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History shows that the peace agreement in the Central African Republic probably won’t stick

Reuters/Anthony Fouchard
Members of the local military take part in a parade during the handover ceremony from the European military operation in the Central African Republic.
This article is more than 2 years old.

The signing of a peace agreement between ten rebel groups and the government in the Central African Republic (CAR) has given many hope that the crisis in the country, which began with a coup in Dec. 2012, is now drawing to a close.

Babacar Gaye, head of the UN’s multidimensional integrated stabilization mission in the CAR, applauded the agreement, stating, “On the path towards peace, the step made today is a very important one.”

The terms of the agreement make provisions for militias to “enter into the process of disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion and repatriation (DDRR),” as well as the initiation of a reconciliation process in which those found responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity will be prosecuted. While the signing of such an agreement is a necessary step towards peace in the CAR, the peace process and DDRR program are likely to fail, as they overlook the weaknesses of state that have hampered previous peace efforts.

Conflict has resulted in 5,000 deaths, the internal displacement of 700,000 people, and an exodus of over 280,000 refugees.

The 2012 coup in Bangui, the capital, was merely the latest in a succession of political crises in the CAR. Since independence, the country has had only one peaceful transition of power (in 1993). This chronic political instability has stunted economic growth. The result is a dysfunctional political system and widespread poverty.

The International Crisis Group has characterized the CAR as a “phantom state.” The 2012 coup, which brought together a handful of northern rebel groups—the Séléka—who had previously been rivals to one another, to overthrow president François Bozizé and install Michael Djotodia, kicked off a series of reprisal killings in the country’s capital by the self-termed “anti-Balaka” self-defense militias.

Though the Séléka were not religiously motivated, their members were disproportionately Muslim. Almost immediately after being installed, Djotodia lost control over the Séléka forces, who went on a looting rampage in the capital. The proliferation of anti-Balaka groups, who explicitly described themselves as Christians and portrayed the conflict as a religious one, added a new dimension to what was initially a political crisis. The killings and revenge killings have resulted in over 5,000 deaths, the internal displacement of 700,000 people, and an exodus of over 280,000 refugees into neighboring Chad, Cameroon, even the perennially unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The roots of the current crisis lay in the failure of previous peace agreements between the government and rebel groups. Perhaps the most prominent militia in the Séléka (which translates to “the Coalition” in the Sango language), is the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which, in French, reads as slightly less redundant: Union des Forces Démocratique pour le Rassemblement. UFDR was party to the 2007 Birao Peace Agreement, putting an end to the Central African Republic Bush War, which broke out in response to Bozizé’s 2003 power grab.

The 2007 Birao Agreement and the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreements, which laid out an amnesty program for rebel forces and a provided for a broader DDRR program, failed because of inadequate implementation by the Central African Republic’s government. In fact, some have argued that the favorable terms of the amnesty program may have incentivized the creation of rebel groups, since identification as a rebel was often more lucrative than participation in the general economy.

While the most recent round of peace accords provides for the assistance of a 10,000 member UN peacekeeping force in the process of disarming, demobilizing, rehabilitating, and re-integrating the rebel forces, it is not clear if such support will be sufficient.

Reflecting on previous DDRR efforts in the Central African Republic, the UN euphemistically noted in 2007 that “undertaking DDRR that has a large armed population amidst a sizeable internally displaced people as well as refugees presents unique and multi-faceted challenges.” These structural challenges remain in the country. At various points, the Séléka has claimed 3,000 members though it is often difficult to parse between members of armed groups and civilians defending themselves. Engaging in a meaningful national reconciliation process has proven to be a challenging endeavor in other African countries, most notably through the gacaca (“justice on the grass”) program in Rwanda, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

The CAR, however, lacks the sort of resources that these countries had when conducting these programs. According to the International Crisis Group, the country has lacked “any meaningful institutional capacity” since the 1979 fall of Emperor Bakassa.

Conducting a successful DDRR in the CAR poses two challenges to the country: even if the logistical challenges of such a process could be managed through international assistance, these programs require a state for militias to be reincorporated into. The CAR’s government has difficulty projecting power beyond Bangui, which has allowed for the proliferation of armed militias in the northern hinterlands.

Furthermore, local communities, following the allegations that French peacekeeping troops sexually abused boys in the CAR, may not trust the international assistance that the plan is predicated upon.

While there can be no peace in the absence of a ceasefire and reintegration program, those interested in promoting peace in the Central African Republic must learn from the short-comings of past peace agreements. DDRR programs that make no provisions to bolster the capacity of the central government, giving rebels a state to be integrated into, merely set the stage for continued violence.

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