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A February agreement is the latest in a string of attempts to bring peace to the Central African Republic. Will it hold? The Central African Republic CAR has seen more than its fair share of conflict and a long string of agreements to try to resolve it. The country plunged into crisis inwhen a coalition of armed groups known as the Seleka seized the capital city of Bangui.
But implementation has been patchy, and armed groups still hold sway in much of the country. My focus is not on external actors — the UN peacekeepers or regional actors who brokered the February deal —who grab the attention of global media that tend to see CAR as a perennially failed state and look to the outside world for answers to its problems.
As a researcher working on deadly conflict in Central Africa, I am convinced that if there is to be a long-term chance of internal peace, or meaningful elections, it will have to come in large part from within. As I begin research on a report that will consider how to achieve peaceful elections and take steps toward a better future, the picture seems mixed: CAR is a country that faces enormous challenges but where small s of progress give hope that a more peaceful future could be within reach. A small white on the hill above the main Catholic cathedral welcomes visitors to the capital.
Given the dangers of most overland routes to CAR, the only safe way to reach Bangui is by air. As a national of Cameroon, I just need an airport stamp in my passport to enter the country.
As we drive into town, Bangui feels more like a big village than a city, although with a few high-rise buildings along the Ubangi River that forms the border between CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I learn that the government has withdrawn his passport and removed his security detail. He claims that he was threatened with a gun at an opposition rally by a young man close to the government.
There are at least fifteen armed groups in CAR, fourteen of them party to the February political agreement. Most citizens see the armed groups as predatory and accuse them of living off illegal tax schemes and abuse of the civilian population.
RJ Sayo is one of the smaller armed groups and has officially volunteered to go through a process of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and repatriation. But its leaders complain that they are not being treated well, while other groups that have not disarmed have been granted important positions in the government and administration.
He is sceptical that DDRR will work out. He shares a lesson he took away from his prior role: if you want to be taken seriously, you have to keep your weapons. CAR covers nearly as much territory as France. Yet the military that must secure that territory comprises fewer than 10, people. Of thatonly 3, to 4, are really operational — and even they are poorly equipped. The UN has gradually reduced the scope of the embargo over the last year.
From my first contacts, I have already formed two impressions. One is that the February peace deal is under strain. Violence against civilians is still high, some armed groups have even enlarged the area under their control and a complete DDRR process is very unlikely to wrap up before the elections. Only 1, CAR soldiers are deployed out of the capital and, except for a Portuguese battalion, few of the 12, MINUSCA troops are equipped or ready for operations against the armed groups, which are estimated to field between 8, to 14, fighters.
These will include state officials, individuals involved in mediation with the armed groups, representatives of humanitarian NGOs and diplomats from regional organisations and interested foreign powers like Chad, France and the U. I will listen to new information, test ideas as they come up and seek support for recommendations we have developed in our long-running work on how to end the violence in CAR.
He is the lead CAR official in charge of preparing the December elections. I want to discuss technical details of the upcoming polls and get a reaction to opposition claims that CAR is in no position to stage them. His responses are clear and detailed, but they also show how far the government has to go. He argues that while there may be fighting in the countryside, the situation is better than inwhen elections went ahead despite the violence, including in the capital.
Also, he points out that donors have already pledged half of the roughly 63 million euros needed for the poll. CAR itself has put aside about 2 million euros in and promised another 2 million in These charges are widely understood to be politically motivated. Just after my trip, on 15 December, the situation becomes even more complicated. Since he remains relatively popular with a ificant of sympathisers in the military, the government seems to be hesitating to arrest him.
I meet three ministers, including Maxime Mokom rightthe minister for disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and repatriation. He shows me a list that his secretary has printed out. It reflects progress toward DDRR of the armed groups that are participating in the process. Mokom is the head of an armed group and a atory to the February agreement. He seems to have only a dozen people working for him, and his office is a bit ad hoc.
Other ministerial offices look more formal. He tells me of his trips to remote areas of the country to convince armed group leaders to give up their arms. He seems on top of his brief, motivated to share what he is working on and committed to his DDRR mission. To find out more about the political dynamics of CAR, I want to gauge the attitudes of young people. I seek out a representative of the 15, students at the University of Bangui, the only state-run university in the country. It turns out that campus politics mirrors national politics.
I decide to go to Bria, km to the east of Bangui, to get a feel for what is happening in the countryside. Armed groups are strong there and clashes break out from time to time, but things are quiet now. With ground travel too risky, I look to air travel options. There are hardly any. There is no national airline, or indeed any private airline operating inside the country.
