The Central African Republic Crisis: Neighboring Countries and the Prospects for Peace

The Central African Republic Crisis: Neighboring Countries and the Prospects for Peace

Following the seizure of power by a collation of rebel forces, known as Séléka, on March 24, 2013, the security situation in the Central African Republic has severely degenerated. Since then, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and CAR refugees pouring into neighboring countries has reached dizzying proportions. Many perceive the current crisis as a religious conflict, as evidenced by violent clashes between the mainly Muslim Séléka and the militia known as the Anti-Balaka (the latter purported to be largely Christian), which has been a major feature since September 2013.1

However, this notion is misleading. Until recently, Muslims (who comprise 15 percent of the population in the CAR) and Christians (50 percent) have lived together in peace. Moreover, the Anti-Balaka is not actually a “Christian” militia; indeed, some Anti-Balaka members are animists, and the majority of Christians are not part of it. Furthermore, the Anti-Balaka, which has existed in the CAR since 1990, was originally formed from self-defense or vigilante groups—not to fight Muslims. Similarly, Séléka is a coalition of groups, and although predominantly Muslim, not all Muslims are members of it.

Neighboring Countries

To understand the current crisis, one must consider the activities of foreign mercenaries and rebel militias which have become a prominent feature of the CAR conflict, as well as the generating of a Central African “conflict complex” that has drawn in most of the nearby countries, including Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For example, some members of the Séléka rebel groups have been among past refugee flows from Sudan to the CAR, while some reports claim rebels have infiltrated the CAR from both the DRC and the Republic of Congo, as well as from Uganda. Adding to this, rebel groups from Chad have historically used the CAR as a hideout, while the CAR’s rebels have taken refuge in Chad.

Although Cameroon has been mostly inactive, the Idriss Déby government in Chad has reportedly supported rebel groups in the CAR since 2000. For example, the activities of the late Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi, and the fear of Sudanese-backed Chadian rebels finding safe passage through the CAR en route to attacking Chad, influenced Chad to support the emergence of CAR rebellions which it saw as a strategy for protecting national interests. This support can be attributed, in part, to Chad’s bid to deter any CAR government from providing a safe haven for Chadian rebels within its territory, and to protect President Déby’s business interests in the CAR.2

Chad also openly supported the Bozizé rebellion in 2003 against president Ange Felix Patasse’s regime which it increasingly perceived as hostile.3 Bozizé had staged the assault from Chad, where he was provided five hundred soldiers who later became a privileged contingent of his presidential guard.4 However, Bozizé’s eventually fallout with Déby in October 2012, partly caused by his decision to dismiss the Chadian soldiers, raised fears in Chad’s capital Ndjamena about the prospects of having a “hostile” regime in power next door. Such concerns, including fears of the effect on Chad’s security of a potential repatriation of Chadian refugees from the CAR, likely then led Déby to support the Séléka rebels who eventually toppled Bozizé’s government in March 2013. Had Bozizé stayed in power, Déby would have lost out on the growing mineral trade in the CAR.

Conversely, Cameroon has not experienced any serious threats to its security from its neighbor. Bandits operating mostly in the northern region of Cameroon have, however, used the CAR as a place of refuge. Recent reports have also emerged of incursions into Cameroonian territory by some Séléka rebels, some of whom have committed crimes, including the killing of civilians. Cameroon has therefore limited its involvement in the CAR to participating only in subregional peace efforts, with the purpose of protecting its national borders.

Also essential to a full understanding of the conflict in the CAR is the failure of successful governments to promote meaningful, broad-based economic development across the country, as well as mismanagement of the country’s natural resource wealth. According to the 2011 Human Development Report (HDR), the CAR was ranked 179 out of 187 countries by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Its 2012 Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.352 was below the average of 0.475 for countries in sub-Saharan Africa.5 Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of the population has been living on less than one U.S. dollar per day.

The humanitarian crisis in the CAR has fed a cycle of violence, human suffering, despair, and insecurity, with about half of the CAR’s population (2.5 million people) now needing humanitarian assistance. To this extent, all of the CAR’s neighbors face important internal threats to stability due to the massive cross-border movement of refugees and IDPs. In the 2013 Failed States Index, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was ranked second, South Sudan fourth, Chad fifth, Cameroon twenty-seventh, and the Republic of Congo thirty-sixth out of 178 countries.6 Aid groups and government reports show that since December 2013 alone, 145,855 refugees have been registered in neighboring countries as a result of the current crisis,7 bringing the number of refugees to over 400,0008 and putting a strain on receiving countries that are already struggling with their own internal problems. Yet in spite of the negative impact of the CAR crisis on security, economics, and other aspects of life in these neighboring states, most current efforts appear to focus on ending the conflict exclusively in the CAR, disregarding its equally important regional connections.

