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Central African Republic: The Path to Mass Atrocities

Over 36,000 displaced persons have taken refuge in the Catholic mission in Bossangoa. —IRIN/Hannah McNeish.

Despite being rich in mineral resources, the Central African Republic (CAR) has struggled to provide safety and security for its people since independence from France in 1960. Over the last five decades, the country’s political history has been punctuated by military rule and coups d’etat. Characterized by weak state authority, internal ethnic tensions and frequent armed insurgencies (including operations by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the country’s far eastern provinces), CAR has frequently failed to meet the security and development challenges it faces.

This review tracks the major events over the past ten years in the lead-up to the current crisis, and examines the response of the international community.

A Decade of Violence

In 2003, General Francois Bozize seized control of the government and ruled CAR as its president until 2013.  During Bozize’s ten years in power, security and standards of living improved little for civilians as his regime faced armed opposition from multiple factions with varying political and economic grievances, and was frequently accused by human rights groups of unlawful killing and torture.

Peace Deals with Bozize Government

The government signed successive peace agreements with the various opposition factions in 2007, 2008 and 2011. The terms of the agreements included granting amnesty to rebel fighters, transforming rebel militias into political parties, and integrating some militia members into the national army.

Return to Conflict

The tension between the government and rebels erupted into violence again with accusations that the Bozize regime failed to meet its promises under the peace agreements. In addition, rebels cited the failure to improve living conditions and Bozize’s victory in deeply flawed elections in 2011 as reasons for returning to war. The rebels benefited from the government’s limited control outside the capital, which allowed weapons and fighters to flow across CAR’s porous borders.

Seleka Coalition Forms and Marches on Capital

In December 2012, rebel groups based in the northeast of the country banded together in a loose coalition known as “Seleka” (which means coalition or alliance) with the objective of overthrowing the Bozize regime. Their advance toward the capital, Bangui, brought violence and instability to the countryside as rebels reportedly looted and committed various acts of violence against civilians, including the forced recruitment of child soldiers.  Government armed forces were unable to halt the rebels’ rapid progress. Only by calling on military support from Chad and diplomatic intervention from the regional organization—the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)—was the Bozize regime able to negotiate a ceasefire with Seleka.  

Failed Peace Deal

In January 2013, the Bozize government and Seleka rebels finalized a peace deal, known as the Libreville Agreement, laying out terms for a ceasefire, and a three-year power-sharing agreement for a government of national unity. The deal was negotiated under the auspices of the ECCAS with additional support from the African Union (AU) and United Nations. However, the deal collapsed due to a lack of progress toward the transitional agreement’s objectives, limited international monitoring of the agreement, and the determination of the Seleka rebels to capitalize on their battlefield advantages.

Seleka takes power in the capital

In March 2013, the Seleka coalition resumed hostilities, quickly capturing Bangui and deposing the regime. With the fall of the government and President Bozize’s flight from the country, the state’s already weak institutions, including the security forces, collapsed. Following the Seleka takeover, former rebel commander Michel Djotodia declared himself president and suspended the constitution and parliament, but he was unable to restore stability. Violence and widespread looting of public and private property continued in both the capital and the countryside. Under pressure from regional and international leaders, the new regime agreed to a new transitional governing body, and elections to be held in 2015.

Despite the blueprint for a transitional political system, insecurity remained prevalent throughout CAR. Reports of Seleka rebel factions burning and looting villages and committing acts of violence against civilians indicated a sustained risk of atrocities in many areas of the country.

Atrocities Spread

In an attempt to stem the ongoing violence, interim President Djotodia formally disbanded Seleka in September 2013. By this time, however, the coalition’s ranks had swelled from an estimated 5,000 to as many as 20,000, including a significant number soldiers-for-hire from Chad and Sudan. In the absence of central authority with reach outside the capital, the violence continued to escalate, with the former Seleka forces reportedly torturing, sexually assaulting and killing civilians in addition to plundering and destroying their property.

Self Defense Forces Emerge

In response to the former Seleka fighters’ attacks and the lack of protection by the state, local groups formed self-defense or “anti-balaka” forces. These militias have increased the level of violence as they not only battle ex-Seleka forces but also target civilians perceived to be Seleka supporters.

While CAR does not have a history of religious factionalism driving violence, the largely Muslim ex-Seleka and the predominantly Christian anti-balaka have introduced a new dynamic to this crisis. As noted by the UN Secretary-General, the longer the crisis drags on, the greater the danger that the violence could cause a rift between these communities, adding a sectarian character to the situation which previously did not exist. If these divisions metastasize and violence becomes increasingly group-based and organized, CAR runs the risk of moving from a mass atrocity crisis to genocide.

