The Recent Conflict in the Central African Republic: Which Way Out of the Crisis?
On January 10, 2014, former rebel leader Michel Djotodia officially stepped down after ten months as interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR) following his March 2013 putsch against François Bozizé. This development hopefully marks the end of the series of turbulent and violent events that have put the CAR through one of its biggest crises since it gained its independence in 1960.
Djotodia was the head of a coalition of rebel movements, which, under the name of Séléka, marched on the CAR’s capital of Bangui in December 2012. Although, initially, the holding of a conference in Libreville in January 2013 held prospects of averting the threat, the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the rebels under the aegis of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) brought only a temporary and relative calming of the tensions.
In February 2013, frustration over some of the agreement’s provisions and reluctance to respect them, as well as a split developing within the Séléka coalition between those taking part in and supporting the new transition government and those who felt left out, led to a new series of attacks by Séléka rebels and, eventually, the seizing of the capital and the toppling of Bozizé. On March 25, Séléka leader Djotodia proclaimed himself the new president of the CAR and in April was confirmed in this position, as the sole candidate, by the newly established National Transition Council.
The country nevertheless remained caught in an escalating spiral of violence. While the largely heterogeneous Séléka coalition disintegrated and splintered under the heavy weight of internal power struggles, a self-defense militia emerged within the country. Mostly formed by Christians openly opposed to the predominantly Muslim ex-Séléka combatants, clashes between these groups drove the country deeper into chaos. In the CAR’s history, tensions between religious groups have so far never played a major role. However, in recent years, the politicization of religion in the wider region has become a critical challenge and fuel for the growing fragmentation of the CAR society. As Djotodia—a Muslim himself—proved unable to control and stabilize the country and violence against the population by ex-Séléka members continued, religion rapidly became a central issue in the conflict. This trend has been particularly strong among the population in and around the capital. Séléka has increasingly been perceived as a foreign, mainly Muslim element, including soldiers and combatants of Sudanese and Chadian origin.
On December 5, 2013, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2127, calling for the deployment of a support mission led by the African Union (AU) and backed by French forces, to ensure the implementation of the Libreville Agreement and promote the restoration of security and stability in the country. At an extraordinary summit of heads of ECCAS member states, Djotodia and his prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, finally agreed to resign from their posts, opening the way for yet another transitional phase in the country’s history—led, for the first time, by a woman, Catherine Samba Panza.
Much deeper roots of the CAR conflict
To limit efforts at addressing the current crisis in the CAR to the events following Séléka’s seizure of Bangui and the toppling of François Bozizé in March 2013 would be short-sighted. Although these events are important signposts in the descent into political turmoil that has led to a major humanitarian crisis and the internal and external displacement of an estimated one-fifth of the population, the roots of the conflict go much deeper. In a similar way, placing the focus predominantly on the religious dimension of the conflict will increase the risk of neglecting the social, economic, and political problems that have plagued the country since its decolonization. This crisis has deepened toward the end of the 1990s and left the CAR in a state of perpetual instability.
The CAR is one of the poorest and least developed nations in the world. The life expectancy at birth of its people is around fifty years, and two-thirds of the population live on less than USD $1.25 a day; the literacy rate is just 56 percent. The country’s wealth in natural resources has never been equitably shared among its citizens. Diamonds, timber, gold, and uranium are either exploited illegally or by international companies, or they remain partially untapped. With regime changes by coups d’états as the rule, the political reality in the CAR has been characterized by regimes lacking in legitimacy, a dysfunctional public sector and institutions, and weak state power. With state authority concentrated in the capital of Bangui, the periphery of the territory, especially the northern and northeastern parts, have progressively fallen outside of the state’s control. Such ungoverned areas are either in a state of anarchy or subject to some form of alternative power structure. In this regard, it can be said that the crisis has in fact been brewing for long and conditions for an open conflict to emerge were given.
Apart from the internal factors, the current crisis is also anchored in the regional context. The CAR is located in the middle of a conflict-torn region, with Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) among its neighbors. The presence of ex-soldiers, mercenaries, and armed groups and the proliferation of small arms, which traverse porous and uncontrolled borders, have facilitated the emergence of the rebel coalition. Although most of Séléka’s fighters were already inside the CAR territory, the movement was able to recruit battle-hardened foreign elements, mainly of Sudanese and Chadian origin. In addition, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 increased instability and uncertainty throughout the whole Sahel zone, and reopened partially frozen conflict lines. As the Gaddafi regime had significantly exercised influence on power relations and conflict management in and beyond its neighboring states, its dismantling exposed the weakness of a number of regimes in the region, and, at the same time, triggered a struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum and redefine the power balance in Central Africa, as well as in the Sahel zone.
A two-fold challenge for Central Africa
Two regional multinational missions have been deployed in the CAR in the past decade. The Multinational Force in the Central African Republic (FOMUC) and the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic (MICOPAX) were operated by the Central African Monetary and Economic Community (CEMAC) from 2002 to 2008 and by ECCAS from 2008 to 2013. Despite their presence and a series of mediation efforts, the involvement of the CAR’s neighbors has failed to prevent or de-escalate the conflict. The regional reaction has to be seen, on the one hand, as being based on the Central African states’ acknowledgement that the crisis has a regional dimension and their fear that violence and instability may further spill over borders and engulf the entire region, as well as on the need they feel to respond to international calls and expectations.
