. Gen. Daniel Sidiki Traoré, force commander of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA)
Photos by MINUSCA
Lt. Gen. Daniel Sidiki Traoré was appointed force commander of MINUSCA in January 2020 after serving as deputy force commander for two years. A native of Burkina Faso, he joined the country’s National Armed Forces in 1977 and served in roles including commander of the 6th Military Region, commander of the 2nd Military Region, head of the Operations Department in the general headquarters, head of the Intelligence Department, head of the Human Resources Department and special advisor to the chief of defense staff. He has served in United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Sudan and Mali. He spoke to ADF by phone from mission headquarters in the Central African Republic (CAR). This interview has been edited to fit this format.
ADF: On a personal level, why have you dedicated so much of your career to peacekeeping?
Traoré: I think peace is the most important thing we have in life. Without peace, life would be useless. Particularly on the African continent, where we have a lot of issues with security, I think those who have the capacity to provide input and make a contribution should not shy away from doing it. That is why for more than 20 years I have given part of my military career and my life to the peacekeeping process. And I believe, in this capacity when we want to bring peace, we can make it. And if we achieve peace in Africa, we can achieve it all over the world.
ADF: It has been six years since the creation of MINUSCA after the 2013 crisis in the CAR. There still are large areas of the country not under government control. How do you approach a peacekeeping mission when there still are rebel groups active and launching attacks?
Traoré: The signing of the peace agreement between the government of the CAR and 14 armed groups on 6 February 2019 brought some hope to the peace process. Since then, there has been progress with respect to the restoration of state authority. Security and defense forces have deployed to areas where they were absent for years. MINUSCA supported the deployment of the CAR military to Bangassou, Bria, Kaga-Bandoro, Ndélé and Birao.
However, some armed groups haven’t stopped committing violations. Considering this context, MINUSCA has an approach informed by dialogue, good offices and a robust posture.
This approach includes:
Deployment of MINUSCA peacekeepers in the mission area of responsibility, especially to the hot spots and areas controlled by the armed groups. We do this with a strong mind and a robust posture to ensure protection of civilians (POC) and freedom of movement on the main supply roads and to provide a secure corridor for humanitarian assistance delivery.
Robust patrols to show MINUSCA is present where there is a need.
Engaging all stakeholders in constructive dialogue rather than adopting a confrontational approach.
Follow up on the implementation of existing peace agreements by signatories and encouraging other stakeholders to join the peace process.
Finally, we engage and combat the armed groups that are harming civilians and violating the peace agreement. For instance, during the events of December 2020 and January 2021, MINUSCA was on the front lines of stopping a coordinated attack by some armed groups that formed a coalition under the leadership of former CAR President François Bozizé.
ADF: MINUSCA helped provide security for national elections. The election was successfully completed, but rebel attacks forced some polling places to shut down. Can you describe the successes and challenges of the MINUSCA election security effort?
Traoré: This is very important, and it was very challenging. In close coordination with the CAR government and National Defence and Security Forces, an integrated security plan was designed and approved for the 27 December 2020 general elections. The implementation of this plan started with a military operation called A la Londo against a group known as the 3R in June 2020 in the West to create a safe and secure environment allowing voters to register and candidates to campaign freely. Because before the elections, these armed groups had started to threaten the population.
Ahead of the elections, MINUSCA established, with all electoral stakeholders, a crisis management cell that met weekly and whenever needed. That cell permitted us to identify all the organizational tasks, the challenges posed by shortfalls and made it possible to build good coordination.
These elections presented a double challenge:
The first was the security challenge due to the number of voting centers and armed group threats. MINUSCA had to provide security before, during and after the elections since the armed groups intended to disrupt the process.
The second was a logistical challenge due to difficult road conditions and polling stations being located in remote areas. There was a need for timely delivery, storage, collection, and security of the electoral material and ballot boxes. MINUSCA provided escorts, equipment and support, especially military air assets, to deliver all the electoral material. After the election, in the same way, we gathered and returned all the ballot boxes to Bangui.
The plan was implemented, and December’s elections were held although the armed group coalition disrupted and impeded the elections in some areas in the West. The CAR voters elected their president and members of the parliament.
ADF: In March, the U.N. Security Council approved an additional 2,750 military personnel and 940 police officers for the mission. What will these additional personnel allow you to do in terms of mission effectiveness? How will they be deployed?
Traoré: We went through really tense and difficult times dating back to December 2020. Now it’s a little bit better, but it remains tense. The U.N. Security Council’s decision was right on the point and is aimed to enhance MINUSCA’s ability to perform its priority mandated tasks, in particular protection of civilians and facilitation of humanitarian access, as well as to prevent and reverse further deterioration in the security situation.
The additional troops will permit the force to be more proactive and responsive. It will decrease the time required for intervention through regional rapidly deployable reserve forces. During the crisis in December 2020, we had to deploy all our reserve forces, and this overstretched our units to cope with the threats.
These additional troops will allow us to:
Improve security on the Main Supply Road, MSR1, which leads from the Cameroon border to Bangui and is the country’s lifeline. This is where all the supplies and food coming into this country are transported. It’s very important to keep it safe.
Assign quick-reaction forces to all sector commanders, which will improve their ability to protect civilians and support humanitarian assistance. This will allow them to respond quickly to areas where they have threats.
