By Gino Vlavonou
International news headlines move quickly from one disaster to another. A political crisis in one country is forgotten as turmoil unfolds in the next: Mugabe’s fall from power; a mass shooting in the US; sub-Saharan African slaves in Libya. The longstanding crisis unfolding in the Central African Republic (CAR), however, rarely even makes it onto the front pages.
Yet, the CAR is home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since 2012, at least 5,000 people have been killed — and that was the last official count in 2014. Recently, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs claimed that 518,000 had fled to neighbouring countries while 600,000 are internally displaced. In July 2017, during a three-day visit to CAR, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien warned of early signs of genocide. In October 2017, Secretary General António Guterres also visited, heeding the call of the CAR president at the UN General Assembly in September not to forget the country.
There is no easy way to describe the conflict, and any solution will require careful, long-term engagement. The CAR has been plagued by political instability since independence in 1960, but the current conflict began in 2012 when the Séléka, a coalition of Islamic rebels from the northeastern part of the country toppled President François Bozizé, who had ruled the country since 2003. Amidst widespread human rights violations by the rebels, vigilante groups known as the anti-balaka formed and regained power from the Séléka.
After years of neglect, visits by the two top UN officials have drawn some much-needed attention to this forgotten conflict. But the question remains: will the UN’s efforts to put the spotlight on the CAR make a difference? Perhaps. But a positive outcome will depend both on more carefully crafted interventions and on a changing approach by domestic political elites.
In terms of interventions, the African Union’s MISCA and the United Nation’s MINUSCA (the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) are both active. The missions have undeniably helped to curtail the widespread violence, but they could better protect civilians.
The UN’s activities — implemented via Quick Impact Projects (QIP) — seek to restore state order beyond the capital, reform the security sector, and protect civilians. The AU, on the other hand, has positioned itself as the main mediator between protagonists through its African Peace Initiative. Exactly how the UN and the AU will co-operate around the peace initiative remains unclear. The UN Security Council has extended MINUSCA’s mandate until 15 November 2018 and the Security Council also increased the current UN personnel. This followed the Secretary General’s proposal to add 900 troops “resulting in an authorized troop ceiling of 11,650 military personnel, including 480 military observers and military staff officers, 2,080 police personnel and 108 corrections officers.”
The move is welcomed because MINUSCA is militarily overstretched. When it comes to protecting civilians, several hotspots are worsening. When people in the southeastern city of Bangassou called for more troops as violence erupted this spring/summer, the UN removed soldiers from other theatres where the situation could potentially worsen. At the same time, UN troops increasingly face attacks from the main vigilantes, the anti-balaka.
Increased international support and commitment must be matched by domestic elites or peacebuilding operations will not succeed. Local elites must move beyond mere criticism of the UN to engage with local populations and rebuild long-lost trust between communities.
For the moment, elites are polarized and military logic predominates. At the micro-level, violence continues even inside the displacement camps. Support for each rebel faction is entrenched, so people do not always wait for orders before committing violent acts; the potential for retaliation is high. There have even been reports of armed men inside camps protected by MINUSCA.
Let’s be clear about one thing: the conflict in the CAR is not a religious conflict in the sense that religious difference did not “cause” the conflict. However, religion matters, so local- and national-level elites must tailor their discourse accordingly. Usually, they skip over mentioning that both religions are inherently peaceful and quickly move on to blaming rival political leaders for the current situation. In CAR, both Muslims and non-Muslims acknowledge that there have never been problems between the religions and that everything was peaceful prior to the rebellion. Muslims are acutely aware, however, that they have been excluded from governing circles since independence. For sure, the March 2013 coup staged by the Séléka and the accompanying human rights violations precipitated this spiral of violence.
It follows that local elites deny any role that religion might have played. While conducting fieldwork during the spring and summer of 2017, elites that I interviewed did not think it was a problem that 2,000 Muslims found refuge in a Catholic Church in the city of Bangassou. Instead, they considered it proof that there is no issue between the religions. Instead of acknowledging the fact that Muslims were in need of protection and seizing the opportunity to emphasize their different treatment in Bangassou, domestic elites mainly blamed MINUSCA for not stopping the anti-balaka from targeting Muslims. The 2,000 displaced people are still confined to the compound of the Catholic Church under the watch of UN peacekeeping forces. Whenever they leave the church, they face retaliation from anti-balaka in the city.
Political elites need to be more responsible for peace to have a chance in the CAR. International attention to the ongoing crisis is welcome but unlikely to make much difference if local elites do not adopt a more inclusive, conciliatory attitude. They must engage their communities to rebuild trust and develop a better understanding of how religion matters in this conflict. Reinforcing MINUSCA troops is not a viable long-term solution, especially with other international issues competing for attention and hence increasingly scarce resources for peace operations.
Gino Vlavonou is a PhD candidate at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He has previously worked as a junior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).