The passing of Nelson Mandela has meant that the global media, in a rare turn of events, is attentively covering events in Africa - albeit particular events in one particular nation.
Yet while the great man’s death is no small matter, the media focus on it has meant that a terrible humanitarian emergency in the same continent has not attracted the attention it deserves.
The Central African Republic is currently being ripped apart by violence that threatens to turn the country into an ethno-religious combat zone that could produce, in the estimation of many authoritative onlookers, Rwanda-like outcomes.
It is the most urgent crisis you’ve never heard of. Many of the worst atrocities have been perpetrated by ex-members of a coalition of rebel forces known as Seleka. The group, which removed former President François Bozizé in a coup d’etat in March, were ostensibly disbanded by new President Michel Djotodia a few months ago; despite this, they have continued to terrorise the country, leaving razed villages, mass slaughter and utter devastation in their wake.
As a result of the actions of Seleka, and the preceding conflict with the former government’s forces, nearly 400,000 people have been displaced; the use of rape, torture and extra-judicial killings has become widespread. On top of that, malaria is rife and hospitals are overloaded to breaking point.
At present, as French Peacekeeping forces enter the nation with the approval of the UN Security Council, whole communities are suspended on the edge of a precipice. As weapons and foreign mercenaries flood into the areas dominated by the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka forces, the majority Christian population has begun to arm itself and commit extremely serious crimes targeting their counterparts - and civilians that live in the areas they control.
The situation has become so severe that the credible threat of genocide has been cited by the United Nations.
The relatively modest African-led peacekeeping force known as MISCA (a French acronym for International Support Mission in the Central African Republic - comprised of African Union and French troops) present in the country should ensure that humanitarian aid, food and medicine in particular, reaches those most vulnerable and at need. Moreover, the intervention should not be a short-term fix but the first step in a committed global response that ensures this neglected crisis ends permanently.
With the very real possibility of hostilities breaking out again after a presumptive quelling of violence it is essential the international community resolves to find long-term solutions for the Republic. This would require the transformation of MISCA into an expanded UN peacekeeping force, an international commission of inquiry and a commitment to fund efforts for lasting reconciliation between estranged communities - in the spirit of Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa.
While these measures need to be undertaken as soon as possible and all focus should be on efforts to save lives and rein in the violence, the current situation should also prompt the media to consider why, yet again, a great crisis in Africa has gone so criminally under-reported.