It’s been a tense start to the year in Central Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo appears to be barreling toward an election standoff, with defeated opposition candidate Martin Fayulu on Thursday denouncing “an electoral coup.” Also this week, renegade soldiers in Gabon attempted to oust President Ali Bongo, briefly taking over the state airwaves before they were arrested and two of them were killed. Meanwhile, the Republic of Congo, which is sandwiched between those two countries, is quietly and tepidly moving ahead with a peace-building process designed to stave off just this kind of unrest. While one of the first steps in this process, a series of “dialogue platforms,” is focused on the southeastern Pool region—the site of a devastating but largely overlooked conflict that stretched from April 2016 until December 2017—it will offer clues as to whether the country as a whole can break with a cycle of crises that goes back decades. 

The
conflict in Pool began in 2016 after officials announced that President
Denis Sassou Nguesso had won re-election. Sassou Nguesso has been head
of state for 35 years in total—from 1979 until 1992, when he lost in the
country’s first multiparty elections, and then from 1997 until today.
All of his election victories in the democratic era have been disputed,
but the 2016 vote was especially controversial. Five months before it
was held, Sassou Nguesso brushed aside large-scale opposition protests
and removed constitutional term and age limits that would have forced
him to step down. The election itself, which Sassou Nguesso officially
won with over 60 percent of votes cast, was widely seen as
fraudulent. On April 4, 2016, less than two weeks after the results were
announced, government buildings in Brazzaville, the capital, were
targeted in attacks that officials blamed on the Ntsiloulou rebel group,
also known as the Ninjas, which is based in Pool.One year later, the
security situation in Pool has improved and many of the displaced have
been able to return to their home communities, says Angeline Nguedjeu,
peace and development adviser for the United Nations Development
Program. Yet there has been no accountability for crimes committed
against civilians, and the process of disarmament, demobilization and
reintegration, or DDR, has run into roadblocks, raising fears that the
conflict could be reignited.While that objective might sound somewhat
nebulous, the dialogues are intended to be paired with more concrete
steps to consolidate peace, notably the DDR process. In a report
published in October, a commission tasked with implementing the December
2017 cease-fire deal said 8,000 weapons had been collected and
destroyed and more than 5,600 ex-combatants registered. Yet because the
size and make-up of the Ninjas have never been fully clear, it’s
impossible to say what percentage of the group that figure represents. 
Moreover,
Nguedjeu says the U.N. is still waiting on funding from the government
to complete the DDR process, and it’s unclear when that might be
forthcoming. The country is in dire financial straits. Sassou Nguesso
said in 2017 that it was facing an economic crisis, and GDP shrunk by
4.6 percent that year—a figure that would have been bleaker had the Moho
Nord oil field not come online. The recovery in the coming years is
expected to be slow. 
But
failing to see DDR through to the end, Nguedjeu says, would merely
replicate a mistake made in the 2000s, when an earlier DDR scheme
involving the Ninjas stagnated, meaning the group never really went
away.It is in this context that the “dialogue platforms,” which began
last year with involvement from government officials, civil society
groups, religious leaders and the U.N., are unfolding.given the links
between the Pool crisis and the nationwide political crisis that
resulted from the 2015 constitutional changes, any meaningful dialogues
will need to be broader in scope.