Crisis at a Crossroads in Africa
The United States, France, and the United Nations are falling into an all too familiar trap in the Central African Republic (CAR) of financing transition elections before armed militias have been disarmed and their communal hold broken. Exclusionary and botched elections could trigger another wave of violence and deepen the crisis.
There is no way for the current time schedule of voting by end of the year to be anything more than a wasted and potentially violence triggering event. Unless conditions on the ground change dramatically, militias disarmed, functional local administration in place, relations between Christian and Muslim communities improved, guarantees for refugees and internally displaced to vote and adequate electoral security, the elections should be postponed.
It is also worrisome that the French Operation Sangaris that was critical to halting mass violence, and that remains the effective guarantors of the UN peacekeeping force, is being downsized. Without the deterrence of Sangaris, it is unlikely that the necessary disarmament process of the anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka militias can even start. Without that disarmament, one can predict a deepening of inter-community cleavages, and further fragmenting of a state structure that was predatory even before the 2012 mainly Muslim rebellion against the decade-long rule of former President Francois Bozize.
By virtue of its geography and history, the Central African Republic stands at the crossroads between two regions and two peoples divided by a largely pastoralist and Muslim in the Sahel to the north and the now predominantly Christian Central African savanna in the south. For decades they managed to avoid sectarian conflict.
Since early 2013, when a power grab by the Séléka militia under Michael Djotodia marked a fundamental reversal of the CAR’s traditional political landscape, political unrest has worsened culminating in the killing and displacement of Muslims from the West and communal clashes in the West and the center, and the arrival of the French and the UN near total chaos in Bangui, the country’s capital. Even now, with a transitional government in place and a 10,000 strong UN mission to prevent violence, the level of security in certain districts remains unacceptable with the main supply road to Bangui not yet secured and armed Muslim militiamen still in the center city. Reconciliation between Muslim and Christian communities remains an elusive goal as demonstrated by the Bambari community clashes in late August. Now that transitional government faces an ill-timed election.
What should the Obama administration, France and the UN Security Council do at this point?
First, call for elections to be postponed with a clear statement of what basic conditions need to be in place.
Second, the French government needs to announce that the Sangaris force will remain in support of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, through the disarming of both anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka militias and completion of the electoral process after disarmament. France deserves enormous credit for initially deploying a force of 2000 into the Central African Republic and for remaining as the basic security guarantor. But CAR still needs a deterrent force.
Third, revise the current disarmament approach, agreed to at the Bangui Forum last May. It underestimates the extent to which the conflict has become communal and criminalized. Armed groups have fragmented, failed to organize themselves politically and are preying on local populations. Leadership rivalries, financial squabbles, and disagreements about strategies to adopt toward the transitional authorities and international forces have exacerbated their divides. Add to that a rushed organization of elections, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The existing United Nations-designed policy for disarmament, de-mobilization and reintegration of combatants (DDR) policy, a critical and complex process, has yet to start and lacks full international and domestic endorsement. A more comprehensive disarmament policy will offer militants a way to give up their weapons in exchange for job creation and participation in labor intensive public works programs.
CAR has already had four DDR processes in the past 15 years. At their core, they offered the demobilizing combatants, police or army uniforms and security force integration, laying the grounds for the next internal conflict.
Instead the new DDR process needs to incorporate rebuilding of the communities where the militias hold sway. They need to be the targets of violence reduction, reconstruction and development projects of the World Bank and European Union. And the U.S. should follow through and support that effort in as close to an equivalent fashion as possible for Christian and Muslim communities. Elections should follow comprehensive disarmament, not precede it. It is not necessary to have full execution of all aspects of DDR but the disarmament part is clear and the demobilization process initial phase of “cantonment,” needs to be in place in part so that the criminal economy of militias can be ended.
The transitional authorities must reaffirm Muslims’ equal rights, register them to vote, show greater concern for populations in the north-east, and diversify recruitment in the public service. Simultaneously, the reconciliation efforts between Christian and Muslim communities must be scaled up. The more than 460,000 refugees, mainly in Chad and Cameroon, need to have a way to vote if all of the CAR’s citizens are to see the election as credible and the follow-on government as legitimate.
In the coming election, whenever it is held, all of CAR’s religious groups have to have ways to participate and to believe that at the end of the day, the number of votes in the ballot boxes will matter more than the number of guns in the hands of militias and community members.