Crisis in the Central African Republic: Why Restoring the Peace Isn’t Enough

By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst

The Central African Republic (CAR) has long been a victim of the aspirations of foreign powers and of its own citizens, so the fact that it is currently experiencing one of the worst internal conflicts in the world is not necessarily surprising. Whatissurprising, however, is that France and the EU have only deployed less than three thousand troops – in addition to 5,500 African Union troops – to pacify a crisis which has already killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. UN convoys and convoys of refugees are regularly attacked, and there is widespread agreement that, despite interim President Samba-Panza’s earnest efforts toward reconciliation, the central government is too weak to exert anything more than “minimal influence” because of its already weak “administrative structures.” UN Security Council Resolution 2149 is a much more robust step toward resolving the strife that plagues the country, and its almost 12,000 peacekeepers may be able to enforce a cessation of hostilities when the UN assumes command in September. Yet pacifying the country will not be enough. The success of the UN mission will depend on the less direct aspects of its mandate — efforts to facilitate disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation (DDR); bolster civil society; and provide justice to victims.


The international community, and the West in particular, have clear and tangible interests in ensuring the stability of the CAR and its neighbors. While some feel that these interests are simply neo-colonialism masquerading as humanitarianism, the reality is more complex. Countering al-Qaeda, accessing minerals, mitigating refugee flows to Europe, and addressing the less constructive aspects of China’s growing presence on the continent are of strategic interest, but the West and the broader international community also have a responsibility to protect. That is, they must protect populations from “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement”when states fail to do so within their borders.


This is certainly the case in the CAR, which is often mistakenly framed as a religious conflict. Former U.S. Ambassador Robin Sanders has emphasized the horror of the “two-way genocide” that has been occurring, as “Muslim[s] and Christians, impose horrendous revenge and ‘reverse revenge’ killing upon each other.” This sectarian cleavage is real and it is powerful, but it is also artificial. The struggle between deposed François Bozizé and (subsequently deposed) Michel Djotodiais rooted more in politics than religious differences,” though religion has been used to mobilize both sides in the conflict. John Nduna, of Action by Churches Together, therefore suggests that the conflict makes more sense to approach from a political and economic standpoint because when “citizens are not getting what they are supposed to…[it] makes it easy to polarize the country, using religion as an excuse.” In this context, the ultimate goal of the UN mission should be to create an inclusive state apparatus that gives voice to internal dissent and creates economic opportunity. 


It is essential to involve local religious leaders, from both sides, to continue to work together to foster inter-community solidarity and demonstrate that a return to the days when “Christians and Muslims [live] alongside each other in harmony” is possible. Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Cabinelayama have made admirable progress in this regard, securing “nearly $7.5 million to support…interreligious peacebuilding efforts and…to amplify peace messages and dispel rumors.” This cannot be the last of this kind of assistance, however, because even though the religious conflict is largely a case of astroturfing, there is an element of religious community reductivism in play that will need to be dispelled and replaced with a more positive ethos of national community before any meaningful reconciliation can occur. To a large extent, the current approach is a good one and it only requires human and material resources to expand into the rest of the country. Moreover, if done correctly, these efforts can, and should, be bolstered by concurrent programs aimed at institutionalization and democratization.


To begin, however, a ceasefire must be obtained. This will not be easy because of the importance many fighters, religious or not, place on seeking revenge, but the UN force will have to do two seemingly contradictory things: One, they must pacify the situation — through their presence alone, if possible, and through force if necessary — and, two, they must lay the groundwork for peace negotiations by providing both sides with a guarantee of security from the other. Ideally, it would be as simple as issuing an ultimatum for both sides to surrender their arms and demobilize, with the understanding that negotiations will be held and that the peacekeepers will prevent any attempt to renege on the ceasefire. What is more likely is that, because the self-professed pro-Christian Anti-Balaka currently has the upper hand in the conflict, the peacekeepers will have to engage them to some degree before they (and the Seleka) acknowledge they are in, what William Zartmann called, “a mutually hurting stalemate… – a situation in which neither side can win, yet continuing the conflict will be very harmful to each.” This “ripe moment” must be engineered very carefully in order to avoid further claims of bias — such charges have already been levied against the current French and erstwhile Chadian interventions — and to ensure that both parties view a ceasefire as viable.


Once a ceasefire is obtained, the first step will be to establish an inclusive transitional government. CAR President Catherine Samba-Panza has acknowledged that the populace wants an “inclusive political dialogue” and pledged that the government will be “reshuffled to be more…representative,” but this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, as Nanjala Nyabola observes, the conflict is a mélange of internal and external political interests, and it may be difficult to exclude actors like Chad and Rwanda — both of which exert indirect influence over events in the CAR — just as it may be impossible to encourage all factions of the Seleka and Anti-Balaka fighters to work within the system. Nyabola suggests that understanding and addressing local concerns is the pathway to success, and this inclusion-exclusion process will be the first major hurdle that a peace process will need to clear.


Secondly, any political change must be accompanied by economic and social change. While it will be important to develop the CAR’s civil society, the immediate focus should be on cultural rehabilitation, starting with DDR. Because of the real and economic devastation that occurs after a war, the immediate aftermath will see many young men unemployed, homeless, and perhaps still angry over how the conflict was settled. If they are unable to obtain life’s necessities legitimately, they may turn to crime or even war. Offering training programs to teach former combatants a trade or to impart technical skills could prove invaluable in this regard, as could the provision of investment aid for local industries, like timber or mining, to ensure that an influx of new workers can be supported. And, with the staggering number of child soldiers reported to be involved in the conflict, it will also be important to incentivize them to return to school. Another major challenge is the present food crisis. Putting former combatants to work in agriculture would give them a sense of purpose and a shared goal with a tangible reward to work toward, helping resolving a massive social concern in the process.


And finally, there is the issue of justice. The apparent entrenchment of vendetta killing in the CAR conflict all but guarantees that no peace will be possible without some measure of retributive justice and, indeed, Resolution 2149 seems to mandate this as it calls for “all perpetrators of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights…be held accountable…under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).” UN peacekeepers will need to approach this delicately and may need to be creative in establishing alternative justice mechanisms such as local, hybrid tribunals that consist of officials, politicians, and citizen representatives from both sides. There may also be a place for a truth and reconciliation commission. This may look something like the one established in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, in that it could provide amnesty for participation, or it may be more like the one in Rwanda which sought to disabuse its citizens of the false beliefs that led to the conflict. Regardless of the precise form, however, such an approach would be capable of providing victims a chance to ensure that their story is told, which is psychologically important for the social healing process. 

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