CAR in Need of Stability as October Polls Loom

Head of UN peacekeeping Herve Ladsous and Central African Republic (CAR) Prime Minister Mahamat Kamoun review UN peacekeeping troops in CAR. Bangui, Central African Republic, April 28, 2015. (Acome Pabandji/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, violent clashes erupted in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the killing and beheading of a 19-year-old Muslim in Bambari, allegedly by members of the Christian and animist militias known as the anti-Balaka. One year after African Union efforts in CAR were rolled into a United Nations mission, sectarian violence remains common, pointing to the urgent need for reforms to ensure stability ahead of general elections in October this year.

The recent violence—involving the anti-Balaka as well as former members of the opposing rebel faction the Séléka—comes just months after the Bangui Forum aimed at reconciling CAR, and has caused thousands of people to flee their homes. The UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) faces an operating environment characterized by rampant insecurity and continuous threats to the civilian population.

Echoing the recent recommendations of the UN’s High-Level Panel on Peace Operations report, the CAR situation highlights the importance of UN operations forming partnerships with regional organizations and international NGOs. It also points to the fact that stabilization mandates should be matched with capabilities. Many of the country’s problems stem from the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and AU being utilized as first responders to the violence, despite not being prepared for stabilization operations.

The CAR situation illustrates that stabilization missions require highly efficient and professional troop-contributing countries (TCCs) that are well-versed in high tempo operations. The critical need for peace operations to modernize and better adapt to the changing nature of conflict requires high-level political action. This should be addressed at the upcoming Peacekeeping Summit to be convened by United States President Obama in late September during the UN General Assembly.

According to the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the continued political instability in CAR has affected nearly the entire population and left some 2.7 million people—over half the population—in dire need of assistance. Refugees from the country have sought safety in Cameroon, Chad, Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, straining the limited resources of these countries.

The upsurge in violence in Bambari highlights the resilience of local armed groups, despite the fact the UN mission has been deployed in the country for the past 12 months. The mission has failed to create the necessary force to coerce anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka elements into refraining from attacking civilians.

The mission has struggled to overcome the challenge of extending the authority of what is essentially a phantom state, leaving the population to lose faith in national authorities that are unable to deliver basic services. This will continue to ensure that civilians find unofficial remedies, such as the protection of militias, in their own communities, which will further fuel reprisals and counter-reprisals. The mission has also been plagued by allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, as well as recent protests from Cameroonian troops who claim they have not been paid for their service, pointing to a general climate of dysfunction.

Increased effort is required to reduce the mission’s capacity gaps. The recent establishment of the Strategic Force Generation and Capability Planning Cell to coordinate long-term engagement between the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, and member states is a positive development in this area, but its results are yet to be assessed, since it has only operated since May.

If the cell can identify critical assets that can be developed in areas such as aviation, engineering, and medicine, and ways of rapidly deploying them into highly complex operating environments, it will go a long way to reducing violence in places such as CAR by giving peacekeeping missions the required edge over intransigent armed groups.

There is little time to waste: despite country-wide local consultations and the convening of the Bangui forum, the recent developments highlight that inter-religious tensions remain high and prone to violent results. If the country persists on this track the planned general elections in October could become a catalyst for further conflict, as various actors jockey for government jobs.

The elections are important because they provide an opportunity to replace the transitional national authorities, which have proven themselves unable to govern effectively. Since their establishment, these authorities have received millions in aid money but have not used that toward developing their capacity to deliver basis services or paying civil servants. As of now they remain highly unpopular and illegitimate in the eyes of the local population.

The mission needs to prioritize strengthening national intuitions such as the judiciary, police, army and parliament whilst simultaneously fostering reconciliation and ensuring CAR’s culture of excluding its Muslim citizens is addressed. Although MINUSCA reached full operation capability a few months ago, it still does not have the wherewithal to ensure peaceful elections throughout the country.

Stabilization is not a standalone activity. Since the conflict in CAR is at heart a regional one involving the surrounding fragile states of Chad, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and to a lesser extent Congo, the UN should also invest in the capability of ECCAS in order for it to effectively address the deeper causes of instability at the political level.

MINUSCA is only the latest iteration of peacekeeping in CAR and should not repeat the failures of past peacekeeping and peacebuilding experiences in the country—including the Inter-African Mission to Monitor the Implementation of the Bangui Agreements and the UN Mission in the Central African Republic—as it prepares for the upcoming elections.

The key lessons of these past interventions are that ensuring disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration must be fully funded and implemented and international support to the government must continue until well after the polls. If these two lessons are neglected, the country will remain insecure. The mission needs to reassess its protection of civilians strategy and increase country-wide reconciliation initiatives and dialogues. As the situation stands, the elections pose more of a risk of continued violence, instead of an opportunity for a peaceful transition.