Already battle-scarred: an Italian NGO rehabilitating child soldiers in CAR. Flickr / European Commission DG ECHO. Some rights reserved.
Last week brought something as unexpected as a piece of good news from Bangui, capital of the Central Africa Republic (CAR). During conversations before a week-long national reconciliation forum, which brings together politicians, armed groups and religious leaders, representatives claiming to represent the warring factions agreed not only to halt the use of child soldiers but also to release all children among their ranks. This is good news but it should be received with a degree of caution.
CAR is about to embark on an ambitious process of restoration of state power and the meeting was clearly part of this. As it is a process in which all actors, including those perpetrating violence, are interested in playing some part—or, at the very least, not being excluded from the outset—they were bound to agree to protect children once the proposal was put on the table.
Agreeing to it at a meeting in Bangui in the presence of the international community is one thing, however; delivering on the agreement is another matter entirely. And this is not a conflict between two well-defined opponents with clear lines of command and control between a military-political leadership and officers and rank and file on the ground.
The so-called Seleka alliance consists of different groups of fighters from the northern parts of CAR with little more in common than what they had when they started their ‘armed struggle’ rallying behind Michel Djotodia in November 2012: they felt ignored and marginalised by the political leadership in Bangui and the then president, Francois Bozizé. Largely pushed out of central CAR during 2014, various Seleka elements with differing attachments (or none) to the leadership have taken control of towns in the north such as N’Dele and Birao, involving themselves among other things in the illegal export of diamonds and gold through Sudan’s Darfur region.
This almost completely stateless border zone is out of reach to the international community and the UN peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINSUCA), mandated since September 2014. Whether these groups follow their nominal leaders’ promise to halt the recruitment of child soldiers and release those among their ranks is a very open question.
Much the same could be said about the so-called anti-Balaka groups—a string of local militias initially formed among Christian communities in the southern part of the country, in response to the looting and plunder of their communities by Seleka elements during Djotodia’s short time in power. Some are clearly related to supporters of Bozizé, such as Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, a businessman and former ally of the ex-president who has claimed the leadership of the anti-Balaka. Ngaissona may have some influence over some but not all of these groups: many have a very local affiliation (for example village of origin).
So scepticism about last week’s agreement is in order and the situation on the ground for CAR’s children, particularly those in the hinterlands, is not about to change for the better. But the fragmentation of those who resort to violence could also have severe consequences for the wider process of state restoration.
The plan is for a referendum on a new constitution in May, parliamentary elections in June and July and presidential elections in August. This is obviously an optimistic timetable but in September the rains start and then elections will not be possible due to the lack of functioning infrastructure beyond the dry season. Add to the equation the fragmented militias and their potential for spoiling the process, particularly in the areas without much presence of the UN peacekeepers, and there is a lot that could go wrong. And this does not become any easier when we consider that the international community faces state-building in a ‘phantom’ state—one that basically does not exist as a sovereign body at all.
the situation on the ground for CAR’s children, particularly those in the hinterlands, is not about to change for the better
Voter registration lists were destroyed during the fighting in Bangui in 2013, at least 25% of the country’s presumed 4.6m inhabitants are displaced and several hundred thousand also live as refugees in neighbouring countries. And the National Elections Authority (ANE) currently only has offices in Bangui and some towns and prefectures in the south-west. Whether it will be possible to hold credible elections at all in the northern part of the country, currently under the control of various Seleka elements, is thus another open question.
If turnout were to be mainly in the south-west, the new constitution, parliament and president would lack legitimacy in the north. But the international community, which basically funds the ANE and the transitional government of Catherine Samba-Panza, will push ahead with the timetable.
It is of course good that the international community has finally raised its presence in CAR, as there is no way the country can get through this transition on its own. But there is clearly the fear that the same stakeholders are pushing forward a plan and a timetable way too ambitious for a country without a functional state.
A new constitution and an elected government are certainly needed. But trying to pretend that there is a quick fix, which could provide for an early exit for the international community from CAR, would only embed further conflict in any temporary and fragile solution to the current one. There should not be any elections before at least a majority of the population, including refugees and the internally displaced, can have relatively free access to the voting booth.
So last week brought us a glimpse of good news. But the process which has begun is at best the start of a long and winding road with several muddy creeks to cross and almost impassable barriers to traverse before this country will be on track to sustainable recovery and state stability.