Central African Republic: Untangling the Political Dialogue
Africa Briefing N°55
9 Dec 2008
Since the coup d’etat that brought President François Bozizé to power on 15 March 2003, the risk of renewed wider violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has never been greater than today. The opening of an inclusive political dialogue on 8 December – initially planned for June 2008 – has continued to be negotiated inch by inch, but both the regime and the main opposition forces see armed conflict as the ultimate way out of the crisis and are making preparations to return to it. Genuine democratisation and state reform nevertheless seem possible if all sides can overcome that temptation and manage their differences in a consensual way, but the political dialogue needs to be refocused around organisation of elections in 2010 and negotiation of a credible transitional justice mechanism. To avoid another round of violent regime change, the government should also complete reform of the security sector, including equitable integration of former rebels into the security services.
President Bozizé has more than ever been taken hostage by his close entourage of extremists and refuses to make concessions essential for true democracy. With the goal of ensuring his re-election in 2010, he is distorting the general amnesty he agreed upon with the rebel movements during the peace talks into a weapon of exclusion, at the same time as he grants impunity to his own forces that are guilty of serious abuses and tries to halt the proceedings of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which he himself originally requested in 2004.
With the exception of former Prime Minister Martin Ziguélé, whose authority over the most important opposition party (the Central African People’s Liberation Movement, MLPC) has waned due to an upheaval in its stronghold, and the unwavering but shadowy presence of former President Ange-Félix Patassé, Bozizé’s main adversaries want to transform the concept of political dialogue that was agreed in December 2006 into a mechanism to produce quick regime change. Their preferred vehicle would be a national conference, an ad hoc constitutional assembly competent to remove the head of state. At the very least, they count on being able to control a transitional government and to prepare the 2010 elections to their advantage.
The international community bears a share of responsibility for devaluation of the political dialogue. By initiating army reform in early 2008, the donors emptied the political dialogue of the security element that is at the heart of the crisis. They are paying the price today for their complacency about democracy in the CAR, including their readiness to give up on reconciliation in return for simple disarmament. Indeed, they are de facto abetting new insurrections by granting blank concessions to rebel leaders without demanding anything else from them except lip-service to legality.
Against this troubled background, the UN Security Council is scheduled to decide in December 2008 about the takeover of the European force deployed in Chad and the north east of the CAR. Whether the current lull in violence in the north of the country can be maintained depends on the nature of this decision. Budgetary limitations and the difficulty of finding troop contributing countries mean that the UN mission to the CAR and Chad (MINURCAT 2) will essentially concentrate on eastern Chad, to the point that it may have a purely symbolic presence in the CAR. France wants to turn over its responsibilities in Birao, so the job of securing the north east of the CAR would in effect fall to the new regional peacekeeping force, MICOPAX, that the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has created but which needs strengthening.
In addition to the internal problems and international uncertainties, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. Despite the attention created by the neighbouring Darfur conflict and almost one million civilians affected by the violence in the north of the CAR, humanitarian assistance is not guaranteed: almost a quarter of the modest $116 million earmarked for the purpose is still missing. The CAR is at risk of yet again disappearing from the international radar screen, which would make all the investment of recent years in vain. Its emergency may seem less than those in Darfur, Chad or the Democratic Republic of Congo, but serious further deterioration is certain if the following measures are not taken:
The political dialogue needs to be refocused by its mediator, Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba. All political movements and notably all the former rebel groups that have turned themselves into parties, need to accept that its primary objective is to reach consensus on organisation of the 2010 elections. The dialogue must not be misused as a pretext to question the legitimacy of the current government in power; its intended purpose is to produce a responsible and fair process, not power sharing or regime change. Donors should emphasise to all sides that no solution to the political crisis is possible outside the existing legal framework and legitimate elections.
The government should make it a priority to amend the amnesty law of October 2008 so as to facilitate the political dialogue without exceptions or conditions. Simultaneously, President Bongo should set creation of a credible transitional justice mechanism as a second key objective of that political dialogue, and donors should condition their support accordingly.
The international community should seek to maintain the presence of MINURCAT 2 in the CAR. However, if it is forced to reduce its deployment in the CAR, that UN contingent should harmonise and coordinate its withdrawal with a comparable reinforcement of the regional peacekeeping force (MICOPAX), so there are smooth handovers and transitions between them, as well as with the French forces that are being drawn down, and a coherent security approach is maintained toward the CAR.
The military planning law for 2009-2013 just submitted to parliament is an important step, but security sector reform has been begun many times in the CAR without ever being completed. The government needs to transform the security forces into “a structured, versatile, well-equipped and operational defence tool” attractive both to its own troops and the rebel fighters who are meant to be integrated with them. The international community should pledge strong support, financial in particular, but set the firm condition that the security forces must be depoliticised and the integration of rebel groups fairly managed.
Donors should maintain their humanitarian aid for the victims of the conflict and ensure that financing is secured for the coming year.
Nairobi/Brussels, 9 December 2008