Horrific violence, which has plagued the Central African Republic (CAR) since late 2012, was precipitated by the disintegration of the state, a plunge into a survival economy, and widening divides between ethno-religious groups. In addition to CAR government, two other belligerents emerged in this conflict – the Muslim Seleka rebel movement (who initiated the fighting) and the Christian anti-Balaka militias (who mobilized as a response to Seleka gains).
The path towards lasting peace relies upon more than free and fair elections. President-elect Touadera must confront the looming threat of renewed clashes now by implementing a more comprehensive disarmament and adopting a policy of inclusion for Muslims. Failure to address the root cause of CAR’s tensions would diminish his credibility and support for an already tenuous grasp on the presidency.
Due to its geography and history, the Central African Republic lies at a crossroads between Muslim pastoralists and merchants of the Sahelian north and sedentary Animist and Christian communities of the southern savannas. The latter have always constituted the CAR’s majority group, a reality that Muslim citizens perceive to be at their expense. Frustration reached a high point in 2004 when Francois Bozize, a Christian, seized power from democratically-elected President Ange-Felix Patasse. This maneuver triggered an armed response from an eclectic coalition, nominally fighting as the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity. After three years of conflict, hundreds of casualties, and nearly 200,000 displaced, a peace agreement was brokered by the UN in 2007. However, sporadic violence, albeit subdued, continued to persist.
Claiming that President Bozize had failed to respect the terms of this agreement, the Seleka, a reincarnation of the previous rebellion, initiated a sweeping power grab from December 2012 through March 2013. By ousting Bozize and instating Muslim Michel Djotodia, a force stemming from the minority populations of CAR’s north and east finally held the reins of power. Assuming this change of leadership posed an existential crisis, the anti-Balaka forces lashed out, committing a litany of violent crimes and forced conversions to Christianity.
Even though the nation’s geographic fringes have seen the most displacement, its center is now the frontline of conflict. Armed communities have compounded the threat of violence generated by the Seleka and anti-Balaka, with many convinced that fighting is a means of self-preservation. Each group is seen as the protector of their respective religious circles.
The Bangui Forum of May 2015 laid out a plan for disarmament, but failed to anticipate the degree to which this conflict has become entrenched in the nation’s communities. Furthermore, the approach underestimates just how criminalized and fragmented the target parties have become. These movements are no longer operating under an organized cause and will be difficult to engage in the disarmament process. Negotiations will undoubtedly prove long and arduous.
While the hastily planned election has fortunately not triggered a significant resurgence in violence, the disarmament issue still looms ahead and will require Touadera’s full attention. An important first step would be to supplant the adopted program with comprehensive policies that engage communities at risk, not only identified militiamen.