August 20, 2021
By Tahlia Mullen
A recent electoral crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) drew renewed attention to mass atrocity risks civilian populations have faced since late 2012. In the wake of the December 2020 election, opposition groups disputed the election results and armed rebels mounted coordinated attacks against civilians that continue today. The country now faces what one top United Nations (UN) official calls an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”
Though violence against civilians has persisted for nearly a decade, two new dynamics—the influence of international actors and the shifting role of identity—have transformed the conflict, suggesting a need for concerted attention and action to mitigate the risk of mass atrocities.
December 2020: A Disputed Election and its Aftermath
In late 2020, former President Bozizé returned from six years of exile and announced his intent to run in the general election in December of that year. When the Central African Constitutional Court ruled that Bozizé was ineligible to run due to an international warrant for his arrest, he became the de facto leader of a new coalition known as the Patriots for Change (CPC). The CPC killed hundreds of civilians in December in an effort to postpone elections and force a new round of negotiations.
Despite the CPC’s attacks, the government held elections as originally planned on December 27. Rebel groups clashed with government loyalists, both armed and civilian, across the country on election day. Attacks on electoral convoys, theft or destruction of ballot boxes, and low voter turnout—only 35% of the 1.85 million registered voters cast ballots—dampened the election’s credibility.
The National Elections Authority announced on January 4, 2021 that President Touadéra won a second term with 53% of the vote. Opposition groups called for those results to be annulled and stormed the capital on January 13. Although government forces and UN peacekeepers successfully repelled the insurrection, the CPC and other armed groups continue to commit human rights abuses.
According to the Early Warning Project’s Statistical Risk Assessment, CAR rose from the 38th most likely country to experience a new mass killing in 2019 and 2020 to the 18th most likely in 2020 and 2021. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitoring found increased violence and insecurity in CAR between December 2020 and June 2021. Over 2.8 million Central Africans required humanitarian assistance as of early 2021, of which two-thirds (1.9 million) had acute needs.
External Actor Involvement
International influence carries new importance in the latest chapter of the CAR conflict, which is increasingly characterized as a proxy war with Russia and Rwanda on one side aligned with President Touadera, and France and Chad on the other supporting former President Bozize.
Intent on increasing its influence across Africa, Russia has supported the Touadéra regime through arms exports and private military contractors. An investigative report from the United Nations Security Council accuses Russia of committing atrocities against Central Africans civilians, including indiscriminate killing, looting, and attacks on places of worship. The US Envoy to the UN has called for Russia to immediately withdraw its mercenaries from CAR. Rwanda has deployed hundreds of its own troops to CAR as part of a bilateral agreement aimed at strengthening alliances between the two national governments.
France provided significant military and budgetary support to CAR’s national forces until June 2021, when it froze assistance due to the government failing to respect promises made to the political opposition. It remains engaged in the UN and EU missions, alongside Chad, a military heavyweight seeking to grow its regional influence. Both countries support Former President Bozizé and leading opposition groups.
The foreign influx of weapons, troops, and military advisers contributes to an over-militarization crisis that increases the risk of future mass atrocities.
The Shifting Role of Identity in 2021
In an earlier phase of the crisis, religious and ethnic identity was a key component in targeting. However, the armed opposition groups that initiated December’s violence includes both the primarly Christian anti-Balaka and Muslim ex-Séléka—two factions traditionally at violent odds with one another—suggesting that today, political and economic pressures may supersede the role of identity. That shift suggests an increased risk for mass atrocities committed on the basis of real or perceived political support.
International Efforts to Address the Crisis
Because of the heightened risk, the international community must renew its focus on efforts to stem future risk for mass atrocities. Past efforts include the 2014 authorization of MINUSCA, a UN peacekeeping operation which had deployed over 15,000 personnel as of April 2021. It also includes a frequently violated February 2019 peace deal between the CAR government and 14 armed groups. Because perpetrators and victims may have changed since the start of the conflict, the international community must conduct a new evaluation to determine what communities are most at risk today.
The international community must also renew its focus on justice efforts. A 2014 UN report concluded that abuses by rebel forces amounted to ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim community. Since 2014, the International Criminal Court has been investigating all actors for attacks on civilians. In March 2013, the CAR government issued an international arrest warrant against former President Bozizé, accusing him of “crimes against humanity and incitement of genocide.” The Special Criminal Court in CAR, established in June 2015, has a mandate to cover Bozizé’s crimes. With justice efforts appearing to stall in recent years, concerned global actors must place greater priority on legal accountability moving forward.
History of the Conflict
The roots of CAR’s most recent political crisis go back at least to 2012, when a band of predominantly Muslim groups, known as the Séléka, united in opposition against then-President François Bozizé. The Séléka advanced towards the capital in December 2012 and by January, had captured Bangui and overthrown the Bozizé regime. Former rebel commander, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president in March 2013 and disbanded the Séléka in September. Despite their victory, violence spread with ex-Séléka forces torturing, sexually assaulting, and killing predominantly Christian civilians. Local Christian groups responded by forming self-defense forces known as the anti-Balaka, who targeted ex-Séléka forces and Muslim civilians perceived to be ex-Séléka supporters.
Under pressure from regional and international leaders, Djotodia’s government agreed to a transitional governing body and scheduled elections. In early 2016, former Prime Minister Touadéra became the first democratically elected president since 1993.
Tahlia Mullen is a student at Dartmouth College and summer intern for the Early Warning Project.