A deal to end six years of war in the Central African Republic could come unglued if not strengthened. The government should hold signatory armed groups accountable to criteria for improved behaviour and back local peace initiatives. Neighbours should push armed groups to cease provocations.
What’s new? In February, the Central African Republic’s government signed an agreement with armed groups that control large swathes of the country, committing to integrating some groups’ fighters into new army units and their leaders into government. The deal has galvanised international support, but violence continues in the provinces.
Why does it matter? The government, African Union and UN have invested heavily in this agreement, which has the buy-in of neighbours. With strong fol-low-up in-country there is a chance of starting to reverse six years of widespread violence.
What should be done? The government should set clear benchmarks for armed group behaviour; it should eject from government leaders of groups that fail to meet them. The government and international actors should support local peace initiatives. Chad and Sudan should use their influence over armed groups to end their abuses.
Four months after the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) signed an African Union (AU)-sponsored peace agreement with fourteen armed groups, implementation remains patchy. The mixed units it envisages, which would comprise armed groups’ fighters alongside national armed forces, could help catalyse those group’s demobilisation, but setting them up is proving hard. A new government, which has awarded armed groups important national and local posts, has proven controversial with a population that wants above all a reduction in violence and predation. Some accommodation with powerful groups is likely necessary, but the government and its international allies should establish benchmarks that would condition armed group representatives’ tenure in government posts on changes in behaviour. They should also support local peace initiatives, which have had some success in forging truces, resolving disputes and reducing bloodshed in provinces where armed groups operate. International actors should maintain pressure on CAR’s neighbours to use their sway over those groups to end abuses.
The agreement, negotiated in Khartoum and signed in Bangui on 6 February, is at least the sixth deal with the fourteen armed groups since some of them seized the Central African capital in 2013, provoking a crisis that endures today. Brokered by the AU, with the involvement of CAR’s neighbours, it followed successful efforts by the regional body’s top diplomats to bring under AU auspices a parallel Russian and Sudanese initiative, which in mid-2018 threatened to fracture international mediation efforts. Like previous such agreements, the deal lays out the conflict’s main causes and commits the parties to resolving disputes peacefully and the armed groups to disarming. It also contains two more significant provisions. First, it creates Special Mixed Security Units, merging some combatants from armed groups with army formations. Secondly, CAR’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, committed to an “inclusive government”, understood by AU mediators and the armed groups themselves to mean giving those groups greater representation.
Implementation of those provisions has run into early challenges. The mixed security units could help kick-start the armed groups’ demobilisation, with some fighters integrating into the army and others returning to civilian life. But the parties’ divergent understandings of the units’ command structures and the armed groups’ reluctance to commit fighters to longer-term disarmament has hampered their formation. The inclusive government has proven especially controversial. On 3 March, President Touadéra’s new prime minister named a cabinet which gave the armed groups few positions, all at relatively junior levels. The groups rejected this and threatened to walk out on the agreement as a whole. After an emergency meeting with armed group leaders hosted by the AU at its Addis Ababa headquarters, the prime minister named another government at the end of March. This second effort gave the armed groups multiple cabinet posts as well as local government positions in areas they control. Many in Bangui reacted angrily to what they see as an unacceptable concession to armed groups.
Thus far, the deal has brought some dividends. It has renewed international attention to CAR and united diplomats behind a single mediation effort. Including neighbours, particularly Chad, in the talks and on a committee set up to monitor the agreement’s implementation could induce them to persuade armed groups that recruit and resupply in their countries to rein in abuses. Given that a few years ago those groups were demanding amnesties and threatening to march on Bangui, simply getting them to the table was an achievement.
Whether the deal has reduced violence is, however, unclear. A lull in major fighting for some months after the deal was signed may well have been due to the rainy season’s onset. The daily grind of violence in the provinces has scarcely abated. On 21 May, one of the Agreement’s signatories perpetrated attacks that killed dozens of civilians in the north west. Moreover, beyond calling for disarmament, the agreement is silent on how to curtail clashes among armed groups, which are more frequent than fighting between them and government soldiers or UN peacekeepers. Indeed, it left many details to be worked out later. In the eyes of many in Bangui, therefore, its main impact thus far has been to reward predatory militants with government slots, for little apparent return.
While some accommodation with the most powerful armed groups is necessary, the government and AU should at a minimum demand that they go some way toward meeting their side of the bargain in return for a share of government power. The risk cited by some AU officials that such an approach could lead armed groups to exit the deal altogether and escalate violence appears overblown. At least the larger armed groups are motivated less by retaining slots in government than by holding onto territory, which they would still do even if losing their government posts. Risks can also be mitigated though an approach that sees the government and its international partners complement national-level dialogue with local peace initiatives.
The following steps would help ensure that the Agreement leads to an improvement in conditions on the ground:
- The government, in concert with the Agreement’s guarantors and the UN, and in agreement with the armed groups if possible, should seek to establish benchmarks that those groups must meet in order to retain their government positions. If reaching consensus proves impossible, the government and international actors should impose their own, based on the Agreement’s terms, but in more detail and with timelines attached. Benchmarks could start with armed groups reducing violence, allowing state officials to deploy to provinces and permitting humanitarian organisations to work unimpeded. Over time they should also include steps toward demobilisation, including participation in the mixed security units. Importantly, such benchmarks would also embed the principle of reciprocity in negotiations.
- Where their uneven presence on the ground allows, the government and its international partners should support local peace committees that in some provinces have been able to arrange truces and resolve disputes among armed groups. The prefectural committees created by the Agreement to implement its provisions locally should build on these efforts.
- The government should step up its public communications, not only concerning February’s agreement, but also its wider approach to negotiations. It should explain to a sceptical public that some concessions to armed groups are necessary, but that such concessions are contingent on those groups reducing violence and taking steps toward disarmament.
- Building on recent joint working visits to Bangui, the AU, in concert with the country’s two other main partners, the EU and the UN, should maintain pressure on neighbours to take back foreign fighters following disarmament in CAR, and to use their influence over armed groups to persuade them to reduce violence, allow the state to return to areas they control and eventually demobilise. The AU and UN in particular should seek to reinvigorate bilateral diplomatic channels between CAR and each of its neighbours, particularly Chad and Sudan. Russia, which is increasingly involved in CAR, should lend its support to efforts to demobilise armed groups and maintain pressure on those of CAR’s neighbours with which it has close ties.
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