Over the last three weeks, the "Seleka" rebellion has extended its control over a large part of the Central African Republic (CAR) and is now on the doorstep of the capital, Bangui. A political dialogue between the Seleka leaders, the government and the opposition parties is urgently needed to avoid a new battle of Bangui, such as those in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003, and potential casualties among the civilian population.
"Seleka" (meaning "alliance" in the national language Sango) is a coalition of various armed movements that predominantly originate from the northeast of the country. This alliance is made up of dissident factions of both the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) and the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), but it also integrates armed groups such as the Central African People's Democratic Front (FDPC), the Patriotic Convention for Salvation of Kodro (CPSK) and the newly created Alliance for Rebirth and Refoundation. Despite their diversity, the groups are united in their claims that President Francois Bozizé, who came to power in a coup in 2003, failed to honour the 2007 Birao Peace Agreement and 2008 Libreville Agreement.
On 10 December, the rebels launched an offensive from the northeast of the country and rapidly captured the diamond producing city of Bria and the towns of Batangafo, Kabo, Ippy, Kaga Bandoro, Bambari and Sibut.
Their march toward the capital was also quick, as the national army was outnumbered and poorly organised. At Bozizé's request, the Chadian government sent some troops which are now stationed with the Central African army in the city of Damara, the last strategic town before Bangui some 75 km away.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) held an extraordinary summit in N'Djamena on 21 December and agreed on a roadmap to resolve this crisis: a ceasefire and immediate negotiations without conditions in Libreville under the aegis of ECCAS. Furthermore, additional troops would be dispatched to reinforce MICOPAX, the peacekeeping mission of ECCAS deployed in CAR since 2008, to turn it into an interposition force. The president of Benin, Thomas Boni Yayi, the current chair of the African Union, travelled to Bangui on 30 December to discuss developments with President Bozizé. Following their meeting, President Bozizé publicly stated that he was ready to negotiate without further delay and to establish a government of national unity.
He also pledged not to run for a third term in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2016.
The CAR has faced political unrest since gaining independence from France in 1960, including numerous attempted coups. Several hundred people died during the 1996 and 1997 mutinies in Bangui, and more than 300 died during outbreaks of violence following the failed putsch in 2001; 50,000 more were forced to flee the capital. Between October 2002 and March 2003, fighting between the national army, supported by armed groups coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the rebellion also led to scores of civilian casualties in Bangui and throughout the country.
The Seleka rebellion is occurring against a backdrop of severe economic difficulty and under-development, underscored by massive poverty -- 62 per cent of population live below the poverty line.
To avoid a new battle of Bangui and violence against the civilian population, the following steps should be urgently implemented:
- A ceasefire between the government and the rebels, monitored by MICOPAX.
- The immediate opening of an inclusive political dialogue to be held in Libreville under the aegis of ECCAS and including the government and the leaders of both Seleka and opposition parties.
- Seleka leaders must publicly and fully commit to respect international humanitarian law and facilitate NGOs' humanitarian and medical access to areas under their control; ECCAS, the AU and the UN must make clear that Seleka commanders will be held responsible for any violations of human rights in areas under their control.
- The urgent deployment of additional regional troops to support MICOPAX in its transition into an interposition force between national and rebel armed units, as announced during the Summit of Foreign Affairs Ministers of ECCAS states in Libreville on 28 December 2012.
- AU and the UN support to ECCAS mediation efforts.
To bring about a peaceful resolution to this conflict and promote lasting stability, the following issues should be included on the agenda of the negotiations between the government, Seleka's leaders and the opposition parties:
- The composition of the government of national unity, which should be balanced and representative of all the country's political forces. As such, it is essential that all political forces are represented during the negotiations.
- Proposals to stimulate the economy, taking into consideration the recommendations of the last Strategic Document for Poverty Reduction for CAR (2011-2015).
- The reform of the army, an issue which has long been discussed but on which there has been no serious action to date.
- The timeline and the modalities for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration into society of former combatants, especially in northeast CAR.
- The creation of an independent, transparent commission charged with investigating state violence and abuses against political opponents of the Bozize administration.