History of the Conflict
A Decade of Violence
In 2003, General François Bozizé seized control of the government and ruled the Central African Republic (CAR) as president until 2013. During his 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 the Bozizé 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 tensions between the government and rebels erupted into violence again with accusations that the Bozizé regime failed to meet its promises under the peace agreements. In addition, rebels cited the failure to improve living conditions and Bozizé’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.
The Séléka Coalition Forms and Marches on the Capital
In December 2012, rebel groups based in the northeast of the country banded together in a loose coalition known as the Séléka (which means coalition or alliance) with the objective of overthrowing the Bozizé 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 Bozizé regime able to negotiate a ceasefire with the Séléka.
A Failed Peace Deal
In January 2013, the Bozizé government and Séléka rebels finalized a peace deal, known as the Libreville Agreement. The deal laid out terms for a ceasefire and a three-year power-sharing agreement for a government of national unity. It was negotiated with the help of the ECCAS and with additional support from the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). 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 Séléka rebels to capitalize on their battlefield advantages.
Séléka Takes Power in the Capital
In March 2013, the Séléka coalition resumed hostilities, quickly capturing Bangui and deposing the regime. With the fall of the government and President Bozizé’s flight from the country, the state’s already weak institutions, including the security forces, collapsed.
Following the Séléka 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 scheduled for 2015.
Despite the blueprint for a transitional political system, insecurity remained prevalent throughout CAR. Reports of Séléka rebel factions burning and looting villages and committing acts of violence against civilians indicated a sustained risk of mass atrocities in many areas of the country.
Mass Atrocities Spread
In an attempt to stem the ongoing violence, interim-President Djotodia formally disbanded the Séléka 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 of soldiers-for-hire from Chad and Sudan. In the absence of a central authority with reach outside the capital, the violence continued to escalate, with the former Séléka 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 Séléka fighters’ attacks and the lack of protection by the state, local groups formed self-defense forces known as the anti-balaka. These militias increased the level of violence as they not only battled former Séléka forces but also targeted civilians perceived to be Séléka supporters. While CAR does not have a history of religious factionalism driving violence, the largely Muslim former Séléka and the predominantly Christian anti-balaka introduced a new dynamic to this crisis. The divisions intensified and the violence became increasingly group-based and organized. On January 22, 2014, Adama Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, told the UN Security Council (UNSC) that the widespread, unchecked nature of attacks against civilians on the basis of religion or ethnicity “constitutes crimes against humanity.” If these attacks are not halted, he said, “There is a risk of genocide.”
An Interim Government and a Democratic Transition (2014–16)
Former Séléka leader and interim-President Djotodia resigned in January 2014 under international pressure as the country continued to experience violence against civilians on a wide scale. Following his resignation, Catherine Samba-Panza—the mayor of Bangui who had previously led reconciliation efforts from past conflicts—was selected to serve as interim president.
National elections were held in December 2015, and in March 2016, Faustin-Archange Touadéra—a former Prime Minister under Bozizé—became the first president to come to power in a democratic election since 1993. Despite the democratic transition, the central government’s authority barely extended beyond the capital and armed groups competed for control over large parts of the country.
Violence Against Civilians Post-Transition (2017–20)
While the level of violence against civilians dropped following the election of President Touadéra, the risk of group-targeted violence remained high due to continued instability and limited security. Renewed fighting among armed factions in the southeast in May 2017 killed approximately 300 people and displaced another 100,000. The central government and most of the armed groups agreed to a ceasefire in June 2017, but violence erupted the following day.
Electoral Crisis and Aftermath (2020–21)
Former President Bozizé returned from six years of exile in late 2020. After announcing his intention to run in the upcoming general election, the Central African Constitutional Court ruled on December 3 that Bozizé could not run due to an outstanding international warrant for his arrest. Bozizé responded by calling on the Democratic Opposition Coalition (COD) to nominate a candidate to run against Touadéra.
On December 19, six rebel groups formed a new coalition known as the Patriots for Change (CPC), who called for elections to be postponed on account of ongoing violence that they were perpetrating. That the CPC includes anti-Balaka and former Séléka suggests that amidst the current power struggle, political and economic pressures may supersede the role of identity.
Despite the CPC’s best efforts, the government insisted that elections take place as originally planned on December 27. Rebel groups and government loyalists clashed across the country on election day. Attacks on electoral convoys combined with theft or destruction of ballot boxes hampered the electoral process. Consequently, only 35% of the 1.85 million registered voters cast ballots. The CPC continued to wage attacks on civilians and key towns in the succeeding days.
The National Elections Authority announced on January 4, 2021 that President Touadéra had won a second term with 53% of the vote. Opposition groups called for those results to be annulled, pointing to low voter turnout, insufficient electoral preparations, and inability to run robust campaigns due to insecurity. Rebel forces stormed the capital on January 13 in retaliation. Although government forces and UN peacekeepers successfully repelled the insurrection, the risk of future rebel activity remains high.
In May 2021, CAR armed forces attacked an outpost on its border with Chad, killing six Chadian soldiers. Chad has accused CAR of war crimes, although the CAR government attributes the attack to rebel groups. Days later, a joint UN, AU, Economic Community of Central African States, and European Union mission arrived to consult with CAR authorities.
The Humanitarian Crisis Intensifies
The total number of displaced persons reached 1.4 million during the electoral and post-electoral crisis from December 2020 to February 2021. An added 100,000 civilians are displaced within CAR while 105,000 have fled to Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo.
Although the Central African Armed Forces and UN peacekeepers were largely successful in recapturing towns from rebel groups in the direct aftermath of December’s violence, disrupted trade routes preventing flow of essential resources have worsened the existing humanitarian crisis. Goods have become increasingly scarce and expensive and humanitarian groups struggle to reach people in need. As of early 2021, over 2.8 million Central Africans required humanitarian assistance, of which three-quarters (1.9 million) had acute needs.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitoring reveals deterioration of the situation in CAR between December 2020 and June 2021. There has been an increase in gender-based violence and violations of property rights. In a January 2021 briefing to the UNSC, Mankeur Ndiaye, the representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), advocated for an increase in uniformed troops, drones, and helicopters, to address the ongoing security situation.