Interim Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza addresses the Bangui Forum on reconciliation. Bangui, Central African Republic, May 11.  (UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

CAR Takes Hopeful First Step Towards Peace

Interim Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza addresses the Bangui Forum on reconciliation. Bangui, Central African Republic, May 11. (UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

The signing of a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration agreement between the two major armed factions in the Central African Republic has increased hope for the country’s peace and reconciliation process. Yet implementing disarmament will be difficult: CAR’s violence has complex causes, and the scars it has left over the past three years will take a long time to heal.

The disarmament agreement was struck at last week’s Bangui Forum on reconciliation, which also saw the armed groups commit to free all children currently being used as soldiers or slaves—numbering as many as 10,000. These achievements only go some way to satisfying the demands of CAR’s citizens, who, in consultations with the government ahead of the forum, voiced strong grievances against the armed groups, as well as the severe unemployment and general insecurity in the country.

At best, the forum will be one step in a much longer process of transition. There is, moreover, a danger that domestic and international actors’ focus on swiftly holding presidential elections will distract from the more important task of promoting peace among CAR’s communities. In this respect, forum participants wisely adopted a resolution calling for a new, and longer, electoral timetable. If elections are rushed under international pressure, it could hamper, rather than hasten, peace.

The talks in the capital Bangui aimed to help resolve the political and sectarian conflict that started in late 2012 with the formation of the rebel coalition Séléka (“alliance”), which subsequently overthrew the regime of president François Bozizé in March 2013. The rebellion caused sustained turmoil, with Séléka inflicting brutal violence on civilians in Bangui and in the provinces. This sparked the formation of opposing militias called anti-balaka (“anti-machete” or “invincible”), who carried out reprisal attacks against perceived Séléka supporters.

The conflict also took on a religious dimension. Although Séléka was not a Muslim movement in ideological terms, most of its members were Muslim. Anti-balaka groups began to target Muslims, both ex-rebels and civilians.

Séléka’s choice of president, Michel Djotodia, held power for less than five months. In January 2014, he resigned under pressure from regional and international leaders concerned about the escalating violence. He was succeeded by Catherine Samba-Panza, a businesswoman and lawyer Séléka had named as mayor of Bangui in May 2013, though she is not a member of the group.

Samba-Panza has reshuffled the government several times, including earlier this year, indicating how difficult it is to negotiate the politics of inclusivity in a war-torn country. Outside powers, especially the United Nations, are urging CAR to hold presidential elections this year to attempt to provide some stability, though that may prove impossible.

The question of who will wield the presidency in Bangui is less important than the question of how CAR’s different communities can return to maintaining peace with one another. This must address the historical development of the country, as well as the more recent legacy of the Séléka uprising. Even though Djotodia disbanded the rebellion in September 2013, the “ex-Séléka” remain a political constituency—represented by multiple organizations—and, in some places, an armed force. Anti-balaka groups also continue to enslave Muslim women and kill Muslim boys in parts of the country.

The presence of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has not halted all of the violence. Indeed, MINUSCA has itself faced violent protests by CAR citizens, though the causes of these protests have been unclear. Meanwhile, a UN whistleblower has accused French peacekeepers in the country of sexually abusing children; if true, the claim would further tarnish the images of peacekeepers and foreign soldiers deployed in CAR.

Efforts to make peace between the armed groups, and between communities, have until now been more successful in elite meetings than on the ground. The Bangui Forum came as a follow-up to a July 2014 meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ex-Séléka and anti-balaka representatives agreed to a ceasefire. That ceasefire did not, as was hoped, generate commitments to support a future election, nor did the parties adopt any plan for disarmament and reconciliation as at Bangui. Continued violence against civilians in early 2015 in turn demonstrated its weakness.

New ceasefires were signed between Djotodia and the anti-balaka leader Joachim Kokate on April 8, and between Bozizé and Djotodia on April 14. The Kenyan government brokered both agreements, but neither CAR’s government nor the UN recognized the talks. The agreement signed at Bangui has been recognized by these parties and will therefore have more legitimacy.

The international community, particularly the UN and France, expressed high hopes for the Bangui Forum. They focused, above all, on its role as a prelude to possible elections. In December, a senior UN official said, “A successful and timely Bangui Forum will be vital to prepare the ground for the planned constitutional referendum as well as legislative and presidential elections.” When the event opened last week, the French government noted that “preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections, which will mark the end of the transition, are especially important.”

Recent experiences elsewhere in the region point to the need for caution in this regard. In Mali, for example, violence has continued, and in recent months escalated, since elections in 2013 ostensibly restored the country’s territorial integrity. In and of themselves, speedy elections in CAR will not help reduce conflict. Patience will be needed. For now the focus should be on ensuring the agreement for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration can be effectively implemented.