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Central African Republic: Untangling the Political Dialogue
Central African Republic: Untangling the Political Dialogue
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Central African Republic: Getting from Talks to Peace
Central African Republic: Getting from Talks to Peace
Briefing 55 / Africa

Central African Republic: Untangling the Political Dialogue

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.

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I. Overview

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, created by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which is in need of reinforcement.

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

Commentary / Africa

Central African Republic: Getting from Talks to Peace

The deadly threat posed by armed groups in the Central African Republic has led to severe displacement and food insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support multi-level mediation by the African Union and to back local peace initiatives.

More than six years after the beginning of the Central African Republic’s (CAR) most important crisis since the country’s independence and three years after President Faustin Archange Touadéra’s election, the country remains in turmoil. 2018 ended with lethal clashes both between armed groups and between them and UN peacekeepers in major towns and rising tensions in the capital Bangui. Former factions of the Seleka, a coalition of rebel groups from the country’s north and east which in 2013 overthrew then President François Bozizé and held power for two years before being ousted, the anti-balaka, militias formed to fight the Seleka which then turned into bandits, and a series of other community self-defence militias hold sway across much of the country, controlling many mining sites, transport routes and pastoralists’ transmigration corridors. Neither the large UN peacekeeping force, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) nor the fledgling national army, which is slowly deploying across the country following years of EU training, can constrain these groups’ infighting and predation.

The violence is driving severe displacement, food insecurity and malnutrition. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ October 2018 figures, there are currently 642,842 internally displaced and over 573,200, many of them Muslims fleeing persecution by various militias, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Some 2.5 million people need humanitarian aid. Most of the Muslims remaining in the capital, concentrated in the PK5 district, still live in fear of cycles of revenge violence among armed gangs that use religious belonging as an identifier and pretext for abuses.

It will be important for international actors to present a united front and pressure neighbouring countries [...] to use their influence over armed groups.

As of late January (as this Watch List went to print), representatives of the different armed groups and the government were holding talks in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. These talks present a welcome opportunity to refocus regional efforts on the African Union (AU)-led mediation, which have recently been in unhelpful competition with a parallel Russian-Sudanese initiative. Some form of agreement appears likely to emerge from the Khartoum meeting, though will require compromise from both sides. The challenge for 2019 will be to ensure that such an agreement makes a concrete difference on the ground. It will be important for international actors to present a united front and pressure neighbouring countries, particularly Sudan and Chad, to use their influence over armed groups – notably the largest ex-Seleka factions – to ensure they fulfil any pledges made in Khartoum. They should also support local peace initiatives, during which armed groups’ demands can be taken into account alongside the concerns of local communities in which they operate, as a complement to the national-level agreement.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Follow up its support to the AU’s mediation effort with pressure on the government to adhere to its side of the prospective deal and on Sudan and Chad to use their influence to persuade armed groups to demobilise; those governments should also open talks with the CAR government on the repatriation of Chadian and Sudanese fighters in those groups;
     
  • Support the proposed nomination of a high-level AU-UN envoy and encourage that person to focus not only on negotiations between armed groups and the government but on regional diplomacy aimed at encouraging Bangui and neighbouring capitals to find common ground on issues such as the repatriation of foreign fighters and access to pastoral land;
     
  • Alongside the UN, step up support for local peace initiatives that factor in armed groups’ local demands and the concerns of local communities, and thus both diminish levels of violence and allow for a finer-grained understanding of armed groups’ interests and strengths, and improving prospects for their disarmament.

Since June 2017, the AU, backed by African countries and the UN as well as the EU and its member states, has tried to mediate between the government and fourteen armed groups including ex-Seleka factions, anti-balaka groups and community self-defence militias, which in many cases have competing sets of interests and goals. The AU Mediation Panel of Facilitation, led by Burkina Faso’s Moussa Nébié, has met those groups’ leaders in preparation for dialogue with the government, resulting in a list of 115 different demands grouped into four thematic areas (politics, socio-economy, security and defence, justice and reconciliation). Key demands likely to be obstacles in negotiations centre around devolution (which the government fears armed groups would use to consolidate their grip on provinces they control, particularly in the case of the large ex-Seleka factions in the north and east of the country ); national-level power sharing; control over natural resources; the armed groups’ demands for immunity for crimes committed during the conflict; and the integration of some of their members into the army, including at what rank.