Current Situation

  • There is a massive humanitarian crisis in this country of 4.6 million people: the destruction of CAR’s infrastructure both during the Seleka advance and in the subsequent violence—including schools, medical facilities and entire villages—has severely limited civilians’ access to the basic necessities of food, water and shelter. 2.8 million civilians are in need of emergency assistance.

  • CAR has been designated by the United Nations as a level 3 humanitarian crisis—the highest designation for an emergency.

  • Estimates of the number of civilians killed and injured during the conflict are limited; however, reports indicate that the capital suffered a round of killings in early December 2013 that left between 500-1000 people dead in just two days.

  • Nearly one millions civilians are internally displaced as a result of the fighting according to the UN, including over 500,000 in the capital. Over 86,000 refugees have fled CAR during this crisis, bringing to at least 220,000 the total residing in neighboring countries, which could have destabilizing effects in the troubled region.

  • 2.2 million people are food insecure, according to UN reports. Violence has disrupted the agricultural cycles, increasing the risk for longer term food insecurity and potentially reducing GDP by 10%.

  • There has been near complete impunity for crimes being committed in Bangui and outside of the capital.

  • State institutions have largely collapsed as officials fled and the infrastructure was pillaged during the conflict. Security forces largely deserted their posts during the Seleka takeover and those who have returned are concentrated in Bangui, lacking weapons and equipment to counter the ongoing violence.

  • Hospitals and schools are largely non-functional as a result of looting and insecurity, setting the stage for health crises and impacting education levels well into the future.

  • Child soldiers continue to be an issue of concern in this conflict, with reports of as many as 3500 among the former Seleka fighters and an increasing number drawn into self-defense militias.

  • The transitional president’s failure to meet key milestones for progress toward the February 2015 elections raises questions about his commitment to the political transition process. The appointment of Seleka members to key security posts and plans to integrate large numbers of fighters into the security services are not consistent with the vision laid out in the transitional agreement.    

  • Regional dimensions: CAR is at a crossroads of instability, raising concerns that the crisis will seep beyond CAR’S porous borders. Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries are serving in the ranks of the ex-Seleka, while forces from the AU and ECCAS member states are attempting to restore order. Clashes in Cameroon involving ex-Seleka forces prompted the Cameroonian government to close its border with CAR, cutting off the landlocked state’s primary trade route.

  • The presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army in CAR is an ongoing concern. 

  • Following an extraordinatry session of ECCAS heads of state held in Chad, interim President Djotodia resigned from his post and agreed to leave CAR.

International Responses

Insecurity Issues:

An African Union international stabilization force (MISCA) has been given a one-year, Chapter VII mandate by the UN Security Council that includes the protection of civilians and disarming of armed groups. This force draws on the ECCAS force (MICOPAX) of 2500 that was already in the capital and is being increased to 6,000. The French government has deployed an additional 1600 troops. Both MISCA and French forces have sustained casualties in enforcing their mandate.   

The UN Secretary General has outlined plans for transforming MISCA into a UN peacekeeping operation of 9,000 personnel (military, police, and civilian) with a robust civilian protection mandate. However, the logistical challenges of deploying these personnel may require a longer timeframe than 12 months.  In the event of a rapid deterioration, the Secretary General has suggested that forces from UN peacekeeping operations in neighboring countries could be brought in to help stem violence.

The role of the United States has been to assist in the transport of AU forces to CAR from Burundi and provide MISCA troop contributors with equipment,  pre-deployment training, and planning and logistical support.   

The International Criminal Court’s Chief Prosecutor called on all actors to “stop attacking civilians and committing crimes” or run the risk of prosecution by Court.

Crisis Mitigation Efforts:

The UN Security Council has taken the following steps, in addition to authorizing MISCA and planning for a UNPKO, to respond to the atrocities being committed in CAR:

  • Established an arms embargo, sanctions committee and panel of experts;

  • Authorized a commission of inquiry;

  • Called for increased  human rights monitoring capacity in CAR;

  • Is considering travel bans and asset freezes for leaders and perpetrators of the violence in the country.

The US has attempted to mitigate Christian-Muslim violence by:

  • Sending US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, to CAR to meet with religious leaders as well as officials from the transitional government, MISCA, and France.

  • Encouraging media to disseminate messages from religious leaders urging peace and reconciliation.

  • Recording, translating and playing on local radio a statement by President Obama urging an end to the violence.

  • Developing a Voice of America program featuring religious leaders from the US and Central Africa who support ending the atrocities.

  • Supporting the creation of a network of local community and interfaith religious leaders for promoting peace and reconciliation efforts.

Humanitarian Response:

  • UN compounds, the airport, as well as religious sites and schools have been set up as gathering spaces for internally displaced persons.

  • US and other donor countries continue to support bi-lateral and UN efforts to address the significant needs inside CAR and in neighboring countries.