Can the UN Build a Sustaining Peace Success in CAR?

MINUSCA peacekeepers escort a convoy of trucks transporting goods through the Bangui-Douala corridor, May 9, 2017. (UN Photo/Herve Serefio)

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a typical context in which researchers and aid workers find it hard to identify achievements and success stories. In a conflict marked by incessant violence and a lack of political will—armed groups are present in 14 of the16 country’s provinces—United Nations officers often become trapped in a vicious cycle of negativity that makes it extremely difficult to apply a “sustaining peace” approach and transform conflict dynamics in a constructive manner.

In particular, the staff of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA) are showing increasing frustration with the challenge of both working in a constant emergency mode and being mired in basic, daily tasks while working as substitutes for government officials. The UN mission is struggling to undertake realistic analyses and innovative approaches to move toward its objectives. What are some issues that could be tackled to change this all too familiar trajectory?

1. Getting the Narrative Right

Even though CAR had never experienced such large-scale, targeted violence before, a potential conflict between these communities was always latent and only partially contained by existing conflict-resolution mechanisms led by local and/or traditional authorities. Any context-sensitive and realistic analysis needs to recognize the existence of these tensions, and try to overcome them. Therefore, MINUSCA should work to change the faulty narrative—a narrative that is also supported by government officials—that Muslims and Christians, northerners and southerners, cattle herders and farmers were peacefully living together before the current crisis. This is simply not the case.

In fact, if addressed correctly, these conflicts contain elements that could be turned into a benefit for the whole population. For example, Muslim traders and cattle herders are a precious resource for the country’s economy, and could contribute to broader wealth if they were considered by the CAR’s elites and majoritarian ethnic groups as business allies (and not competitors). Similarly, solving the issue of citizenship and personal documentation would not only tackle the principal root cause of the conflict, but could also help increase freedom of movement and economic opportunities for everyone. Finally, a more transparent and decentralized legislation and administration of property and land rights could benefit not only the owners of houses occupied during the conflict, but all Central Africans.

2. Ditch the Quick Wins in Favor of Durable Wins

According to many MINUSCA officers, as well as many representatives of UN agencies and NGOs, in the current CAR context, the only possible strategy is to go for “quick wins.” As the root causes of the conflict appear too complex to be solved in the short lifetime of a peacekeeping mission—especially in the absence of a strong political will from the national leadership— distributing peace dividends with a direct impact on people’s daily life is considered a valid alternative for immediate stabilization. This approach surely has the advantage of cheering up both UN officers and local population in the short term. However, quick wins are not always durable wins. In this sense, the mission should move from being goal-oriented to being people-oriented.

Central Africans are generally easy to mobilize (e.g., to set up a committee, join a march, or participate to some activities in the community); however, like most people, they are fairly reluctant to change, and are often suspicious of new initiatives brought in by foreigners—especially considering how the mission is currently perceived in the country. Yet the CAR people do already have extremely well-developed resilience mechanisms—often promoted and led by women—that are still far from being fully known and analyzed. MINUSCA should operate within these local, existing systems, and support them. This would require a much deeper assessment of local dynamics, the identification of existing initiatives to be enhanced, and the creation of an effective monitoring and evaluation system to preserve the mission’s institutional memory. Such a process is obviously more lengthy and complex, but it is likely the only one that could guarantee sustainability after the international presence withdraws.

3. Headhunting Centrally and Empowering Locally

The Central African leadership is known to be highly centralized, extremely resistant to inclusion, and lacking any significant political strategy. How can MINUSCA work with these constraints and support the development of a national vision for peace and reconciliation, without imposing external, standard solutions? A more inclusive analysis would make it possible to identify some existing resources that the mission has not exploited enough so far, at both the central and local level. As emphasized by the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), “Every society, however broken it may appear, has capacities and assets, not just needs.” CAR is no exception, but these capacities might be overshadowed by the leadership’s lack of appetite for change.

At the central level, by focusing almost completely on supporting President Faustin-Archange Touadera, the mission may have overlooked the opportunity to track other key people who could play a role in the long path towards peace—mainly to opposition leaders, high government officials, or recently elected MPs who, because of their background or experience, could bring a fresh outlook into Bangui’s politics. At the local level, by focusing on restoring state authority through the redeployment of civil servants from the capital, MINUSCA has not prioritized the support to local chiefdoms. Even though greatly delegitimized by armed groups and youth militias, local chiefs still represent a crucial way to reach communities, especially in relation to reconciliation and justice issues. If adequately supported and empowered, they could prove to be an important preliminary step towards stabilization.

As we approach the third anniversary of MINUSCA, conflict dynamics in the Central African Republic are dangerously similar to those in 2014 that precipitated calls for a UN peace operation. The increasing level of inter-community tensions, with civilians exposed to violence and displacement, is occurring simultaneously with the progressive fragmentation of the armed groups. On the political side, the country’s leadership shows little interest or skill to deal with these problems, and diplomatic attempts to create a political dialogue have struggled to find any traction. To overcome this impasse—in conjunction with a new mandate, expected in few weeks time—MINUSCA should also adopt a radically new approach to the challenges of the CAR’s conflict.

Enrica Picco is an independent researcher who has worked in the CAR on and off since 2010.