The most recent wave of violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) began sweeping across the country in 2012. It started when the Séléka, an alliance of rebel groups operating in the north-east of the country, set off to oust President François Bozizé (which they succeeded in doing in March 2013) and install their leader, Michel Djotodia, as president. The violence, looting and abuse they caused provoked the emergence of a loose coalition of local defence groups, the Anti-balaka.
Violence between and among the Séléka and Anti-balaka reached a high point in December 2013, which forced Djotodia to step down in January 2014. While a transitional government has since been established, conflict between numerous armed groups continues, and tensions within local communities remain unresolved to this day. As a result, the current wave of violence has surpassed the protracted crisis that characterised preceding decades. More lives have been lost and more people displaced than ever before. Social cohesion has been shattered and the already weak economy has contracted even further.
Although confessional divides are often cited as a cause for the current violence, the root causes can be traced to a complex mixture of bad governance and profound social inequalities. This report argues that four interlinking factors shape the CAR’s volatile present: 1) a fractured society; 2) caused by chronic political and armed crises; 3) strongly shaped by external influences on domestic politics and rebellions; and 4) a lack of geopolitical interest in the landlocked and sparsely-populated country.
1) The CAR’s fractured society is characterised not only by confessional rifts, but also by divisions between north and south, pastoralists and farmers, the younger and older generations, and between the capital Bangui and the country’s peripheries. These divisions are fuelled by widely-held political and economic grievances that are often expressed along these lines, resulting in fragmented political movements, trade networks and civil society organisations. In a context of widespread poverty and corruption, as well as perceived discrimination against marginalised Muslims and nomads, hope for change and the promise of economic returns is a fruitful strategy for recruitment by rebellion leaders. Rather than broad ideological movements, the country has witnessed and continues to witness fragmented, fluid armed groups and alliances that have often evolved from long lines of historical alliances and provincial support bases.
2) The current civil war is the latest and most serious eruption of violence among recurring waves of conflict in which political leaders have used the state apparatus for personal enrichment and as a means to provide those in their political, social or economic network with positions and benefits. As the state controls access to the country’s most lucrative resource channels (minerals and aid), there has always been fierce competition over the presidency. In this ‘divide-and-conquer’ culture, the state can be characterised as opportunistically negligent: state functions that do not affect regime security – e.g. public services outside Bangui – have been abandoned while those that could pose a threat – the army – are deliberately weakened. Presidents have also outsourced problems and tensions in the peripheries to non-state security actors such as self-defence groups, which for decades – in combination with the weakening of the army – has spawned rebellions and mutinies.
The small political elite concentrated in Bangui competes over access to economic spoils by straddling the lines between armed rebellions, political careers and civil society, plunging the state into chronic crisis. Since few democratic elections have taken place, and stakes in government are gained through military opposition, armed actors rather than civilian parties continue to dominate the country’s political landscape.
3) The CAR has always been heavily influenced by regional power dynamics and experienced direct interferences in its own national politics. The country’s presidents have stayed in power only for as long as they served the interests of its former coloniser, France, and its neighbours – most specifically Chad and Sudan. External intervention varies between direct interference in national politics – such as Chad’s President Idriss Déby supporting various rebellions and coups d’états – and a more indirect and elusive meddling, such as via proxies in the country’s neglected peripheries – e.g. Sudan using the border areas of the CAR as a rear base for Sudanese operations in South Sudan and Chad. In economic terms, the peripheral borderlands continue to provide fertile grounds for cattle and local commodities trade, as well as for businessmen from the region who are active in the diamond and gold trades. Many of these cross-border trade relations are informal and some illicit, but all further the existing divides between centre and periphery, illustrating the incapacity of the government to control its territory.
4) Despite possessing significant natural resources such as minerals, oil and timber, the CAR has generally been of little economic or political interest to Western powers. Even though France has taken advantage of the CAR’s geostrategic position through a strong military presence, neither it nor other foreign powers have ever invested in large-scale development or in exploiting the country’s resource potential at an industrial level. The CAR has also received minimal attention from international development partners. Aid levels have always fluctuated in response to the country’s security and political situation, and international support has often focused on the central administration in Bangui and on a narrow agenda prioritising security and stability. Of the development assistance that has been provided, very little has ever reached the provinces. The various small-scale peacekeeping operations over the last two decades have focused on short-term stabilisation and have failed to adopt a successful strategy to address the root causes underlying the conflict. The country’s security and judicial sectors remain dysfunctional, barely operate outside the capital and require deep reform.
The deployment of the first full-scale, UN-led peacekeeping operation in September 2014 (MINUSCA) indicates that the international community aims to put increased efforts into stabilising the CAR. However, with seemingly more urgent geopolitical problems and humanitarian needs on the international agenda, the situation in the CAR remains a largely forgotten crisis. To attain the desired political stability and security reforms, without neglecting sectors such as infrastructure and basic services, the international community will need to reassess the design and deliverables of the support structures and aid modalities it offers to the CAR. This assessment should include a thorough analysis of the following dilemmas and trade-offs:
Supporting short-term political and military solutions can facilitate temporary stability. However, long-term stability is better guaranteed when civilian and political party agendas lead the transformation process of the CAR’s mode of governance.
Maintaining a focus on strengthening the central state risks amplifying its detachment from the country’s peripheries, which fuels many inequalities. On the other hand, investing in decentralised and local development through local administration, service delivery and justice provision in the provinces could be undermined by a lack of commitment and political will at the national level.
Only the trial of perpetrators and compensation payments to victims of the last wave of violence can break the cycle of impunity. However, justice and reconciliation mechanisms should avoid brandishing entire communities and thereby reinforcing the framing of the conflict in religious terms.
Efforts within the CAR form only part of any solution because stability and instability are to a certain extent the product of external interference. International support to the CAR should therefore include a component that stimulates regional actors to promote political dialogue and which restrains them from destabilising the country.
The limited amount of international aid committed – historically and currently – to the CAR versus its massive needs across every sector call for strategic and coordinated choices to ensure that efforts can have a visible impact.