Rearming CAR’s Forces: A Way out of the Abyss?

Children holding peace signs wait to greet Pope Francis during his visit to a refugee camp. Bangui, Central African Republic, November 29, 2015. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

As international forces scrambled to provide security for the visit of Pope Francis to the Central African Republic (CAR) over the weekend, local and international actors have called for the rearmament of the country’s armed forces following rising sectarian violence. However, such a move is fraught with danger, including threats by certain ex-Séléka factions to invade the capital Bangui should it occur.

CAR’s recent wave of sectarian violence followed a civil war that erupted in December 2012, when the Muslim-led Séléka alliance headed by Michel Djotodia took up arms and toppled President Francois Bozize’s regime with help from Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries. Ensuing clashes between Séléka fighters and the mainly-Christian “anti-balaka” militias were estimated to have killed over 3,000 people before a ceasefire was signed in July 2014.

Following many months of relative calm, Bangui witnessed a renewal of intense fighting in late September this year. The apparent trigger was the stabbing death of a Muslim taxi driver, with residents of the capital’s PK5 neighborhood taking to the streets. Since then, at least 90 people have been killed and 40,000 displaced, according to United Nations estimates. Cameroonian and Burundian peacekeepers with the UN’s mission in CAR (MINUSCA) were among the dead. National political leaders have also been abducted and security concerns threaten another postponement of national elections currently slated for December 27.

The downward turn of events prompted transitional President Catherine Samba-Panza to call for the rearmament of the scattered Central African Armed Forces (FACA), accusing UN and French troops in CAR of failing to stem the violence. Hundreds of residents and members of the transitional parliament subsequently marched through central Bangui to echo Samba-Panza’s calls. In a surprising move, MINUSCA chief Parfait Onanga-Anyanga has requested the UN Security Council to loosen its arms embargo on the country, which would pave the way for the rearmament. Onanga-Anyanga added that the armed forces would also need to be transformed into an ethnically balanced “republican” force that upheld human rights.

It has become increasingly apparent that MINUSCA and French forces are struggling to contain the current militia-led violence and would be unable to respond to another major outbreak of violence. As a result of weak national institutions, the widespread proliferation of arms, and deeply-held distrust between Muslim and Christian communities, and their respective armed groups, attempts to demobilize the militias have largely failed. Moreover, the implication of French and UN peacekeepers in the sexual abuse of minors and further allegations against MINUSCA peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo has engendered significant public animosity and distrust of international forces.

While an enhanced security presence is undoubtedly needed to keep the militias in check, rearming the FACA is laden with risk. There is a perception that the armed forces are dominated by Christian soldiers who are biased against the Muslim population. During the 2013 Séléka takeover of Bangui, FACA personnel were a primary target of violence, including a series of executions. The leaders of the three main ex-Séléka factions have vociferously opposed rearmament, with former second-in-command and leader of the militant Popular Front for the Renaissance of CAR (FPRC), Noureddine Adam, reportedly calling for an invasion of Bangui were it to be realized.

Furthermore, FACA has long been accused of sexual violence, extrajudicial executions, and other human rights abuses against the civilian population. This includes allegations that FACA troops have recently supported anti-balaka fighters in besieging Bangui’s PK5 neighborhood. Given the highly volatile security situation, limited oversight of the army, and a lack of accountability for crimes committed by its troops, there are well-founded fears that immediate rearmament could lead to additional abuses and sustained violence. The armed forces being perceived as legitimate guarantors of security will therefore depend on a gradual rearmament, with a number of preconditions being met.

First, rehabilitating the FACA would need to take place within the context of a larger reconciliation process led by civil society, religious leaders, and political actors. At the heart of such a process would be an internationally-supported disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program for militia leaders and combatants, with amnesty provisions and financial support for lower-level fighters who voluntarily disarm. While the week-long Bangui Reconciliation Forum in May this year was a step in the right direction, its recommendations on disarmament, justice, reconciliation, and economic development mechanisms need to be advanced as part of a more sustained, internationally-backed process.

Second, the military structure needs to be ethnically and religiously balanced, and attempt to integrate moderate factions from both the ex-Séléka and anti-balaka. This is particularly important when the army will be operating in mixed Christian-Muslim urban centers such as Bangui and Bambari. Furthermore, in the initial stages, the rearming focus should be on the less controversial national police and gendarmerie forces, alongside a more gradual, conditional rearming of the FACA.

Third, national and local justice mechanisms will need to be strengthened to end the environment of impunity under which soldiers and armed groups operate. The International Criminal Court has been investigating potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in CAR since February 2014, but is yet to issue arrest warrants and only targets senior military and political leaders. In June this year, the transitional authorities established a special hybrid court in which national and international judges and prosecutors work together for provide accountability for international crimes. International and national actors could advance this unique judicial process alongside any rearmament process, with jurisdiction granted to investigate and prosecute members of the armed forces and militia groups.

Finally, the rehabilitation of the FACA must institutionalize—in policy, training, and practice—the respect for civilian protection, human rights, and the principles of international humanitarian law. International human rights monitors could be initially deployed alongside army units to track progress and deter abuses. While there may be a strong political will to rearm the FACA, compromises must be made in order to provide it the necessary training, oversight, and accountability.

CAR finds itself in a precarious position. Elections are needed to establish a legitimate, inclusive government that is able to improve security and economic development. Meanwhile, armed militias are intent on destabilizing the country and postponing the polls, which would further delegitimize the transitional authorities and lay the groundwork for the potential return of former leaders Bozize and Djotodia. Under the circumstances, internationally backed reconciliation, amnesty, and DDR process appear the only means of ensuring that an ethnically balanced, inclusive national army emerges from the wreckage of civil war and sectarian violence to guarantee future security.

Alex Fielding and Elisha Sidoun are Senior Intelligence Analysts in African affairs with Max Security Solutions. Alex tweets at @alexpfielding