On February 6, guarantors and many of the signatory parties of the Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic (CAR) celebrated its one-year anniversary. In Bangui, government representatives and the United Nations Mission in CAR’s (MINUSCA) Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) reaffirmed their commitment to the accord, and other regional guarantors—including the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)—echoed their words in joint statements and video messages.
But, in an address to government leadership, diplomatic representatives, and even the recently returned former President Francois Bozizé in Bangui, the SRSG, Mankeur Ndiaye, spoke of the need for honest meditation on the difficult road travelled and what is still needed to “meet the challenges of lasting peace and reconciliation.” Despite the lower levels of violence in CAR, the first convictions for crimes against humanity in the fight against impunity, and the return of a majority of state authorities (préfets and sous-préfets) to their governing posts, the enduring character of the conflict has not fundamentally changed. Indeed, neither side has been willing to make the necessary concessions to deliver the dream that the peace accord offered just one year ago. In his latest report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres laments the “persistent lack of good faith among the signatories,” and the UN panel of experts in their end of year assessment noted that actors continue to exchange accusations of reneged commitments, violations of the agreement are committed in large numbers (597 from October 16, 2019 to February 1, 2020), and arms trafficking remains rampant. Although estimates vary, it is likely that between 50 to 70 percent of the country is still controlled by non-state armed actors.
The growing deterioration of relations between the state and the signatory armed groups in the lead up to the December 2020 elections points to a worrying future. The most concerning issues in this regard are related to the lingering challenges with the roll-out of the Unités Spéciales Mixtes de Sécurité (USMS) and continued violations of the peace accord.
The USMS and the Persistence of Violence
The USMS’ mixed units comprised of armed group combatants and Central African state forces were one of the most significant security structures established by the 2019 peace accord. These units were to be transitional in nature (24 months of deployment), composed of 60 percent rebel and 40 percent government soldiers (in total just under 2,000 participants), with the aims of establishing trust, protection, strengthening public order, and securing seasonal migration corridors.
But underlying these stated objectives was a sense by many state and diplomatic actors that they were also a tool of political accommodation. This idea was reinforced when three of the leaders of the signatory rebel groups were appointed as “Special Military Advisers” to the prime minister, overseeing the USMS units in the three designated defense zones. A few other rebel leaders were given ministerial positions.
The agreement provided for the mixed units to be fully operational 60 days after the peace accord was signed. However, this timeline soon fell apart as training, vetting, and the operationalization of the joint force was delayed due to major disagreements between the national stakeholders and the guarantors responsible for funding. The military, political leaders, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pressed President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to not concede command of the mixed units. Touadéra also postponed the allocation of 10 percent of positions in government defense and security forces to armed groups in 2019 recruitment campaigns, in a reversal of the commitment his government made in the peace process.
After seven months, unsurprisingly, two of the three special military advisers—Mahamat al-Khatim of the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) rebel group and Abbas Sidiki of Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R)—resigned as they discovered the positions were empty shells and lacked any authority or funding. The third, Union for Peace in CAR (UPC) leader Ali Darassa, did not resign from his position, but used its status to continue the operations of his armed group, expand his territorial control, and continue trafficking in weapons. Throughout this period, the peace agreement was further undermined by ongoing attacks against civilians and fighting between signatory groups—most notably between the Front for the Rebirth of Central Africa (FPRC) and Movement of Central African Liberators for Justice (MLCJ) in Vakaga prefecture.
In October of last year, the northwest unit of the USMS was finally inaugurated in Bouar, without the participation of 3R, the largest planned contingent in the force. A month later, Sidiki reversed course and tried to contribute troops to the unit, but many were deemed ineligible. So far, the performance of the force has come under local scrutiny and much suspicion over 3R’s connection to recent acts of urban violence.
The timeline for the operationalization of the other two forces (northeast and southeast) remain unclear, as many of the chosen armed group participants are frequently in conflict with one another. In January 2020, International Crisis Group gave CAR its highest conflict risk, and reported persistent clashes and confrontation between rebel groups and between government soldiers and rebel groups throughout the country. Ending these clashes and negotiating local ceasefires and settlement will be crucial for USMS deployment in 2020. If done effectively, it could be a powerful symbol for unity in an electoral year. But without popular consultations and a great deal of civic engagement, their deployment could prompt suspicions that the presence of USMS units is intended to tip-the-scale in the eventual presidential contest.
After numerous MINUSCA operations aimed at reducing tensions, the guarantors of the peace agreement and government actors are now referencing the prospect of punitive action. On February 13, the UN, AU, and ECCAS released a joint statement concerning the situation in Birao, and threatened to use the peace agreement’s sanction mechanism. This threat has been evoked more frequently in recent months, is gaining more popular support in CAR, and was highlighted in a UN Security Council press release a week after the members discussed the latest report of the secretary-general.
Looming Elections and the Need to Deploy Greater Leverage for Peace
Amid the violence and implementation delays, the focus of the national political elite and many international stakeholders in Bangui and at the AU Summit has now turned squarely to the upcoming elections. While early preparations and the consolidation of democracy is necessary in CAR, future contestations over power will make the compromises and concessions between the government and armed actors even more difficult. A coalition of 45 international NGOs working in CAR have also expressed concern that the prioritization of elections may hinder MINUSCA’s ability to protect civilians.
These fears are compounded by the return to Bangui of two of the key protagonists of the 2013–2015 crisis—President Bozizé, and the man who overthrew him, President Djotodia—with many questions about their intentions to run for the presidency or remobilize the armed actors who once fought on their behalf. While a communiqué was released after President Touadéra met with the former heads of state highlighting a shared commitment to peace and reconciliation, a new opposition political coalition led by the second place finisher in the 2016 presidential election and former prime minister Anicet-Georges Dologuélé will increase competition.
Debates over who is strongest and most capable to lead the country have begun to supersede any spirit of accommodation and power-sharing that informed the signing of the peace agreement. Political maneuvering in the capital will likely not help address the causes of the rebellion in CAR that have historically emerged from the marginalized peripheries of the state. As further evidence of the perceived disinterest in events outside of Bangui, many international observers questioned why the government did not send a high-level delegation to try to calm the escalating violence in Birao.
Thus, in the spirit of the SRSG’s call for honesty, let us clearly state that the peace agreement is on fragile ground. Actors may still be participating in the technical mechanisms of the accord, but they have proven insufficient to get the signatory parties to genuinely implement the commitments they made in Khartoum just one year ago. In addition to the increasing threat of sanctioning armed group signatories who continue to flagrantly violate the terms of the accord, greater pressure on the government, and the conditioning of certain support packages (i.e., extension of state authority and expanding the army) should be explored. Deploying greater leverage and highlighting pending consequences, while at the same time ensuring the guarantors(and influential bilateral actors such as Russia, France, and the United States) are actively making the case for peace, might be enough to change some of the recent destabilizing behavior and lack of good faith.
Let us not forget the lessons of previous cycles of conflict in CAR, when national elections were prioritized over the more difficult work of governance, reconciliation, and compromise. There is already concern that if dynamics do not change, the proposed Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission which parliament is set to approve could be another empty commitment. As noted by others, the short-term interests of CAR political elites to maintain power through elections is often reinforced with the desire of international actors to find quick solutions and pull out of the country. Current efforts to build peace in CAR will need to break this precedent, recognize the dangers of the status quo, and redouble efforts to realize the aims of the peace agreement.
Aaron Pangburn is currently an independent political analyst, with a background in conflict prevention and peace in Central Africa.
 On February 19, the seventh meeting of the strategic committee of USMS units took place but a timeline was not released.