On the other hand, the regional conflict management has also been driven by particular interests of some of the Central African states and their regimes. In this regard, the emergence of Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, as a central actor in the conflict management attempts has to be seen as not only linked to his country’s currently holding ECCAS’s rotating presidency and providing the community’s secretary general; the chaos in the CAR is also presenting a direct challenge to Chad’s security and economic interests. The CAR’s poorly policed border zones facilitate the free movement of rebels and their access to weapons and resources, and its unstable north and northwest are close to the Chadian oil fields in the Doba Basin (ICG 2009, 2013). As a relatively new oil-producing country, landlocked Chad is keen to ensure the conflict in the CAR does not spill over into its territory. Moreover, Chad’s actions also express its president’s ambitions to increase its role in the regional arena and thereby reclaim and occupy the regional hegemonic position that for long has either remained vacant or disputed unsuccessfully by other states from the region.
The challenge the CAR crisis poses for regional security cooperation in Central Africa is twofold. Compared to other regions, such as West Africa, where Nigeria is most influential, or Southern Africa, where the Republic of South Africa is the predominant power, regional leadership is not clearly defined in Central Africa. A hegemon to serve as a driver of the regionalization process and common efforts and initiatives, as well as a fulcrum and mediator in regional security cooperation, has still not emerged. The potential of Chad to fill this gap is, however, severely challenged on several fronts. Notable among these are the country’s own poor record on human rights and democratic governance, and its own vulnerability to internal and external security threats (Mehler 2013).
Second, the escalation of violence in spite of ten years of regional peacekeeping missions marks a considerable setback for Central African regional security cooperation as a whole. The deployment in December 2013 of the new peacekeeping operation, the International Support Mission to the CAR (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique, or MISCA), under AU command has cast a shadow over any regional efforts made so far toward building an operative Central African pillar of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). The challenge for the states in Central Africa thus lies in re-establishing the region’s credibility as an effective, efficient, and reliable partner and contributor within APSA.
Which way out of the crisis?
With regard to the underlying causes of the conflict, the solution clearly has to include several dimensions and be implemented in several intertwined steps.
Taking a military approach—that is, deploying troops, as is currently done in the form of the AU-led and French-backed MISCA that will receive further support from the European Union (EU) —is certainly a step toward quickly stopping violence, restoring order, and preventing more injuries, deaths, and destruction of property. It cannot, however, result in a durable solution. A sustainable approach should, rather, focus on the underlying political, economic, and social roots and dynamics of the problem: poverty, marginalization, corruption, mismanagement, and weak or semi-absent state institutions that do not meet the people’s basic needs. Building a foundation for consolidated peace, stability, and confidence within the country without tackling these issues and challenges is almost impossible.
A political solution is central to resolving the conflict. The holding of political dialogue and the launching of a reconciliation process among all factions, victims, and perpetrators are crucial first elements toward peacebuilding in the CAR. We have to bear in mind that the second attack by the Séléka coalition that led eventually to the coup against François Bozizé in March 2013 was, to a large degree, motivated by the rebels’ grievance over the president’s unsatisfactory implementation of the Libreville Peace Agreement and disappointment over the concessions made to Séléka representatives in the new government. Reconciliation has to ensure that all major parties to the conflict and main social groups find themselves represented in talks and negotiations and appropriately included in any solution or agreement reached at the end of the process.
Addressing the underlying causes
Security is much more than the absence of war. In this regard, a sustainable solution needs to be comprehensive and go beyond a focus on the Séléka rebellion, the 2013 putsch as well as the religious issues in the conflict. In the long term, a state of consolidated peace and security in the CAR can only be reached when the conflict’s underlying social, economic, and political problems are adequately addressed. A key element is development through the strengthening of state institutions, which must provide basic services and meet health, energy, sanitation, and education needs. This includes not only developing a functioning public sector, but also taking measures to counter the marginalization and isolation of people in large parts of the territory. Former soldiers and combatants and young men and women need to be offered new alternative and viable economic opportunities. For a solution to be sustainable, it must be endorsed by the people and all major groups of the society. Support is fundamental—not only in the form of humanitarian assistance from the international community, but also from below, through the involvement of the local civil society and the CAR’s citizens.
International Crisis Group (ICG). 2009. “Chad: Escaping from the Oil Trap.” Crisis Group Africa Briefing, no. 65, August 26.
———. 2013. “Central African Republic: Priorities of the Transition.” Crisis Group Africa Report, no. 203, June 11.
Mehler, Andreas. 2013. “Erneut gewaltsamer Regimewechsel in der Zentralafrikanischen Republik.” [Again violent regime change in the Central African Republic] GIGA Focus Afrika, no. 1/2013. Hamburg: GIGA.