Central African Republic: Keeping the Dialogue Alive - Africa Briefing No. 69

Situation Report
Originally published



The failure of President François Bozizé and his close circle to follow through with many of the concessions agreed on during the Inclusive Political Dialogue risks exacerbating the many conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR) and stalling national reconciliation. Those December 2008 talks made a valuable contribution to both reducing levels of violence and shaping the long-term reform agenda. The promised integration of rebel leaders into civilian political life, the precedent of decision-making by consensus and a concrete set of agreements that included rebel disarmament and security sector reform were welcome steps towards greater stability. To ensure these gains are not undone by another political crisis, however, the president must abandon the uncompromising attitude he displayed through much of 2009 and the government must quickly resolve new conflicts in the north east and prepare credible elections. Otherwise, donors should suspend financial support to a regime that is largely dependent on foreign aid.

Since Bozizé's coup in March 2003, the CAR has been unable to break the cycle of conflict and poverty in which it has laboured for so long. Elections in 2005, judged relatively free and fair, did not prevent rebellions breaking out in the north directly afterwards. It took two years of difficult negotiations interspersed with more violence to prepare the Inclusive Political Dialogue, but the event itself went relatively well. The participation of the presidential camp, opposition politicians, most rebel groups, civil society and ex-President Ange-Félix Patassé fulfilled a necessary condition for reconciling former adversaries. The main participants all sought to retain or acquire state power, but they arrived at a common plan for political and economic reconstruction.

Opposition parties let go their hopes for regime change and settled for governance reforms, including a new consensus government. Rebel groups affirmed their readiness to disarm in return for roles in state institutions. The regime agreed to open up management of state affairs and allow others a say in organising legislative and presidential elections. For the first time, Patassé, who is keen to rejoin the political scene, acknowledged his former chief of staff, Bozizé, as the legitimate president.

Bozizé's show of political openness, however, came to an abrupt end in early 2009. He apparently judged that holding the talks gave him the legitimacy, especially with donors, to choose a new government as loyal as its predecessor and make unilateral changes to the electoral law that favour his re-election. The opposition fought hard during the year to keep the foothold it gained at the dialogue and secure some influence in the Independent Electoral Commission. However, stubbornness on both sides postponed that body's creation and risked making credible elections in early 2010 a technical impossibility.

The dialogue endorsed a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program for ending the rebellions in the north, but the self-interested demands of rebel leaders have delayed implementation and raised frustration among fighters on the ground. In the north west, clashes are rare but the people still suffer, unable to rebuild their lives. In the north east, the government's authorisation of Zacharia Damane's Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement, UFDR) to maintain security has awakened old tribal rivalries and provoked the formation of two new armed groups. Violence is on the rise, as rebels try to bolster their negotiating positions and the government remains set on pursuing a military solution.

All parties to the talks agreed extensive security sector reform (SSR) is needed to give the state the means to protect rather than endanger the population. The re-entry of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - originally a Ugandan insurgency - into the CAR in May 2009 and its almost free range in the south east exposed again the army's inadequacy. The Bozizé regime appears to care too much about winning elections and too little about what happens outside Bangui, the capital, to invest the necessary time and effort in the long-term stabilisation of the whole national territory. Until the government respects the spirit and method of consensus in which the dialogue was held and makes genuine changes in governance, SSR in particular will drag, and insecurity will hamper any efforts to establish state authority in the provinces or hold credible nationwide elections.