Address in a timely manner any threat or attacks by the armed groups or other spoilers.
The deployment of the reinforcement units will be done in successive phases that have been prioritized by the U.N. headquarters and the mission.
ADF: Protection of civilians is a key component of the MINUSCA mandate. What is your strategic approach toward protecting civilians? How have you tried to improve this during your time leading the mission?
Traoré: The protection of civilians is at the heart of our mandate. It is an overall and integrated approach of all mission components and the uniformed components, the force particularly.
The first thing I do is to identify and map all POC threats. Based on this mapping I decide how to deploy MINUSCA forces in order to address, contain and deter these threats. By coordinating with other mission components through early warning mechanisms and community engagement, we can reduce the violence. Over the past months I have deployed troops in remote areas and also increased the number of long-range and robust patrols. The layout of our force is dynamic and is adapted to the evolution of the security situation on the ground. This allows us to prevent and respond swiftly to the threats against the population.
The force has a strategic POC approach that consists of:
Communicating with the armed groups and the Armed Forces of the CAR (FACA) so they understand the stakes of violating the POC principles.
Requiring all sectors and units to maintain a POC early warning tracking table, which is updated daily.
Deploying units, quick-reaction forces, on standby mode to intervene swiftly in case of POC concerns.
Having good coordination with the humanitarian assistance providers for the readiness of assistance delivery.
Keeping air assets ready and on standby to intervene whenever necessary.
Finally, all over the country, we conduct regular, robust patrols within our area of responsibility, especially in the main hot spots we have mapped.
ADF: How do you believe MINUSCA forces are viewed by civilians? How have you sought to build bridges of trust with civilians?
Traoré: Perception from civilians is evolving. It varies according to the security situation. For example, MINUSCA forces and police had a robust posture against armed groups during the attacks on Bangui on 13 January 2021, and really dating back to December 2020 when the attacks started. This was followed by very positive media reports and positive perception from communities.
However, in the following weeks, the perception changed with the dissemination of fake news accusing MINUSCA of not having taken part in the offensive operations. And, as you know, in this country rumors are very present.
To keep a favorable opinion among the population, we communicate and we regularly interact with them directly or through our civilian components. Indeed, each battalion conducts exchange, support or aid activities in its area of operation. This may be a soccer match between a local team and a MINUSCA team, it might be the renovation of a classroom, the distribution of school supplies, or the reconstruction of deteriorated bridges and roads. We also offer free medical consultation with free treatment and basic life skills training sessions in various vocations for the locals and many other activities.
ADF: What projects have had the biggest impact?
Traoré: We are doing a lot in this area, to build up the confidence between us and the population through what we call quick-impact projects and the civil-military cooperation activities all over the country. For example, MINUSCA built or repaired bridges in Bangassou and Bocaranga in 2020, and Bakouma in 2021 and delivered them to local authorities. In response to the water and electricity shortages in Bangui, since mid-April 2020 we have been providing assistance to the national electricity and water companies to address this crisis. The city of Bangui was really in darkness, and MINUSCA forces provided some equipment to overcome the shortages of electricity and water.
ADF: It has been well-publicized that there are foreign security actors, mainly Russians, operating in the CAR. How does this complicate your mission?
Traoré: On this point I would like to be clear, precise and concise. The FACA are our only partners. Nevertheless, other foreign security actors are operating under the purview of bilateral agreements with the national government. They represent an additional actor on the ground, and we as MINUSCA must consider their presence to avoid intermingling and exchange of fire during operations. Another difficulty is that our FACA counterparts are also supported by the same foreign security actors.
ADF: MINUSCA has been criticized by observers, including the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for coordinating with Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. Can you respond to this criticism? What are you doing to correct this?
Traoré: We don’t have a relationship with bilateral forces. MINUSCA has never conducted joint military operations with foreign security forces operating in the CAR. Similarly, MINUSCA has not interacted with such forces. The MINUSCA force operates under Security Council Resolution 2552 and the United Nations peacekeeping operations and fully implements the principles therein.
ADF: What needs to happen in the near future for the FACA and the CAR government to be ready to take over security responsibilities in the country?
Traoré: The FACA forces have been conducting offensive operations on the ground that have allowed them to redeploy in various places, contributing to restoring state authority. The next step will be to consolidate those gains, in coordination with efforts that are being made at the national level through dialogue with stakeholders to build a sustainable and lasting peace.
The FACA have made some progress over the last years, but challenges remain and have to be addressed by the institution and the CAR government. For example, we have to:
Complete the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process and the security sector reform process.
Provide standard training to the internal security forces, gendarmerie and FACA troops in their respective missions to show professionalism and good discipline spirit.
Provide the basic equipment and uniform to the forces.
Finally, the security defense forces must be deployed all over the country in the different zones, which will allow other stakeholders of the state to deploy.
ADF: How optimistic are you that this can be accomplished and that things are moving in the right direction?
Traoré: Having been in this country for almost four years, I think there has been progress. There are definitely still challenges, but from what we are doing so far, with the commitment of all the stakeholders, I think we are on the right path. We have made some progress; now we need to reinforce this and to remain strong to overcome these challenges. I think over time we can build a lasting and sustainable peace for this country.