CAR’s elections amid intrastate violence
In the Central African Republic (CAR), the presidential race for elections planned for December 27th unfolds against a backdrop of ongoing intrastate violence and various reports of a confrontation between rebel groups. Despite delays in voter registrations and demands from the opposition to postpone the rushed and poorly prepared elections, the current president Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who announced he would be running as a candidate for 2020, refuses to change the elections’ timing decided in 2016 by the constitutional court. The fragmented opposition comprises more than ten candidates. Anicet-Georges Dologuélé, who had obtained second place in the 2016 elections, is the opposition’s current leader. Complicating the political confrontation theatre, ex-president Francois Bozizé, ousted in 2013, is back in the country and has announced his candidacy, despite being under UN sanction for his alleged support for anti-balaka Christian militias created to fight the Seleka after the 2013 coup.
In addition to these complex political tensions, CAR’s internal stability is far from consolidated. Most of the territory is still in the hands of rebel militias despite the February 2019 peace agreement signed by the 14 main rebel armed groups. CAR plunged into crisis in 2013 when a coalition of armed groups known as the Seleka seized Bangui’s capital city. In 2014, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) preceded a transitional government installation. This change led to successful elections in 2016 who gave power to Touadéra. In February 2019, the Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation notably established Unités Spéciales Mixtes de Sécurités (USMS), 60% of which are composed of rebels and the remaining 40% of government forces. They aim at establishing trust, protection, strengthening public order and securing seasonal migration corridors.
Opposition dynamics among candidates aggravated by limited national control have triggered international concerns about the electoral context leading to a potential revival of the conflict; therefore, MINUSCA is currently focusing on providing peaceful elections.
Lacroix, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, has reaffirmed the UN determination to overcome destabilization attempts carried out by groups such as the 3R rebel group (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation) in the North-West. He reiterated the beneficial impact that USMS troops have had on stabilizing the situation for the past year. He praised their operational efficacy which is reinforced by their symbolic value showing that intergroup divisions are not inevitable and that shared work can be productive.
Limitations to current solutions: the risk of focusing international attention solely on the elections
MINUSCA’s military achievements have received criticism. USMS deployment has had ineffective results as the leadership positions assigned to rebel leaders are accused of being empty shells. This accusation led two rebel leaders to resign—from the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) rebel group and the 3R group. The other—Union for Peace in CAR (UPC) leader—is allegedly using his position to support his group’s combats (International Peace Institute). If violence builds up before December 2020, MINUSCA’s and CAR’s security forces are likely to struggle to quell the violence. Only 1,500 CAR soldiers are stationed out of the capital except for a Portuguese battalion. Few of the 12,870 MINUSCA troops are equipped or ready for operations against the armed groups, estimated to include between 8,000 to 14,000 fighters (Internal Crisis Group).
Long-lasting peace-building and reconciliation efforts remain limited on the ground. Despite the lower levels of violence and the first arrests for crimes against humanity, the conflict’s enduring character has not fundamentally changed. 60 to 70 % of the territory remains controlled by rebels. The international community denounced a lack of will and dishonest mediation among government officials and diplomatic representatives. UN Secretary-General António Guterres laments the “persistent lack of good faith among the signatories” as violations of the agreement accumulate in large numbers.
Securing electoral context through military means shouldn’t come at the expense of long-lasting peace-building efforts. The lessons inform us that we can learn from the 2016 elections. At that time, citizen commitment to voting peacefully, the actions of international actors and domestic civil society, the self-restraint and containment of spoilers, and respect for the transitional term limit had ensured peaceful election processes (USIP Special Report 403, 2017). However, this did not prevent violence from recurring later on. Instead, it is linked to the newly elected government’s failure to make tangible peace restoration progress. This has alimented local grievances over disproportionate poverty and underdevelopment in the north and east of the country. As they will remain a powerful rallying call for militant groups until duly addressed, the risk is to see citizens abandon their commitment to peace and confidence in the current administration. In 2016, when the country prioritized national elections over governance, reconciliation, and compromise, later violence demonstrated peace’s illusory nature in the electoral period.
We are not saying that concerns about electoral violence are not legitimate. However, we should not side-step broader peace-building objectives because of the international focus on electoral debates. When Lacroix highlighted that the current focus is the election and that “once the ballot has passed, there will still be a lot to do to advance the implementation of the peace agreement,” he portrayed peaceful elections as an end in and of itself, instead of a means to achieve long-lasting peace. During election periods, CAR political elites’ short-term interests to maintain power through elections could prevail over honest and durable attempts to resolve the conflict. For instance, there have been concerns that the truth, reconciliation and reparation commissions could be another empty commitment.
Promoting peace —and thus, meaningful elections—by engaging with grassroots actors
If there is a long-term chance of internal peace or meaningful elections, it will have to come mainly from within the communities. A focus on grassroots factors sustaining reconciliation processes is crucial. Efforts in this domain have already been partially successful, and the international community’s primary concern should thus be to help keep them up.
Instances of religious or community leaders promoting national reconciliation are becoming more common. For example, the Religious Platform for Dialogue draws on individual initiatives to overcome communal divides. Remarkably, Abbé Bruno, a Bria parish vicar, has sheltered many hundreds of displaced persons in his church from all religious convictions (International Crisis Group).
Another grassroots factor central in peace promotion is the integration of women. The creation of the Central African Women’s Organization (OFCA) is an example of fruitful efforts in this domain. A critical feature of CAR’s National Assembly 2019 electoral code is the law that obliges all parties to present slates with 35 percent women. The 35 percent women initiative was started by former interim president Catherine Samba-Panza (2014-2016) and kept up by President Touadéra and foreign donors like the World Bank. Although this initiative is unlikely to be achieved during the election, the gender equality movement gains strength in CAR.
Another tool at the disposal of women to mobilize for their rights in the peace-building process are truth, reconciliation and reparation commissions. They become inclusive mechanisms to restore justice and legitimize victims’ experiences, especially concerning sexual violence. Thus, these committees must remain true to their mission to foster trust among the population and not become political instruments in elected officials’ hands.
Furthermore, other voices excluded from the national debate despite being central to inclusive and long-term peace-making are CAR citizens living in neighbouring countries as international refugees. There are currently 25,000 Central African citizens living in neighbouring states, as reported by the UN. Refugees are deprived of their voting rights in the 2020 elections. Their inclusion is crucial to advance peace and reconciliation and address structural violence in the CAR.
The previous election periods have shown that we were incorrect to believe that successful elections marked a turning point. International efforts should not be solely focused on preventing electoral violence. The international community should primarily promote the already existing grassroots peace-restoring mechanisms. In turn, these will allow elections to become a meaningful tool for peace-building by successfully addressing popular grievances.
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