Getting into the Weeds of the Central African Republic’s Troubles

Ed note. Our resident regional expert Carol Gallo takes us deep inside the troubles afflicting politics in the Central African Republic. Wonky political analysis to follow!

What Just Happened?

On Sunday March 24, a rebel coalition calling itself Séléka (“alliance”), numbering about 5,000, took the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), Bangui, deposing the government of President François Bozizé. The coalition’s leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president and said that the prime minister, civilian opposition leader Nicolas Tiangaye, would retain his position as decreed in a Janurary peace agreement.

Djotodia also pledged to name a new power-sharing government and lead the country in a three-year transition period. As rebels continued to ransack the capital after the takeover, including the looting of the offices of humanitarian organizations, regional peacekeepers said that he asked for their help in restoring order. The leader of the CPSK faction of Séléka declared that elections would be held within a year. While this may sound like a promising start, the coalition suffers from internal divisions and, as Professor Andreas Mehler of the German Institute for Global Area Studies warns, the rebels will be eager to make a good impression and thus to make grandiose promises.

Rebel activity last year followed the failure of President Bozizé to implement past peace agreements, instead consolidating his hold on power. Elections in 2011 saw low voter turnout — as citizens expected the results would be flawed (which they were) — and, according to international observers, severe voter intimidation by state officials.

In December 2012 the rebels took twelve towns and came close to taking Bangui, but were halted by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). An extraordinarily brief peace process in January 2013 led to an agreement being negotiated in Libreville, Gabon.

The rebels and the government both failed to live up to their ends of the Libreville deal. The rebels accused President Bozizé of failing to integrate 2,000 of them into the army and of failing to release political prisoners. For their part, Séléka, due in part to political-military incoherence, violated the agreement by continuing to take towns in an advance on the capital and failing to quarter their troops as agreed. It is no surprise, then, that events unfolded as they did.

French forces refused to intervene, and the regional peacekeeping force, MICOPAX, did not engage the rebels. A South African contingent was the only force to try and stop them. About 400-strong, 13 of them were killed and 27 wounded. Part of the Libreville agreement, and one of the demands of the rebels, was the withdraw of “all foreign armies that are not members of ECCAS, principally the South African contingent.”

Since December, rebel activity has led to a drastic reduction in humanitarian access and at least 175,000 IDPs and 29,000 refugees. In the capital, local vigilante groups “began arresting anyone loosely accused of supporting the rebels.”

Peace Talks for Three Days?

The talks in Libreville this year, mediated by ECCAS, lasted three days. Compare this to two years of negotiations in Mozambique and, in Sudan, nine years of just getting the parties to agree to come together before an additional three years of actual negotiations led to a comprehensive agreement.

While such a tight time-frame might be conceivable in the case of a ceasefire agreement — the aim of which is usually to halt hostilities while a longer-term political solution is negotiated — it’s almost comical for a peace agreement that consists of four protocols and is meant to deal with a wide range of political issues; including “the dissolution of the Government and the nomination of a Government of National Unity composed of representatives from the five parties to the peace talks.”

As Tumutegyereize and Tillon point out on the African Arguments blog, there was no time for the parties to discuss matters amongst themselves or engage in any kind of reflection on the substantive issues. This was especially relevant for the Séléka coalition, as it has been struggling with “internal contradictions” and disagreements. There was no time, in three days, for serious negotiations to take place; which means the level of commitment to the agreement had to be marginal.

While Tumutegyereize and Tillon also point out that in effect the Libreville talks did result in a ceasefire, which “opened a window of opportunity for dialogue,” that opportunity wasn’t taken. With both sides breaking the agreement, and both sides having attended the talks reluctantly, lack of trust in each other and in the process meant that a return to conflict was practically a given.

These kinds of ultra short term fixes aren’t fixes at all. Conflicts like this need long term, involved support and engagement that takes into account how politics in the country and region actually work. As Louisa Lombard points out, international peacebuilding initiatives in CAR have been based on too many wrong assumptions about the nature of the state in terms of motives and capacity; which leads not only to their failure, but their instrumentalization by those in power.

With the opposition already claiming that it will not participate in Djotodia’s transitional government — saying it’s been filled with rebel sympathizers masquerading as “civil society” — and with Djotodia’s “reputation as a seeker of political power,” the situation remains precarious.

What Djotodia and the opposition can agree on is that civilian Prime Minister Tiangaye should keep his position. Perhaps that single commonality can be a springboard for discussions that will lead to a more peaceful transition. But Lombard writes that if this last round of violence is to make some contribution to redressing the failures of Bozizé and past governments, “… it will require Djotodia to step aside and a civilian leader to be brought in as head of state. Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye is the obvious choice. Djotodia shows no sign of doing that without massive pressure being placed on him.”