After seven years of war, the Central African Republic has taken a shaky step toward peace. The United Nations announced in early February that the Central African government and 14 armed groups had agreed to a draft peace accord after 10 days of negotiations in Khartoum. The deal is a promising first step, but the drivers of conflict in CAR need to be addressed for a lasting peace to take hold, as competition for natural resources, ongoing ethnic disputes and, to some extent, religious cleavages, have all complicated past peace efforts.
The agreement, provisionally signed on Feb. 6, calls for the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission within 90 days and “joint security patrols” between the Central African Armed Forces and rebel groups for 24 months to facilitate reintegration. There is also a provision in which rebel leaders will be able to form political parties after disbanding their armed groups.
There is much to celebrate about the accord. Unlike other failed efforts, this is the first deal to emerge from direct dialogue among all the warring parties. Getting so many armed groups to the table and reaching an agreement are significant milestones, and many of the stakeholders seem genuinely interested in implementing the framework. The fact that the accord includes significant concessions made on all sides is a sign of how comprehensive it is.
Yet while many elements of the accord are welcome efforts to provide peace, justice and stability to CAR, this isn’t the country’s first peace deal. After the 2013 coup that toppled then-President Francois Bozize and brought Seleka rebel leader Michel Djotodia briefly to power, there were seven subsequent peace efforts, including a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration process, known as DDR, and the recent formation of a Special Criminal Court. Since then, the court has languished without a single conviction, and most fighters have not gone through the DDR process. Meanwhile, most armed groups abandoned past agreements and newer armed groups, including “Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation” or 3R, were never made parties to them in the first place.
February’s breakthrough comes with the possibility that the U.N. Security Council may lift the country’s long-standing arms embargo. The arms restriction has not reduced violence in CAR, and it forced the Central African government to rely on France and Russia to secure weapons while armed groups continued to acquire theirs illegally. The issue has been contentious in CAR, with public demonstrations in the capital, Bangui, calling for the embargo to be lifted. The embargo was recently renewed, but the Security Council may reconsider if the new framework holds.
There are some causes for concern, though. The peace agreement’s enforceability is questionable without significant international support and absolute compliance from armed groups. Bringing rebels into joint security patrols could quickly integrate fighters into the armed forces, but it may also legitimize them if they continue to exploit populations and resources despite some degree of oversight from Bangui. Parts of the deal centering on “decentralizing” the government may also limit the government’s ability to oversee and clamp down on any potential violations of the accord.
While many elements of the accord are welcome efforts to provide peace, justice and stability to CAR, this isn’t the country’s first peace deal.Competition within and among armed groups is another threat. Militias in CAR often form alliances and coalitions, such as the Seleka that overran Bangui and ousted the government in 2013, but these alliances shift and fracture. Within the groups themselves, a deal with their own leadership does not guarantee that their forces will comply. Major aspects of the accord center on the immediate halt to resource exploitation and the intention to eventually begin redistributing wealth from the country’s resource-rich provinces—for minerals like gold, uranium and diamonds—to poorer areas. Should the interests of rebel leaders and their fighters diverge too much, the fighters may continue seeking wealth and power at the expense of the peace process. In the midst of the recent negotiations, fighters from one powerful former Seleka faction, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, or UPC, and other groups talking with the government attacked civilians and peacekeepers, killing at least 18 people. Expecting rebel fighters to cooperate with the Central African military and international peacekeeping missions may be overly optimistic for both sides given the years of conflict between them and the recent clashes.
Beyond the armed groups, the deal may also be unsavory for the general population. While amnesty is not explicitly mentioned, Central Africans may reject rebel leaders entering the government and political institutions without a democratic mandate. Suspicious of these terms, human rights organizations such as the Civil Society Working Group on the Central African Crisis called for mass protests against the accord in early February.
Even if the rebel leadership successfully transitions into the government, balancing rebel political participation with the mandates of the DDR process, the Special Criminal Court, the International Criminal Court in the Hague and the to-be-formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be a challenge, to say the least. A number of prominent rebel leaders, such as Noureddine Adam, are under international sanctions. While President Faustin-Archange Touadera, in power since 2016, has successfully resisted granting blanket amnesty to rebel groups, bringing the major players into the government and transitional institutions will still give them some degree of immunity from prosecution.
There is also the risk that foreign interests could act as spoilers to the peace process. France, Russia and China have all had recent dealings with the Central African government to extract natural resources. While France and China have been much more focused on CAR’s economic prospects, Russia may have an interest in keeping the government reliant on its military assistance. Moscow has reached out directly to rebel groups and struck deals with the government in Bangui to trade security cooperation for resource concessions. If Russia and other powers prize their economic and political influence over peace and justice, the beleaguered Central African government may be left without strong international partners as it struggles to fulfill its end of the agreement.
Then there’s the issue of Sudan, which sponsored the peace talks, even though it has previously been an obstacle to peace in CAR. Sudanese armed groups that back President Omar al-Bashir have repeatedly crossed the border to engage in wildlife poaching, while Bashir’s government shipped weapons to rebels in 2014. Khartoum’s alignment with Russia has reportedly given Russian private military contractors and officials access to the northern parts of CAR through the Sudanese border. Further complicating matters, Sudan’s own current unrest may make the government—and the many Sudanese paramilitary groups that it supports—unpredictable in the short term.
With stability in CAR so elusive, this new peace deal, while promising, must diverge from prior efforts by comprehensively addressing the local drivers of conflict in the country—and by keeping the agendas of external actors in check. Only then may an end to this seven-year conflict be in sight.
By Progress PalmSprings who is a senior researcher and fellow with the PalmSprings Institute of International Affairs, based in Johannesburg. He is also concurrently a TV Producer for a plethora of Current Affairs shows with a reach of 790 million viewers on LoveWorldSAT.