Even the capital is only served by a few foreign carriers. So I arrange to travel on a UN-affiliated plane. Also sharing our flight are international NGO workers on their way to provide humanitarian relief to persons displaced by the intermittent fighting. There are more than 45, displaced people living in shacks on the edge of Bria, a town of less than 60, Bria is well-known in CAR for its diamond business.
A big billboard welcomes visitors to Bria la Scintillante, or Bria the Sparkling. There are some modern cement houses that are mostly owned by people trading or mining the precious stones in nearby villages and rivers. Otherwise, the town is very poor. Bria is mainly controlled by five armed groups, which collectively have several hundred fighters on the street. This is not authorised by the February deal, but the state is absent or very weak in provinces. Armed groups are not the only players.
As in several other towns across CAR, there is also a small Russian military base, with about soldiers, several tanks and all-terrain vehicles. A month before my arrival, 82 government soldiers and two gendarmes also came to town. My conversations reveal that the February deal has brought some reduction of violence among this mix of armed actors.
Some ex-combatants have become motorbike taxi drivers. Humanitarian aid has improved and there are fewer kidnappings. Violent conflict is never far away, however. Ten weeks after my visit, clashes among different factions in one of the armed groups — the Front populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique FPRC — killed over 50 people, according to the Bria district prefect. Stabilising CAR outside Bangui is an enormous challenge.
There are vast areas of the country where nobody is in control. The government was proud when, recently, it could say it had redeployed 2, soldiers, gendarmes and policemen outside the capital. Thishowever, remains insufficient for a country ofsquare kilometers, and the deployed soldiers rely heavily on MINUSCA for logistics. When I come to a town facing tensions, I like to meet people involved in reconciliation processes, usually religious or community leaders. At the time of my visit, a group of local religious leaders, alongside the Bria district prefect and a Western mediation organisation, have just helped defuse a growing risk of infighting between armed groups and inter-tribal violence in Bria.
He is proud of offering help to those who need it. He has housed both Christians and Muslims here. A Muslim woman walks on a street in Bria. This town has always been both Muslim and Christian, and the two religious communities lived peacefully side by side until Armed groups then drove the communities apart for many years. In my conversations I hear local leaders saying that religious polarisation has lessened in recent months. Prefects in towns like Bria have to be in constant negotiation with armed groups, recognising their local role.
During my visit to the prefect, a woman arrives with a bruised left arm and bleeding eyebrow. She is accompanied by a policeman from the UN, where she first went to complain that her husband had beaten her. The prefect asks the woman in which neighbourhood she was beaten. Many members of armed groups would rather live normal lives. He tells me he ed a tribal militia in his early thirties after a family member was killed by another armed group.
Back then, he wanted revenge. Things are different now. Heavy fighting in and did much damage to Bria. International aid has helped restore all the official buildings. But most civilian houses remain in ruins, like this one near the town centre, burned and looted in There is no local television in Bria. Electric power and internet access are hard to find.
Information tends to travel by radio. The director of the station — which is funded by the EU — says the reason they escaped destruction is because their reporting is unbiased and because the station is the only way that anybody can address the whole town at once. In a shantytown on the outskirts of Bria live 45, people who have been forced from their homes by local violence over the past several years.
The UN patrols the main thoroughfares by day but disappears at night. The rest of the time an armed group known as anti-balaka, a self-proclaimed self-defence group, provides rudimentary justice and protection in return for money and goods that it extorts from the displaced inhabitants. Although UPC has between 2, and 4, combatants nationwide, only of them are in Bria.
He is very cautious. I leave Bria with as many new questions as answers about how the state in CAR can build its authority. New violence and disruption are possible, but I find modest grounds for optimism, too. The of displaced people has gone down to 45, in and from 92, in There are other reasons for hope as well. One important feature is that the law obliges all parties to present slates that have 35 per cent women.
There are lots of questions about how this will work in practice. I wonder if it will be like countries in the region where the opportunity to seek office tends to be reserved for the wives or relatives of politicians and wealthy men. The leader says another problem is high illiteracy among women the new code specifies that all candidates must be able to read and write.
Foreign donors like the World Bank are helping, too. I learn that the 35 per cent quota is unlikely to be met this year. Octavie assures me that women are more politically active than in the past. Already the CAR parliament includes women who are there because they wished to run, and because their constituents supported them, not because of family ties.
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