From War to Peace in the Central African Republic

President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic meets Ambassador George Moose at the U.S. Institute of Peace on April 9, 2019.

Armed groups in the Central African Republic have apparently given peace deals short shrift. Negotiators had signed five peace deals to stop the six-year-old conflict, resulting in no more than short lulls in the fighting. In February of this year, negotiators signed a sixth in Khartoum, which appears to be the most comprehensive yet. However, attacks in May have called into question the legitimacy of the latest peace agreement.

In order to prevent this deal from collapsing, the international community must work in tandem with the Central African government to create peace at the local level. Beyond that, it must understand the roots of the conflict and why previous negotiation efforts have failed in order to craft a response that actually works.

Six Years of Conflict

In the CAR, the conflict has most directly stemmed from religious tensions between Muslims and Christians, with economic desperation adding fuel to the fire. The current conflict started in December 2012, when largely Muslim groups known as the Seleka accused then-president and tinpot dictator François Bozizé of failing to live up to peace agreements signed after the country’s previous Bush War, which nominally ended in 2007.

After the Seleka overthrew Bozizé in March 2013, they rampaged through the countryside, raping, looting, and killing, mostly in Christian communities. In reaction to the Seleka’s brutality, Christian militias known as the anti-balaka sprung up, matching brutality with brutality as they murdered Muslim civilians in retaliation. Tit-for-tat attacks between the two hardly unified factions, consisting of various militias and armed groups, continued despite a July 2014 ceasefire, a May 2015 forum, and a May 2017 ceasefire. After an ostensible lull in the fighting, attacks reintensified in the fall of 2018.

After a particularly violent fall, participants in African Union-mediated talks finally reached an agreement in February 2019. First, the parties agreed to end a climate of impunity for armed group leaders by prosecuting offenders before a special court, which previous agreements had largely paid lip service to. Second, the parties agreed to create an “inclusive government.” As a result, the government appointed armed group leaders to high ministerial positions, prompting charges that the move would only undermine the first major plank. Third, they created mixed security units, incorporating both government troops and soldiers from the various armed groups. Fourth, they set up both national and local committees to monitor the deal’s implementation.

Unfortunately, recent attacks have tested that peace deal. Fighters from a group that had signed the February peace deal launched attacks on civilians on May 21 of this year, killing more than 40.

Why Has Peace Failed? 

Violence has continued for a variety of reasons, primarily because of retaliatory religious violence. Economic factors have also complicated matters; the Swiss Peace Foundation concluded that violence continued because members of armed groups had no alternative other than remaining in these outfits. Economics also played a role in the latest attacks, with local leaders noting armed groups’ desire to control local cattle routes. Meanwhile, violence has seemingly focused around the country’s capital of diamond production, pointing to a desire to control its lucrative trade.

Peace deals have also failed for many reasons. For one, civil society groups such as Human Rights Watch and the CAR’s human rights observatory have panned an ongoing lack of accountability and justice for perpetrators of violence. While accountability may seem a wish list item instead of a must-have for peace, it reduces tit-for-tat attacks because the state, with its supposed monopoly on violence, punishes perpetrators, obviating other groups’ need to retaliate. Meanwhile, accountability can also serve as a deterrent for future unilateral attacks.

Above all, it seems that previous peace agreements failed because they focused too much on elite support. It emerged after the 2017 deal that ground forces of the ironically named Union for Peace, a major armed group in the country, had not seen the deal itself; only their representative had, meaning that local militiamen could, and did, decide to ignore the deal. Likewise, the government’s decision to award top-level government posts to militia commanders did not truly set conditions for peace on the ground. Instead, militias could continue their atrocities under a veil of protection from top leaders. Finally, the government has largely failed to communicate its decision-making process to the people, contributing to a widening gap between bureaucratic elites and the people they claim to represent.

Moving Beyond “Good Paper”

Instead of this elite-based approach, peacebuilding theory generally recommends the opposite: solutions that take into account conditions on the ground, bringing in members of armed groups and convincing them to disarm based on local reasons. This theory is especially applicable considering that much of the CAR conflict stems from local militias, not national ones. Following this framework would require a three-pronged approach: conflict resolution at a local level, economic incentives to encourage disarmament, and accountability for perpetrators of war crimes.

The infrastructure for conflict resolution at a local level already exists. An NGO called Conciliation Resources has set up 12 local peace committees which have already started the tedious process of peacebuilding, bolstered by prefectural committees set up in the February 2019 peace accords. So far, the committees have seen success, working to reintegrate former fighters in society, glean key lessons from previous conflicts, and create forums to air grievances, including religious ones, in a nonviolent fashion. In order to achieve peace, the government must give them resources and work to set up new local peace committees in areas where they do not already exist while not meddling in their affairs.

Mixed security units that the 2019 peace deal set up also have the potential to defuse conflict at a local level. Not only would they create camaraderie between the formerly warring parties, they would also do much to improve the country’s security against rogue actors who might ignore the peace deal. However, the United Nations peacekeeping force must begin training the security units to an adequate standard to improve their efficacy.

Economic development must accompany the local peace committees. While this is easier said than done and requires resources from regional or international actors such as the African Union or the United Nations, some lessons can be drawn from Mozambique. The government in Maputo successfully launched a program that encouraged fighters from that country’s long civil war to turn in their weapons in exchange for tools such as farming implements, sewing machines, and even tractors, removing at least 60,000 guns from circulation. Such a program hit two birds with one stone: It removed dangerous weapons from circulation while kickstarting economic development. If funded adequately, such a program could also benefit the CAR.

On the accountability front, the government has made significant progress in setting up the Special Criminal Court to prosecute and try the worst offenders, which finally makes good on many promises to bring offenders to justice. However, it still lacks the funding and manpower to sufficiently investigate and prosecute the worst crimes. Another problem exists—the Nordic Africa Institute has noted that international-style criminal courts often overlook local or indigenous means of justice.

Consequently, introducing local courts with roots among the community (similar to Rwanda’s gacaca courts) could help to solve both problems, with community members working to achieve accountability for lower-level offenders. These courts must work in tandem with local peace committees, though, and must work to avoid any significant miscarriages of justice. They also cannot obviate the international community of responsibility for funding and training the Special Criminal Court.

Once it has addressed violence at a local level, the government must work to ensure the various armed groups and militias in the conflict actually work to transform their militias into nonviolent organizations, preferably political parties that can continuously participate in national politics. The mixed security units will help in this process, as a major challenge in disarmament revolves around a “security dilemma” involving former combatants who distrust the government and wish to return to arms. But the government must also adopt a carrot-and-stick approach—it must provide legitimacy to the armed groups that convert to political parties but also punish those groups who then resort to violence, perhaps by removing leaders of those groups from government positions.

Without these measures, this peace deal may befall the same fate as the 2017 Rome deal or the four others that preceded it. After all, Igor Acko, the U.S. Institute of Peace’s representative in Bangui, told Voice of America in 2017 that he worried the Rome peace deal would not move beyond what one of the armed groups’ representatives called “a good paper.” If the Central African Republic and the international community act expeditiously and intelligently, it is entirely possible the Khartoum deal moves beyond “good paper” and into the realm of peace.

Image Source: Flickr/U.S. Institute of Peace

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