Book Review: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Demonstrators gather in Bangui demand the resignation of interim president Catherine Samba Panza in Central African Republic on September 28, 2015. (Herve Cyriaque Serefio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The recent renewal of violence in the three-year conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) has killed at least 42 people and added 27,000 more to the 365,000 who remain displaced within the country. Ongoing clashes between the ex-Séléka and anti-balaka militias have continued to frustrate United Nations peacekeepers and international forces deployed to the country. With the boycott of a political forum held last week and the derailing of the election scheduled this month, there are concerns state and society relations have been irreparably harmed.

Understanding how and why CAR remains wracked by serial rebellions, coups, and general instability, even after two decades of UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding initiatives, is not an easy task. It is nonetheless effectively achieved by a new book, Making Sense of the Central African Republic, edited by scholars Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard.

The book sheds light on possible answers to enduring questions: How can the international community positively resolve the current crisis? Has the UN learned from past peacekeeping and peacebuilding mistakes? How have regional actors shaped the current conflict dynamic? Is CAR beholden to its history, or can a culture of tolerance be rebuilt?

As many of the contributions outline, CAR’s pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods continue to have an adverse impact on the state and economic culture, and fuel instability. For example, as a result of decades of mismanagement and corruption, CAR is at the bottom of the 2014 UNDP’s Human Development Report, with high levels of infant mortality, inequality, and maternal mortality.

More importantly, the book details how these factors have contributed to the centrifugal forces pulling the country apart and preventing the consolidation of state authority. Its analysis leads to the conclusion that the current crisis holds remarkable similarities to others that have plagued the country since it achieved independence. Complicating matters is a number of new destabilizing elements, particularly the increasingly intense religious intolerance that threatens Chad’s foreign policy throughout the region.

A Beacon of Tolerance

A great strength of Making Sense… is the breadth of authors and subjects consulted, incorporating policy analysts, former humanitarians, peacekeepers, a diplomat, and even a former shop owner. This last subject features in a memorable entry exploring the creation of the Pk5 commercial zone of Bangui, and how it grew into a bastion of tolerance before the current crisis.

Here, civil society expert Faouzi Kilembe writes that the PK5 became a “densely-populated zone with populations of various origins,” who had come from rural areas and through immigration from neighboring countries, and were able over time to develop a culture of inclusion centered on commerce.

This chapter also explores the adverse impact of Pentecostal churches’ extreme views and identity politics, and their interplay with Central African identities and cultures of tolerance. It is important to understand this dynamic, which may prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, since other countries in the region with similar movements have been fighting to preserve the Christian identity of CAR. The main takeaway from this chapter is that tolerance can only be rebuilt by reestablishing mutual trust, based on living and working together.

Regional (dis)Order

The complications caused by CAR’s multifaceted identity are analyzed at length in two chapters. CAR straddles the Sahel region and is influenced in the northeast by a long tradition of Islam, pastoralism, and nomadic culture, and in the south by a Christian and animist tradition. Instead of this rich diversity benefiting the country and its people, it has more often been used to their detriment, with armed movements formed based on identity-based patronage networks.

CAR’s elites have historically sought out relationships and support from regional capitals instead of developing a mutually beneficial relationship with the population. CAR’s leaders have taken advantage of this patronage to enhance their political and military positions. As Carayannis explains: “Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the [political party] Mouvement de Liberation, struck a deal with then President Ange-Felix Patasse to place troops at the latter’s disposal because the national army could not guarantee the regime’s security.” Years later, Army Chief of Staff Francois Bozzie would flee to Chad and return to topple the government of Ange-Félix Patassé with troops largely composed of Chadian fighters.

The recent crisis reveals the unintended consequences—mainly religious intolerance and mass displacement—of this meddling and how the intentions of external actors to support fringe rebel movements have had devastating long-term consequences.

History of Intervention

Since 1997, CAR has been the testing ground for more than 10 different regional and international peace operations—a history that is catalogued and analyzed in the chapter Pathologies of Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding in CAR. These interventions have provided an ideal opportunity for regional actors to influence politics in CAR, while earning international acclaim and material support through peacekeeping. But they have usually been deployed immediately after the breakdown of the rule of law and usually withdraw after the application of quick and superficial fixes, such as presidential and parliamentary elections, and without any sustainable support for effective governance.

As is outlined by the chapter’s author, Nathaniel Olin, the purposes of most of these missions have been to “strengthen democratic institutions and mechanisms for fostering reconciliation and dialogue,” but these became unachievable in the absence of security sector reform or disarmament, as armed groups continued to pose a challenge to state authority.

What has also become quite apparent is the lack of commitment from local political actors, who have seemed more interested in consigning the governance of the country to external actors when insecurity became unmanageable, instead of building an inclusive governing relationship with the population. The fact that there have been so many interventions in CAR highlights the lack of properly designed mandates based on a careful analysis of the conflict and actors. The perennial impunity in the country is testament to the difficulty of statebuilding on the cheap.

The one key factor that has contributed to the failure of past peacekeeping and peacebuilding interventions in CAR has been the lack of analysis and understanding of the root causes that fuel its instability. This book helps to fill that gap. The authors of Making Sense of the Central African Republic provide a level of detail and historical account that make it the most commanding source published on the topic to date. Although not offering direct policy prescriptions, it is exceptional in making the reader fully aware of the root causes and how they are adversely impacting international efforts to stabilize CAR. In terms of the current crisis, what is clear  is that moving forward will require a comprehensive political solution with effective buy-in from external actors, state authorities, and civil society.