Central African Republic takes a small step towards peace – but a leap is what’s needed

Arms laid down: French president François Hollande visits Bangui. EPA/Sia Kambou

The signing of a major peace agreement by ten rebel groups in the Central African Republic is a welcome step towards peace after years of violent chaos.

Things really began to get out of hand when a December 2012 coup brought together a handful of northern rebel groups into a loose group known as the Séléka (the coalition). Previously rivals, they grouped together to overthrow president François Bozizé and install Michael Djotodia in his place in March 2013.

This led to an escalating series of reprisal killings in the capital, Bangui, by “anti-Balaka” self-defence militias.

The Séléka itself was not religiously motivated, but its members were disproportionately Muslim. Unfortunately, as with many loose confederations of armed groups, they proved impossible to control: Djotodia lost his grip on them almost immediately following the coup, and the Séléka looted the capital.

The anti-Balaka groups, however, explicitly described themselves as Christians and portrayed the conflict as a religious one, escalating the crisis beyond the initial political coup. The spread of violence between the two factions resulted in a religious schism that has killed 5,000, made almost 300,000 people refugees and displaced a million more.

Faint hope

The peace agreement must give hope to the thousands of victims caught up in the disaster, as must the release of 357 kidnapped children in the town of Bambari, about 200km north-east of Bangui. It is estimated that around 6,000-10,000 children are currently working as slaves for the militia groups.

The head of the UN’s integrated stabilisation mission, Babacar Gaye, stated that “on the path towards peace, the step made today is a very important one.” But the situation of the victims is still dire, and this has to be a step towards a lasting peace, not just a lull in the fighting.

Keeping the peace. EPA/Tanya Bindra

The terms of the peace agreement itself make provision for a process of disarmament, demobilisation, reinsertion and repatriation (DDRR), as well as “the initiation of a reconciliation process in which those found responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity will be prosecuted.”

Such agreements are undoubtedly a critical first step, and in this case it has been reinforced by the repatriation of the 357 children. But without long-term external support for the state, the peace agreement is likely to fail. And the country could return to the cycle of political crises that have seen only one peaceful transition of power (1993) since independence.

The militias themselves are a symptom of an old problem with the Central African Republic (CAR): the depths of dysfunction that beset the central state, which is barely even there. The International Crisis Group has long ranked the country as a “phantom state”, and in fact worse than a failed state. It has lacked any meaningful institutional capacity since the fall of Jean-Bédel Bokassa in 1979, and prosperity has never been enjoyed by any but a few at the very top.

With all this history weighing heavy, the recent peace agreement is welcome, but it has to be treated with extreme circumspection. The CAR’s terribly poor institutional capacity has led to endless breakdowns of previous efforts to construct peace. In fact, the roots of the current conflict lie in the failures of previous peace agreements – and explicitly stem from the state’s failure to adequately implement their conditions.

Good neighbours

The most prominent group within the Séléka is the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which was included in the 2007 Birao Peace Agreement. That agreement ended the CAR Bush War, which broke out in response to Bozizé’s 2003 ascent to power. It was followed by the Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreements of 2008, which laid out an amnesty programme for rebel forces alongside a DDRR plan.

Many argue that the amnesty conditions that resulted actually provided an incentive for the creation of new rebel groups. Alongside the express intention of being subject to a generous amnesty, seen as being preferable to suffering within a desperate economy.

Life near the CAR-Congo border. EPA/Legnan Koula

The agreement in the CAR faces several critical challenges, not least the liquid nature of the armed groups themselves and their lack of boundaries or stability. At the same time, any DDRR process will require significant resources, training and monitoring. The UN has announced a 10,000 strong peacekeeping force, but it remains unclear whether this will be sufficient.

At the same time, even if the international community was to provide the resources, DDRR requires two basic things that the CAR lacks: an economy for those who wish to make the transition from combatant to civilian; and state structures for military and leadership to integrate in to.

Is it enough?

Even if the CAR had these things in place, moving on from the conflict would be no easy feat. In the medium term, reconciliation has proved difficult even in countries with strong and capable institutions and governments.

The truth and reconciliation model was famously adopted by post-Apartheid South Africa, but its success was heavily qualified – a pattern that has also dogged subsequent truth commissions. Rwanda used an alternative grassroots model of “gacaca” (justice on the grass), built around decentralised community courts, to try 2m people after the 1994 genocide – but that too was not without serious problems such as access to qualified lawyers.

But even these models could only be carried out because there was significant state capacity and political will. That is conspicuously lacking in the CAR.

In order for this peace process to succeed where so many previous attempts have failed, the CAR government must be able to project its power beyond Bangui into the areas where the country’s militias recruit.

This in turn can only be done with significant state-building support from outside the country – and that has been made far more politically difficult by recent allegations that French troops sexually abused local boys – allegations that the UN was apparently aware of, but did not initially relay to France.

So a step in the right direction the agreement may be, but as with many DDRR agreements, it remains a small one. And in isolation, it will not bring peace to many of the people who need it most.

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