CAR’s Mutating Violence Threatens Recent Political Progress

Muslim herders pass through a settlement for refugees from the Central African Republic's crisis. Kaga-Bandoro. February 16, 2016 (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Human Rights Watch this week warned of a potential “lost generation” of Central African Republic (CAR) children, with armed groups and peacekeepers taking up residence in schools and preventing students from attending. Four years since the then-Séléka rebels overran the presidential palace and seized power from President Francois Bozizé, the country is still plagued by surges of violence that, if allowed to continue, could severely undermine international efforts toward recovery.

Last year’s election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra offered hope for stability, but 13 months later the state still lacks the capacity to establish authority beyond the capital, Bangui. Continuing clashes between rebel groups fighting for political power, ethnic superiority, and resource control increasingly threaten peace and security.

A spike in violence in recent months has seen the tone of fighting shift from the Muslim against Christian nature of the immediate post-coup period to one more strongly driven by ethnic differences and old intercommunal grudges. These localized tensions, mainly in the northeast and northwest of the country, have seen civilians targeted or conscripted by splintered factions, on the basis of local identities. The United Nations estimates that more than 200 people have been killed and over 100,000 displaced in the past six months.

In the northeast, frequent clashes between the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), a collective of rebels mainly from the Fulani Muslim group, and the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC), a movement of far northeastern Muslims from the Gula and Runga tribes, have produced scores of casualties and deepened political tensions. The roots of the friction lie partly in the struggle for control of a reunited Séléka movement.

The FPRC is led by Noureddine Adam, the second-in-command to Michel Djotodia, the Séléka president who toppled Bozizé. Last October, the group acquired the support of other ex-Séléka factions, but the UPC is unwilling to cede its power, which extends to the southeast of the country. Here the rival militias have engaged in several clashes, one of which killed two Moroccan peacekeepers. Obo, the capital of the southeastern Haut-Mbomou prefecture is also threatened by smaller local militias and the continuing presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

For the FPRC, control of a reinvigorated Séléka would increase its hold on the mineral-rich area’s resources and also advance its proposal for a partitioned state called the Republic of Logone, or Dar El Kuti, with Adam serving as its leader. Analysts warn that a reunified Séléka risks giving more legitimacy to the secessionist movement, which could in turn fuel more conflict.

In the northwest, a separate struggle is being by fueled the so-called 3R movement (return, reclamation, and rehabilitation), which controls an area along the remote border with Cameroon. Human Rights Watch estimates the group has displaced at least 17,000 people. 3R claims to protect the minority Peuhl nomadic herders from attacks as they move across the northwest and at times face barriers from more sedentary farmers. 3R accuses these other communities of cattle theft and charges that local administrators, allegedly aligned to the anti-Balaka—a rival rebel coalition to the ex-Séléka—are complicit in the process. While disputes over land access and grazing rights have historically characterized CAR’s communal relations, they now pose a more potent threat in terms of jeopardizing disarmament and reconciliation efforts.

Unlike past leaders, who were seen as marginalizing the north, Touadéra regularly travels to the regions to encourage social cohesion and unity and has proposed a national dialogue with CAR’s main armed nonstate actors. 3R, led by General Sidiki Abass, has announced the group’s commitment to the peace process and is among the 12 rebel groups participating in the national “disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion, and repatriation” (DDRR) program.

While some progress has been made, the DDRR process requires funding to become operational. Recent international pledges covered only $20 million of the estimated $45 million needed for the three-year program period. The proposed scheme would include up to 7,000 ex-combatants and is part of the Touadéra regime’s larger five-year National Recovery and Peacebuilding Plan. The international community has pledged more than $2.2 billion in support of that plan, which focuses on reconciliation and the establishment of strong state institutions.

CAR’s lingering security challenge may hamper any premature efforts at statebuilding. The withdrawal of France’s Operation Sangaris last October left behind 12,870 troops of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission, who are struggling to assert their authority. The eastern towns of Bambari and Bria, for example, remain hotbeds of rebel activity and crime, despite being secured by the mission. A high number of ex-fighters have not reintegrated into civilian life since the violence subsided. Outlying areas see frequent clashes over access to diamond mines, livestock routes, and grazing territory.

The absence of a fully functional national army compounds CAR’s problems. The European Union is currently training more than 8,000 soldiers of the Central African Armed Forces, with the first group of 750 expected to be ready for combat in mid-May. These troops are poorly equipped, however. The unit only has resources for 150 fighters and, due to the 2013 coup, CAR is currently under an international arms embargo. Touadéra has appealed to the UN to issue a waiver to the ban, and the US has offered up to $8 million in military support if permitted, but the Security Council voted unanimously to roll it over for a further 12 months in January this year.

The Council maintains that order must be restored in the army before rearmament can begin. This would require a single chain of command and an effective national weapon stockpile system, to increase accountability. At the peak of CAR’s conflict, soldiers defected to the anti-balaka and the Séléka and took their weapons with them. According to Security Council reports, arms continue to flow between CAR and neighboring Chad, the Sudans, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although Touadéra is yet to provide an indication of how order might be restored, he has said that he intends to relaunch his appeal to the UN.

Efforts toward restoring stability still seem a long way off. The nationwide lack of protection has enabled localized insurgencies to flourish, while more and more people continue to be displaced. One in five Central Africans have left their homes following four years of fighting, and half of the country’s 4.6 million people remain in critical need of humanitarian aid. Despite promises made by Touadéra, the changing nature of rebel struggles for power and wealth suggest far greater investment is required in national security and local peace and justice mechanisms if CAR is to make an effective long-term recovery.

Tendai Marima is an independent researcher and freelance journalist based in Southern Africa. Follow @i_amten