Resurgent armed groups in Central African Republic are killing many civilians and causing widespread displacement. Government forces and the UN are in a weak position, and there are no quick solutions. To contain the violence, the government and international actors must agree on a roadmap for peace with armed groups that combines both incentives and coercive measures.
As the Central African Republic (CAR) experiences a strong upsurge in violence and armed groups are taking root in the provinces, the national authorities and their international partners have been unable to halt the escalation and find durable solutions to the crisis. So far, the government and the UN have focused their efforts on the process of disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion and repatriation (DDRR) of the rebels, but little progress has been made. The incapacity of the peacekeepers to change the balance of power on the ground, the failure of the government to respond to the strong community tensions dividing the country and the competition between international mediation initiatives have further contributed to the current stalemate. In order to reverse this trend, the government and its partners must put pressure on the rebels - particularly by tackling their sources of income and exercising stronger military deterrence - but also rebuild trust among the populations of peripheral regions.
The presidential and legislative elections held at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 were welcomed by Central Africans and generated high expectations. These political developments were followed by a few months of improved security, as armed groups adopted a wait-and-see attitude, gauging the intentions of the new authorities in Bangui. Unfortunately, President Touadéra's electoral legitimacy did not translate into an effective leverage over the rebels. The relative respite was thus only short-lived. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), comprising over 12,000 peacekeepers, has failed to compensate for the departure of the French Sangaris force in October 2016 and to exercise a real military deterrence on the armed groups.
Since the end of 2016, violence has flared almost everywhere in the provinces. This resurgence of armed groups has led to the death of a large number of civilians and to massive displacement. While in the north west the crisis revolves around armed groups, as well as perennial conflicts around movements of cattle, in the centre and the east rebels are waging a guerrilla warfare to control zones of influence and resources. This provincial violence has numerous damaging consequences: the links between rebel groups and local communities is reinforced, the number of local militias is rising and, above all, a resurgence of targeted attacks against Muslim minorities is driving ethnic and religious exclusion, reminiscent of the most tragic events of the country's recent crisis.
Several international and regional actors, as well as international organisations, have launched a series of parallel mediation efforts since the end of 2016. The African Union (AU) and CAR's neighbours, including Angola and Chad, merged several individual initiatives, launched a joint mediation in early 2017. The catholic community Sant'Egidio joined the ranks of mediators. They organised meetings with armed groups in Rome which resulted in a "political peace agreement" for CAR, signed in June 2017. However, the agreement was soon taken over by renewed violence on the ground.
Divergent agendas, institutional rivalries as well as differing approaches have led these various actors to propose remedies that are at times contradictory, especially concerning amnesty of rebel leaders, the integration of combatants into the army or the return of former presidents. But the strong upsurge in fighting since April seems to have provoked a new level of awareness and a change of position. Thus, President Touadéra and the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres - so far hesitant - have expressed their openness to a major role for the sub-region in the resolution of the crisis. Similarly, aware that the dispersion and the competition between different diplomatic interventions is problematic, the European Union (EU) organised on 21 June 2017 a round table in Brussels, aiming to relaunch a coherent and credible international mediation.
Since then, the AU has again taken control of this delicate international mediation by producing, in Libreville in July 2017, a new Roadmap for Peace and Reconciliation in CAR. Although this initiative has been welcomed by CAR's international partners, including at meetings in the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September, some core disagreements remain. The coming months will show whether the much needed improvement in international coordination is forthcoming.
As CAR is anew engulfed in the crisis, the worst may be yet to come. A repetition of the events of 2013 and a return to civil war cannot be excluded. A normalisation of the security situation in CAR is highly unlikely in the near future, and a military defeat of the armed groups even less feasible. However, there are a certain number of measures that could be adopted to contain the violence and to achieve small progresses toward a resolution of the crisis. Supporting a negotiated solution with the armed groups involves combining strong coercive measures and positive incentives, which include:
Reducing the attractiveness of the war economy for youth and undermining the finances of the armed groups by acting decisively against the illegal war economy. Precise instructions should be given to MINUSCA contingents in the course of the renewal of its mandate in November 2017, in order to fight illegal trade networks.
Establishing a stronger power balance vis-à-vis armed groups by combining diplomatic efforts with strong pressure. This will not only require an increase in peacekeepers, but also the deployment of contingents that are capable of seriously deterring the rebels. In parallel - as the Special Criminal Court is expected to be operational soon - the arrest and trial of rebel leaders organising major attacks against civilians should be a primary objective.
Encourage pragmatic leading elements of armed groups to play a more positive role. Beyond the integration of a limited number of combatants into the army, the possibility for certain leading figures to assume a more political role on the local level, could figure in the agenda for discussions.
At the same time, ongoing mediations need to be boosted, with the aim of reaching credible and enforceable peace agreement and cooperation between Bangui and its neighbours needs improving. In this sense:
In the spirit of the reunion in Brussels, all international mediators should agree on a coherent roadmap to resolve the crisis. Above all, they need to determine who will be the guarantor of these future agreements, what international framework must be established to ensure its enforcement and financing and how to promote its ownership by the Central Africans.
In order to obtain long-term support from regional countries, Bangui and neighbouring capitals should cooperate on a common ground of shared interests. In particular, they could cooperate to better organise transnational livestock migrations in CAR. It is for example essential to revitalise the bilateral measures on transhumance, initiated in 2012 under the Chadian-Central African Joint Commission, but which were forgotten in the later crisis, and to more broadly integrate other neighbours of CAR.
Finally, in order to reduce community tensions and to improve relations between the state and the populations of the eastern part of the country, the Central African government should break with policies of previous regimes, and speak courageously about past events, even if it means antagonising a part of its electoral base:
The president could acknowledge crimes committed by his predecessors in remote areas of the country in order to draw a line under the past and open a new page. A training program for new administrative elite should also be envisaged, including inhabitants of peripheral regions of all religious backgrounds. The message of the authorities must be clear: Muslims are Central Africans and have their rightful place in the nation. In this sense, it is important for the government to take concrete actions to avoid discrimination in the reconstitution of national identity files and to facilitate the restitution of property abandoned during the crisis.
The government could also take symbolic reconciliation measures, such as organising the national day on 1 December in the north east in order to send positive signals to a region which has long mistrusted Bangui, and affirm its place in the national space.
Bangui/Nairobi/Brussels, 28 September 2017