Mediation Fail in the Central African Republic

The Central African Republic, which has been in a state of crisis for nearly two years, continues to struggle to chart a path towards reconciliation. Peaceful resolution of the conflict is still out of reach. The recent backroom negotiations orchestrated by regional mediator, Congolese president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, between two key figures in Nairobi have not only contributed to further confusing the issues, but have actually actively undermined the transition process. Meanwhile, a fresh wave of violence has been gripping the country, leading to the displacement of tens of thousands. As the Bangui Forum nears, an inclusive consultation process which is supposed to bring together all the key stakeholders in the conflict to agree on a road map to end the transitional phase and hold elections, the so-called Nairobi accord, which is to be signed this week, is narrowly avoiding completely derailing the transition process.

The last two presidents of the CAR – François Bozizé and Michel Djotodia (the latter overthrew the former) have been representing the two main parties to the conflict – ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka, respectively – in surreptitious negotiations in Nairobi. Analysts, such as International Crisis Group’s Thierry Vircoulon, suspect that Sassou-Nguesso, who orchestrated these negotiations, was attempting to address the failures of the July 2014 Brazzaville accord, which was supposed to lead to a cease-fire and put an end to the hostilities. Given that violence and tensions continue to pervade in the CAR, Sassou-Nguesso worked behind the scenes to have Kenya host another round of negotiations to bring together Bozizé and Djotodia, with the intent of hammering out an agreement that would lead to their formal adherence to the Brazzaville Accord.

That strategy completely backfired.

Instead of agreeing to the Brazzaville terms, the two former leaders – both vying to re-enter CAR politics – instead penned an agreement in late January that asked for a brand new transition, as well as amnesty for all the warring parties. Sassou-Nguesso also made the mistake of not soliciting the support of key stakeholders working towards resolving the conflict. Neither the current transitional president of the CAR, Catherine Samba-Panza, nor France, the UN or any international partner agreed to support this initiative – nor were they even initially informed of the Nairobi talks. When the agreement was made public in late January, with the provisions about a new transition and amnesty, international and local partners were livid. Indeed, Sassou-Nguesso not only undermined his own mediation process – and his credibility – but angered stakeholders with an unauthorized parallel process.  Faced with the complete failure of his strategy, Sassou-Nguesso backtracked, writing to President Kenyatta of Kenya – who is the formal host of the negotiations –  that he had essentially failed to accomplish the task at hand.

Following this extraordinary failure, Sassou-Nguesso pressed the former presidents back to the negotiating table in Nairobi, in an attempt to rectify the disastrous course of these negotiations. This most recent effort has led to yet another Nairobi agreement, which Bozizé and Djotodia are supposed to sign this week, this time, without the clauses about a new transition and amnesty, which were deemed completely unacceptable – and rightly so – by the international community and the current transitional leadership in the CAR. In the new agreement, the leaders claim that they will adhere to the Brazzaville agreement, they call on militants to follow their lead, and claim to support the Bangui Forum initiative.

The political and diplomatic twists and turns that have led to this watered-down agreement – which in essence accomplishes very little other than provide a platform for disavowed leaders to make leadership claims – is revelatory in many ways. First, it raises critical questions about Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s credibility as regional mediator – can he ever really be taken seriously again by the international community, and, more importantly by the national stakeholders in the CAR? Sassou-Nguesso’s decision to work with only two – largely discredited – figures of the amorphous warring factions in the CAR also shows his misunderstanding of the dynamic of the conflict. Above all, going behind the backs of all the other stakeholders was a fatal mistake, one that is difficult to recover from. The agreement that resulted from the second round of negotiations is more a distraction from the overall process than a step forward.

Meanwhile, as the political waters around reconciliation continue to be muddied by these vain attempts, the security situation in the CAR is not stabilized, and the humanitarian response is barely keeping up with the challenges on the ground. Another 50,000 people have been displaced since January, bringing the total number of displaced people to roughly 900,000 – about 25% of the 4.6 million population. UNOCHA estimates that 2.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, while only 67% of the funding requirements for 2015 have been met. Given the precarious political and humanitarian situation, it’s difficult to imagine how elections could be held in a mere few months. The Central African road to peace and reconciliation is indeed a very long one.