Civil War In The Central African Republic: Not Just A National Crisis?

Few people in Western nations have heard of the Central African Republic (CAR). Because of its quite literal name, a higher number of people might be able to locate it on a map. Yet hardly any of them would be aware that it is currently in the grips of a debilitating civil war. Since late 2012, a violent conflict has been fought between largely-Muslim groups (collectively known as Séléka), the predominantly Christian ‘anti-balaka’ militias and government forces. More recently though, militias have turned against each other, as they fight over land and resources. Despite the election of Faustin Archange Touadéra in February of last year appearing to mark a turning point in CAR’s future, much of the country is still under rebel control.

What is more, the serious violence which has characterised the conflict is showing no signs of going away. Just this month, Emmanuel Lampaert of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) noted that ‘the [CAR] is spiraling into levels of violence that have not been seen since the peak of the conflict in 2014.’ Rene Colgo, Deputy Head of MSF’s mission in the country also noted how his teams ‘have witnessed summary executions and have found mutilated bodies left exposed to terrorize populations.’

Atrocities have been a part of the war since it started in 2012. The conflict erupted when various rebel groups – Séléka – took up arms against the government, accusing them of violating the peace agreement that had been established after the country’s previous war (the Central African Republic Bush War, 2004-2007). By March of 2013, the Séléka had seized the capital and CAR’s president had fled into exile. The brutal tactics employed by the rebels inspired a backlash, however, and they soon found themselves fighting against Christian, ‘anti-balaka’ coalitions. The war thereon took a religious dimension, with the ‘anti-balaka’ militias deliberately targeting Muslims for torture and forced conversion. More recently, the conflict has been more about resource control, and fighting has erupted between Séléka groups. The characteristic violence of the war has not changed, however, and many incidents have been identified by the UN as constituting crimes against humanity. To date, the conflict has claimed between 3 to 6 thousand lives, has displaced over 384,000 people, and has resulted in half the population being in dire need of humanitarian aid (all UN estimates).

The seriousness of this conflict has not gone unnoticed by the international community. In 2014, the United Nations Security Council created MINUSCA, a peacekeeping force for CAR. This has seen the deployment of 13,000 personnel in the region. However, the effectiveness of their work is in potential jeopardy, as the Trump administration is considering slashing funding for the program. This is concerning, as the US is currently the largest donor to MINUSCA. Though the work being done by MSF is admirable, aid organisations can only ever be part of the solution: the involvement of governments and bodies like the UN is vital.

Furthermore, the attention drawn by the crisis in the CAR is partly due to the crises occurring elsewhere in Africa, namely the famine that is currently afflicting the Eastern and Western parts of the continent. By all means, no effort should be spared in relieving Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and the other effected countries from a humanitarian crisis which, according to the UN, is the worst since 1945. Yet if the crisis is to be solved, CAR must take centre stage – quite literally. As the nation is situated between the famine-afflicted countries, any instability it faces risks spilling over its borders. This is all the more likely, given that the famine is largely the product of other wars – against Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al Shabab in Somalia – so the regions are already primed for conflict. That foreign fighters, from places like Chad and Sudan, are now involved in the fighting in CAR further risks drawing in people from the surrounding region. In short, the crisis currently facing Africa must be treated holistically, and that means including CAR in all considerations.

But what can be done, solve the conflict in the Central African Republic? The first step has already been made. Though Touadéra’s election as president last year has not brought the war to an end, it is a vital part of the peace process. A legitimate and centralizing figure is needed to end all of the chaos. Touadéra may just have the legitimacy required, as he received over 63% of the votes in a runoff election. Given the original cause of the war – anger over the government not abiding by peace agreements – Touadéra’s administration must ensure that these concerns are addressed in order to stop the war from breaking out again. The 2014 Brazzaville Ceasefire Agreement was quickly violated after it was passed. Any future agreement needs to be respected by all sides if trust is to be established between them. The newly elected president will also need to proceed with impartiality when dealing with war criminals once the fighting has ceased. Preferential treatment of either the Christian or the Muslim militias risks exacerbating sectarian tensions.

The international community can also do its part to ensure that fighting does not resume in the CAR. This help should largely come in the form of aid. The war has badly damaged the country’s economy, with 60 percent of the population now in poverty. Such conditions increase the appeal of extremist groups like the anti-balaka and the Séléka, as the recruits see little future in their current situation. A regulated aid program could assist in repairing the economy, thereby removing some of the conditions for war. Aid needs to be given to CAR’s famine-stricken neighbours, too. Just as instability in the republic can worsen the situation over the border, improved conditions in countries like Sudan could have a positive effect for the people of CAR.

It will also be necessary for the UN Peacekeeping Mission to stay on, in a non-combative role, to ensure that the terms of the peace agreements are kept. The importance of the mission means that President Trump should think again before cutting his foreign aid budget. Jeffrey Hawkins, the current US Ambassador to CAR expressed his thoughts on the matter in an interview with the Voice of America. He claimed that US support was mutually beneficial, as by providing aid to CAR they could build ‘something sustainable, something safer for the region and ultimately safer for the American people as well’. Whether the US benefits by providing aid or not, Trump should at least consider the ramifications of cutting the budget.

The efforts of NGOs, like MSF will also greatly help. However, since they rely on public donations, it will be necessary beforehand to educate people about the Central African Republic, given that few in the west are aware of the country or its plight. In order to do this, existing campaigns for the victims of Africa’s ongoing famine could give a prominent place to CAR in their media. By associating CAR with these other countries, campaigners can not only raise public awareness of the republic, but also demonstrate how its fate is connected with that of its neighbours. This will hopefully serve to show that the ongoing civil war there is not some insignificant conflict, but has serious consequences for the wider region, and hence desperately requires our attention.

To solve the crisis in the Central African Republic, sincere efforts are required on all sides. Both the warring Séléka and anti-balaka factions need to recognize the legitimacy of President Touadéra, and see him as a figure for the deeply divided country to unite behind. Touadéra himself needs to be impartial in his dealings with war criminals once the fighting ceases. Foreign governments and international bodies need to help rebuild the country with monetary aid and peacekeeping forces. And even members of the public can have a role in this healing process through learning about the country and donating to fundraising campaigns. This is not any guarantee that peace will return to the Central African Republic. But it is probably the best option that the war-torn nation has.