Over the past few months, Nébié’s AU-led efforts had been undercut by a parallel Russian-Sudanese initiative. At the end of 2017, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, frustrated by the perceived inefficiency or slowness of his partners to help deploy the national army and bring armed groups to the negotiating table, had sought Russian help. Moscow provided the national army with training and equipment following that already delivered by the EU Training Mission active in CAR since 2016. Russia also started to provide the president with security advice and personal protection. In mid-2018, it encouraged Sudan, with which Moscow has increasingly close relations, to initiate its own talks in Khartoum with armed groups and government representatives. Until recently, this parallel track had sucked oxygen from the AU’s efforts and allowed both armed groups and government representatives to forum-shop. It also provoked tensions between on the one hand the AU, the UN and the EU, which supported the AU track, and on the other Sudan, Russia and President Touadéra.

The main risk is less that the Khartoum talks fail to reach an accord along these lines than that its provisions are not enforced.

Recent AU and UN diplomacy has helped unite these parallel tracks. On 9 January, following a visit to Bangui by AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui and UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Pierre Lacroix, President Touadéra announced that the government would meet with armed groups in Khartoum on 24 January under the aegis of the AU. Giving Sudan the opportunity to host is a neat solution to bridge the gap between the two initiatives and mend international divisions.

Talks may still be tricky, however. The government has agreed to integrate some armed group members into the armed forces, while adhering to the age and education requirements already in place. But government negotiators are likely to resist ceding more ground on power sharing and immunity, given popular anger at the armed groups’ predation and violence and the fact that the concessions those groups have won in the past have not led them to change their behaviour. Unless they face pressure from their allies, armed groups’ leaders may camp on their maximalist demands. Probably the best that can reasonably be expected from Khartoum is a broad agreement on the ranks at which a limited number of armed group members could enter the army and for some rebels who disarm to be granted mid-level public offices, in exchange for a ceasefire and an agreement from armed groups that they will demobilise.

The main risk is less that the Khartoum talks fail to reach an accord along these lines than that its provisions are not enforced. Many previous deals between government and armed groups have not brought concrete changes on the ground. Throughout 2018, some smaller armed groups expressed a willingness to disarm, but stalled doing so in anticipation of better terms emerging from an agreement in Khartoum. Following this round of talks, President Touadéra’s government and international partners, especially the UN, need to seize the opportunity of whatever is agreed to advance efforts to demobilise armed groups as much as possible.

Also important is that local mediation efforts [in CAR] complement those at national level.

CAR’s neighbours ought to lend their support to ensure that armed groups fulfil any commitments made in Khartoum. Some ex-Seleka factions in particular have close links to neighbouring governments, notably those of Chad and Sudan; indeed many combatants and armed herders that seek pastoral land hail from those countries. N’Djamena and Khartoum have an interest in their southern neighbour’s stability. But they balance that against the interests of their pastoralist and trading communities or allied armed groups in border areas. Talks are needed between Bangui and both Khartoum and N’Djamena aimed at reaching agreement on security guarantees for all sides and on modalities for repatriating Chadians and Sudanese currently fighting with armed groups in CAR. African and EU governments, as well as Russia, should offer support to such talks.

Also important is that local mediation efforts complement those at national level. The armed groups in CAR vary significantly in strength, geographical reach, motivations and relations with their communities. Of the fourteen represented in Khartoum only three, all ex-Seleka groups, have significant national and cross-border reach. The anti-balaka groups in particular are fragmented and some have ties to the government with which they are in principle negotiating. Most groups’ main concerns are local, often revolving around control of resources in areas they control. Moreover, a patchwork of other groups were not represented in Khartoum, but still need to be demobilised.

Local mediation efforts initiated by religious organisations, civil society leaders and CAR politicians already have had some success, allowing temporary truces between armed groups fighting each other and calming intercommunal tensions. Unlike the broader negotiations of which Khartoum is the latest iteration, these initiatives address local disputes among armed groups rather than their grievances toward the government or national-level demands. Resulting local agreements are precarious, however, and can scale up from small local gains to become part of a more durable and country-wide solution with sustained support, including from international actors and alongside a national-level agreement that enjoys regional backing. UN backing for such initiatives could be supplemented by the AU panel in-country, building on contacts it already has with armed groups.