by Josué Kanabo

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Since March 2013, the Central African Republic has been caught in a vicious cycle of armed violence, which has its roots firmly in the country's political and social history. The 2013 crisis is one among many and reflects the country's deep-seated instability. Ever since the official end of the French colonial rule in 1960, successive governments have not been able to establish real republican institutions, which are viable and guarantee every single citizen's equality and rights.

Despite national and international actors bids to halt armed groups' violence against the population, the situation in the country remains alarming. Since early 2018 violence has flared up again, despite the extensive deployment of soldiers and security forces. The prospect of short-term peace in the Central African Republic seems more and more unrealistic. Why will the Central African crisis not come to an end anytime soon? On the one hand, it is because current attempts to solve conflict do not pay enough attention to lessons from the country's history. On the other hand, the bids for peace are simply not strong enough to withstand the big challenges.

Situated in the heart of Africa, the Central African Republic makes up an area of 623,000 square kilometres, equalling almost twice the size of Germany. There are only 5.1 million inhabitants and the country is sparsely populated. The Central African Republic is a landlocked country, but it has some advantages which could have been used to boost development: it has significant natural resources, ethnic and cultural diversity, and the common language Sango, which is a crucial factor when it comes to strengthening social cohesion. And yet, its geographic position, destabilising interventions from abroad and bad governance have all severely weakened the country over the years.

Indeed, the Central African Republic is one of the weakest states. A "weak state" is defined as s polity whose government is unable to guarantee its citizens a life of freedom and dignity, a life free of fear, lack and hopelessness. According to the "Fragile State Index" developed by the United States-based NGO Fund for Peace, the Central African Republic came in fifth in 2018, after South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Every one of the Central African Republic's neighbouring countries is currently in a state of crisis in terms of politics and internal security. Criminal violence is everywhere, and it is aggravated by cross-border terrorism.

The Central African crisis is very complex, but it is often described as an inter-religious conflict. Even though the armed groups' members and their actions partly support this definition, it oversimplifies the conflict and does not do justice to its complexity. In the same way that not all former militants of Séléka, a coalition of many Muslim rebel groups, are Muslims, not all members of the Anti-Balaka, the self-defence groups that were formed in 2013 to stand up against the Séléka-militias, are Christians.

On top of this, certain armed groups do not have a primarily religious character but were formed out of the need to preserve the common interests of an ethnic grouping, for instance the Fulbe who mainly live off breeding cattle and who purport to be defending their livestock. Thus, armed groups are formed for different reasons, be it self-defence or for pursuing a political or economic aim. Some of them also break up again. Right now, there are 15, driven by different motives that sometimes are completely unknown. This partly explains why the religious leaders are incapable of restoring law and order.

But it is a conflict between different communities, which leads to the economic and political disadvantage of certain regions, especially the areas in the north where the majority of the population is Muslim. This has long been reflected in the ethnicisation of the national army and public administration. Of course, there is a lot of poverty in general, but the northern regions are even more impoverished. This inequality that has been upheld for a long time by successive rulers who make no secret of their wish to stay in power forever has severely weakened social cohesion. These social differences are a reality, and they are here to stay.

Returning to normality therefore requires a form of governing that promotes all citizens' equality but also reinforces the state's authority, the only bearer of legitimate power, in its territory. So far, none of the successive rulers of the Central African Republic has ever understood how to keep the country's borders under control. In absence of any state power in the north and some border regions in the south, these are areas of retreat and transit for militias from Chad, Sudan and Congo who do anything to undermine Bangui's authority and to massacre and rob the local population. Some 14 of the 16 prefectures are permanently under the control of armed groups who fight each other over the domination of the mining regions and the pillaging of livestock.

Public administration officials are leaving their positions in the country's interior. Humanitarian organisations' convoys are preferred targets of the rebels, which renders access to people in need dangerous. At the same time, the militias in turn use the absence of state power as a pretext: They claim to protect the local population of rivalling groups and in this way legitimise their existence among the local populations, who often have no option but to accept them. Currently the state programme for demobilising, disarming and reintegrating is moving forward very slowly. That is partly due to a lack of resources and because the parties involved cannot agree on how to best proceed. Certain armed groups are also to blame for their malevolence as they are not remotely interested in giving up the mining regions, which they control and enthusiastically exploit. In addition, the programme for reforming the security sector, with the aim of reassembling well trained and equipped police and military forces cannot be implemented overnight.

In light of the barbarity and cruelty of some militias who refuse to engage in any dialogue and who simply ignore already sealed peace treaties, the state finds itself in a difficult situation if it does not want to enforce their cooperation through violence. With regards to the relative passivity of the UN blue helmets who have been in the country since 2014 as part of the MINUSCA-Mission, it is true that they do not have the necessary means or determination to end the violence.

The everyday insecurity and the fact that criminals walk free play a big role in the ongoing violence. The current government under Faustin Archange Touadéra sees itself as heavily criticised within the country as well as in diplomatic circles. Widely practiced cronyism, corruption, incompetence, illegal enrichment and lacking will for change are factors which are hardly suitable for winning the trust of international partners and direct neighbours. The crises in Syria, South Sudan, Congo and Libya seem to divert the international community's attention. How much are the international partners and neighbouring countries willing to invest in peace for the Central African Republic? And what is in it for them? In this light, the new military and economic partnership between Bangui and Moscow, which dismays its former French ally, raises pressing questions. Will it be necessary to prepare for new conflicts of interest between foreign partners? At the moment, there are rumours in the alleys of Bangui of a new coup around the corner, and all evidences suggests that the Central African Republic's crisis will not be over any time soon. 

Translated by Ralloù Moutafis 

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