Has the world learnt its lessons? 

In 1994 over 500,000 men, women and children were slaughtered over the course of 6 months in the tiny African nation of Rwanda. It remains one of the most notorious ethnic and political genocides in modern history. Less than 24 hours ago French troops marched into the Central African Republic to prevent what they claim could easily be a second Rwanda. Where France failed so mightily in 1994 there is now a chance for the country to redeem itself in another Francophone nation, but is it up to the task?

France currently has a little over 8,000 troops deployed throughout Africa, with that number set to rise as the deployment in the CAR escalates. The European nation also had a large and ongoing deployment in north Mali fighting the Islamic insurgency. France has a long (and some would say chequered) history of intervention in its old colonial empire. The term “Françafrique” was coined to refer to France’s neo-colonial practise of intervention (economically and militarily) in its old colonies since decolonization in the 1960s. Naturally another French military engagement in the region has raised some eyebrows: is Hollande’s government returning to the Françafrique largely put on hold under President Sarkozy?

The irony might be that France is just intervening to stop what is a rapidly escalating Muslim-Christian sectarian conflict in a nation it feels it has some responsibility for. And the possibility of a bloodbath is very real. Since the ousting of the Republic’s President François Bozizé in March by predominantly Muslim rebel forces the country has slowly spiralled into chaos; in November Christian and Muslim militias escalated their attacks and this week hundreds of civilians were murdered in the country’s capital of Bangui, the trigger for French intervention. There is a very real possibility of further mass killings unless the situation stabilizes.

So how best can the safety of the Central African Republic’s citizens and the stability of the nation as a whole be ensured? Victory against entrenched insurgent forces and ad-hoc militia is never easy to obtain, even less so in hostile territory. It is also difficult to say who should lead the divided republic: the outside President whose alleged failure to honour peace deals caused this latest round of conflict? The new President and coalition leader of the rebellion Michel Djotodia whose government has increasingly lost control of rebel troops? Or perhaps a neutral party? It is imperative that the international community (France in particular) choose a leader acceptable to all relevant parties, trying to boost someone disapproved of by one side would almost certainly lead to further conflict. As for military victory, France and other international peacekeepers need to work out what their objectives are, and fast. In the short term maintaining law and order within the country’s cities is a good start, but any lasting stability will require much more.

This is France and the world’s chance to prove that large scale sectarian killings can and will be stopped by swift international intervention.  The world and the people of the Central African Republic will be watching, and lives are on the line.