In short, while most citizens of the CAR are being exposed to physical threats and forced to flee from their homes, they also can hardly meet basic needs such as food and shelter. This situation, and the inability of successive regimes to address daunting governance and security challenges, has thus eroded state legitimacy and created a power vacuum that has largely been filled by rebel groups, especially those that have operated outside the capital Bangui, for the past two decades.

Prospects for Peace

The prominent role played by French troops in current peace efforts, as well as the transfer of authority on December 19, 2013, from the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic (MICOPAX) to the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA)—operating under a Chapter VII mandate of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 21217 (2013)—clearly indicates that regional efforts championed mainly by the CAR’s neighbors have not been successful. Although Chad has played a leadership role in peace efforts, strong accusations that its forces were killing civilians have caused it recently to withdraw its troops from MISCA. While the extra-regional forces may be better equipped, better funded, and more numerous, their lack of knowledge of the local terrain or the roots of the conflict, as well as the adoption of a militarist approach, cannot lead to any lasting peace.

Renewed subregional interest, and a strong commitment from neighboring states targeting the real sources of the conflict, is more likely to end the crisis. One positive initiative was the series of negotiations led by Congolese president Denis Sassou Nguessou as a mediator through the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which resulted in the signing of a ceasefire agreement in July 2014 and the formation of a new government in the CAR with representation from the two main militia groups. However, the recent appointment of a Muslim Prime Minster, Mahamat Kamoun, in July 2014, and the appointment of some members of the Séléka and Anti-Balaka militias into the government on August 23, 2014, is unlikely to bring durable peace to the CAR. As such arrangements in the DRC have shown, people that have committed crimes against humanity do not make good statesmen, as top government positions can actually help former rebel leaders raise more resources through corruption and sponsor wars if thrown out of office.

Bringing peace to the CAR will instead require addressing the roots of the conflict. The CAR’s political leaders and elites will need to adopt nonviolent methods to resolve their political differences and collectively start a new conversation for national reconciliation, democracy, and development that comprehensively addresses deep-seated, decades-old mistrust, insecurity, and injustice in the country. Sustainable peace will also require economic reconstruction and broad-based development across the country, as well as the resolution of issues of inequality, poverty, and unemployment, via both internal and external support.

To help with this, neighboring states can play more effective and constructive roles by ensuring a strong regional presence in the CAR, matched by the right level of financial support. For regional leadership of the current international peacebuilding efforts to be possible, neighboring states must do the following: evaluate and comprehend the risk of continued conflict in the CAR; increase troop intervention levels to cover not only the capital but most parts of the northeast and southeast; make financial resources available for basic government services to function; and ensure that the well-being of the population is at the center of peacebuilding efforts. In particular, efforts must be made to ensure that local government systems are effectively set up in all parts of the country (especially the northern region) and are empowered to provide education, health, and housing services to the CAR’s citizens. ECCAS member states must also address socioeconomic and security challenges within the region. This will require stronger partnerships with other African Regional Economic Communities (RECs), the African Union, bilateral partners, and the United Nations. Also relevant is the role of the world’s established and emerging powers that can support the CAR’s internal efforts toward sustainable peace.

Ultimately, however, the future of peace in the CAR lies in the hands of the leaders and people of the country. The real challenge will be to develop the political will to rise above the current divisions and address the structural roots of the conflict ravaging the country head on.

  1. “Religious Conflict Threatens Central African Republic,” BBC News, November 4, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-24801388, accessed July 19, 2014.
  2. Fanny Minao N’Diaye, “Why Idriss Deby No Longer Supports the Seleka,” LNC, http://www.lanouvellecentrafrique.info/decryptage-pourquoi-idriss-deby-ne-soutient-plus-la-seleka/, accessed August 18, 2012.
  3. Thierry Vircoulon, “Centrafrique: Comment François Bozizé a perdu ses alliés,” (Central African Republic, Why François Bozizé Fell Out With His Allies), RFI: Les Voix Du Monde, March 25, 2013, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20130325-centrafrique-comment-francois-bozize-perdu-allies/, accessed July 19, 2014.
  4. Ibid.
  5. "Human Development Report 2013," United Nations Development Programme, http://hdr.undp.org/en/2013-report (New York: United Nations, 2013).
  6. "The Failed States Index 2013," The Fund for Peace, http://ffp.statesindex.org/rankings-2013-sortable, accessed July 11, 2014.
  7. "The Central African Republic crisis and its regional impact," United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, http://www.unocha.org/car/regional-impact, accessed July 11, 2014.
  8. "Central African Republic ECHO FACTSHEET," European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/car_en.pdf, accessed July 13, 2014.
About the Author

Kiven James Kewir is a senior lecturer and researcher of conflict prevention and regional integration at the Centre for Research in Political and Strategic Studies, University of Yaoundé II Soa, Cameroon, and the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Buea, Cameroon. He holds a MA in peace and reconciliation studies from the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, Coventry University, United Kingdom, and a PhD in political science from the University of Yaoundé II Soa. Dr. Kewir has served as a reviewer for several international journals and led several innovative research projects in the area of conflict prevention.

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