The African Union (AU) is making a renewed effort to help the Central African Republic (CAR) to its feet after having withdrawn from the country in 2014 and handed operations over to the United Nations (UN). The Peace and Security Council (PSC) is meeting on 16 October 2017 to discuss the implementation of the new AU Roadmap for the CAR. Ongoing violence, however, is hindering the various attempts at achieving a ceasefire and protecting CAR civilians.
The international community’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts after the relatively peaceful election in 2016 have been dealt a serious blow by the resurgence of violence and organised criminal activity in the CAR. It was hoped that the election, which brought Faustin Archange Touadéra to power, would unite the country and foster stability. The resurgence of violence now raises fears of a potential genocide.
Like several other agreements, the peace deal facilitated by the Roman Catholic Sant’Egidio Community on 19 June 2017 was flouted only days after being signed. The AU is yet to implement its Roadmap for Peace and Reconciliation in the CAR and it is hoped that the PSC meeting on the country on 16 October will help the AU’s mediation effort to gather momentum. Recent developments require urgent efforts to bridge the divisions that sustain violence, build intercommunity confidence, and secure a lasting agreement that will end the five-year conflict.
Conflict setting in the CAR
Last year, on 17 November 2016, international donors pledged US$2.2 billion to support post-conflict reconstruction in the country. While there is no information on whether donors have honoured their pledges, peacebuilding efforts in the country have stalled owing to the continued violence.
About 70% of the country is under the control of armed groups, while the government and the UN Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) are unable to expand state authority beyond Bangui.
The conflict is fuelled by continued mistrust and the quest for revenge, not only among rival armed groups but also among rival communities affiliated with the ex-Séléka and anti-balaka armed groups. The ongoing clashes hamper efforts to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate fighters.
The 14 identified armed groups in the CAR often participate in the government-led disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration consultative committee, but they are unwilling to lay down their weapons. Armed groups and communities are worried that giving away their weapons could make them vulnerable to attacks by members of rival groups that are unwilling to cease hostilities.
The conflict has also been complicated by the fragmentation and proliferation of militias that are motivated not only by antagonism towards rival groups but also by criminality and lawlessness. The illegal exploitation of natural resources is a major source of income for armed factions and they fight each other for control of mining sites, especially in the eastern and western parts of the country.
Security vacuum after exit of US, Ugandan and French troops
The conflict has been worsened by the withdrawal of US Special Forces and Ugandan troops that were fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa, particularly in the south-eastern CAR.
Last year, on 30 October 2016, France also ended its Operation Sangaris, which had been deployed to the region during the worst of the crisis in 2013.
The government’s weak security institutions – assisted by more than 12 000 UN peacekeepers – have been unable to fill the void left by these withdrawals. Armed groups, including the LRA, now operate freely in those regions and pose a threat to the civilian population in the south-eastern CAR. In a report released on 8 September 2017, Amnesty International accused the UN of being ineffective in the face of numerous attacks against civilians. On 8 May 2017, for instance, UN peacekeepers arrived too late to prevent the massacre of about 130 people in the town of Alindao. Yet the protection of civilians is the immediate, priority task of MINUSCA officers, who have also suffered deadly attacks by armed groups.
The increased unrest in the CAR, coupled with the withdrawal of the Ugandan and US forces, has led the UN to request an additional 750 troops to strengthen MINUSCA’s presence on the ground. Rwanda recently sent 140 troops to reinforce the mission. As the mandate of MINUSCA awaits renewal in November 2017, the UN Security Council should strengthen the mission. It has to adequately protect civilians and ensure a safe environment for the provision of humanitarian assistance to about 52% of the CAR’s population (2.4 million out of a total of 4.6 million people).
The challenge of securing a lasting deal
Apart from the recent peace deal mediated by the Sant’Egidio community, there have been several other mediation efforts to resolve the crises in the CAR, including by the AU, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Chad and Angola.
In an effort to harmonise mediation efforts, the AU and its partners adopted its new Roadmap for Peace and Reconciliation in the CAR in July 2017 in order to promote dialogue and secure a deal that could disarm combatants. The roadmap is a common initiative by the AU, ECCAS and ICGLR, as well as Angola, the Republic of Congo and Chad. This is to ensure the coordination of peace efforts by neighbouring states and that they play an active role in getting the agreement to stick. Indeed, most of the warring leaders in the CAR have support, interests and properties in neighbouring countries. However, the new roadmap has yet to make an impact on the ground.
Peace versus justice debate
In light of the failing effort to get armed groups to cooperate, some argue that removing the element of justice may incentivise these groups to lay down their weapons in exchange for amnesty.
Others maintain that, rather than ending grievances, amnesty will only encourage the growing culture of impunity in the country.
Possible amnesty provisions are also not in line with the conclusions of the Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation of May 2015, where participants resolved that ensuring justice is central to the peace effort. This led former interim president Catherine Samba-Panza’s government to promulgate the establishment of the Special Criminal Court for the CAR on 3 June 2015. The court is to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have occurred since 2003, when former president Francois Bozize led a coup d’état against his predecessor, Ange-Felix Patasse.
In a recent speech to the UN Human Rights Council, the president of the CAR also insisted that the road to peace lay in combating impunity and holding people accountable for their crimes.
The government and international mediators have to find ways to address underlying fears and assure citizens that the perpetrators of violence will face justice. This includes supporting the country’s weak justice system to also prioritise the prosecution of those leaders who had ordered and financed criminal acts in the country.
Making international sanctions effective
Overall, the travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargoes imposed by the UN against the CAR have been violated. Pertinent to the arms embargoes, the report of the UN Panel of Experts shows that the ‘ongoing hostilities are fuelled by a regular flow of weapons through … Chad, the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’. This illicit flow of arms contradicts the UNSC decision that all member states shall continue to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of weapons to the CAR.
Neighbouring countries have to cooperate to enforce the existing arms embargoes on the CAR. This includes providing support to the government to track and stop those facilitating illegal trade and funding rebel groups.