The Complex War in Central African Republic

Photo Source: DW
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In December 2020, when presidential elections were won by incumbent Faustin Archange Touadera, an alliance of rebel groups, calling themselves the Coalition of Patriots for Change, loyal to former President Francois Bozize, who was not allowed on the 2020 ballot through a constitutional court ruling, launched attacks and captured significant territories throughout the country. The post-election violence made matters worse for its people,  as an estimated 240,000 people were displaced, according to UN relief workers. The main roads between Central African Republic and Cameroon had been closed for almost two months, as per reportages done by Associated Press.

The rebels then controlled nearly two thirds of the country, making it difficult to deliver humanitarian aid. They had left Bangassou in January 2020, after an ultimatum from the United Nations peacekeeping forces, but established their presence in nearby towns such as Niakari. In response, the allied Rwandan and Russian allies, along with CAR’s forces had led the drives against the rebel forces.

In Siwa, a camp was put up for internally displaced people, where hundreds of people relied on filthy brown water to cook and wash. They were making makeshift shelters, made of leaves and branches, from 
palm trees. No toilets had been built and food distributions often arrived late.

The G5 group, which includes France, Russia, the U.S, the EU, the African Union, and the World Bank, had issued a joint statement calling on the rebel groups and Bozize to lay down their arms.

Since 2013, the CAR has been facing violent inter religious and inter communal conflict. Almost 900,000 people have been forcibly displaced by violence in the Central African Republic, since the war began. Some are internally displaced, while some live in Cameroon, Chad, DRC, and Republic of Congo. The displacement also includes thousands of children.

The Seleka rebellion began as a reaction to the underdevelopment and oppression of the north eastern Muslim populations, by Bozize. They seized his power, but later in 2013, a counter militia group was formed that called itself anti-Balaka which was predominantly Christian. Fighting spiralled with targeted attacks. However, some also bear witness that many Seleka fighters are today Christian, and violence in CAR is result of geography and history, rather than religion itself.

Louisa Lombard, a fellow at UC-Berkeley, has the best perspective of this dynamic. He wrote: ‘the Muslim population is concentrated in the northeast CAR, which the French turned into an "autonomous district" during colonial days. Post-independence, the CAR mostly neglected this region. Its residents became defined as “foreigners,” politically neglected and socially discriminated against. The fact that most of the people in the northeast are Muslim lends a religious cast to the conflict, but the historical and political cleavages in the CAR are more important to the conflict than theological hatred.

Due to collapse of state institutions, International Crisis Group once called Central Asian Republic as a ‘phantom state’. Due to lack of security in the CAR, even many different gangs, bandits and rebel groups emerged.

In 2015, an upsurge in violence displaced almost fifty thousand people. It included around twenty thousand people who went into DRC’s Equateur province. The violence was associated with seasonal movements of livestock and clashes between herders and the local and agricultural populations that had predominantly Christian anti-Balaka militia in them. The herders had turned to Seleka for protection.

A year later in 2016, an interim government had been set up, which organised democratic elections, after Seleka rebel president stepped aside amid international pressure.

According to BBC, after François Bozize came to power through a military coup in March 2003, the CAR Bush War (2004-2007) in the north-east broke out between the rebel forces under the leadership of Michel Djotodia and the government.  Groups had organised against efforts by Bozizé’s regime to enhance state control over the region’s diamond production industry, perceived as an attempt at industry capture. It ended with the signing of the Birao Peace Agreement in April 2007. After that, more number of peace agreements were signed between 2007-2012, but the most important and comprehensive involved the Libreville Agreement, signed in Gabon, under the auspices of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in June 2008. According to this agreement, municipal and presidential elections were to be held in 2009 and 2010. After a brief period of relative calm, the Seleka group recommenced attacks on the government, claiming the government had not implemented the peace agreements of 2007 and 2008.

The Seleka group, meaning ‘alliance’ in the Sango language, captured more than ten cities and strategic ministries, leading Michel Djotodia to announce his leadership in December 2012. It led Bozize flee the country in March 2013. When Djotodia became the first Muslim president of the country in March 2013, violence escalated, and in January 2014 he was forced to resign from his position due to internal and international pressure. According to the Guardian, reports circulated of genocide against the Muslim population at the hands of Christian anti-balaka militias. Many Christians, as a reaction, had been targeted by the Arabic-speaking militias, most of whom originated from Chad and South Sudan. Human Rights Watch, has accused the Seleka group of carrying out human rights violations which include torture and rape, however its leaders kept on denying this, and believed Christians and Muslims in their territories always lived in harmony. But, it might be rhetorical when one weighs these statements through the prism of civil war erupted in the country.

Whatever the dimensions, the conflict in Central Asian Republic remains largely neglected. The armed rebels in its provinces mainly fight for lands rich in gold, uranium, and diamonds. Fighters often target civilians rather than each other. They also attack health facilities, schools, mosques, churches and camps for displaced people. 

Since its independence, leaders have tried to reinforce their own political power. The multi-party elections in 1993 tried to improve the situation, but military coups continued to paralyse political and economic development. Military power played a significant role in shaping domestic politics, with no president coming to power without the support of the armed forces.

Although there was a national army of the CAR known as FACA, Former President Bozize had established a presidential security guard from Chadian mercenaries in the country to protect his government. The establishment of a presidential security guard divided the CAR military forces. Nepotism was common, with Bozize appointing members of his family to strategic state institutions. Despite the advent of a multi-party system in 1993, the new political dispensation failed to develop the infrastructure or improve the welfare to the majority.

France also has a history of periodic military interventions in CAR. They had supported almost all military coups. CAR also retains the colonial currency, CFA Franc, with a significant proportion of its national reserves deposited in the central bank of France.

Russia, on the other hand, has been playing a role in CAR’s politics by supplying weapons to FACA on the request of Touadera, in return for gold, minerals and other rare earth metals. Moscow had provided Touadera with a personal security advisor, and has set up a large training camp for FACA, southwest of Bangui. Russia even intervened in negotiations between African Union and CAR government in 2018 by forming its own peace initiative. This move was criticised by France. Ultimately, the African Union decided to bring the Russia-Sudan initiative under it, which led to February 2019 peace deal. To sign in the agreement, Russia flew fourteen rebel leaders to Khartoum.

Since the 2019 peace deal, government officials, police officers, and soldiers, most of whom withdrew from their posts as rebel groups, supported by Bozize, extended their authority from 2013 onwards, have been slowly returning to locations across CAR. Despite this, the peace deal is not having a firm impact, as violence continues unabated. 

Rwanda had also sent hundreds of troops to CAR, especially to Mbaiki at the government’s request. UN forces (especially Portuguese contingents) and the national army lately had been fighting the rebels in the west, and south of the country around Bossombele and Bossemptele.

When we talk of Touadéra, he is allied to Russia and to the Wagner Group, a mercenary organisation linked to President Vladimir Putin, while France, CAR’s former colonial ruler, is hoping a change in power in Bangui will help restore its waning influence in the country.

In an interview with The New Humanitarian, Nathalia Dukhan, a senior investigator said: “the French-Russian rivalries aim to bring the Central African Republic under tutelage, to make this country a zone of geostrategic influence."

To mitigate peace in the past, the African Union had also deployed its peacekeeping operation (MISCA) to the country in December 2013, comprising 3,500 troops, with others from Gabon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, and Cameroon. It took over the ECCAS’s peacekeeping mission (MICOPAX) in the CAR. But, the African Union peacekeeping capacity faced a number of challenges. First, the members lacked the necessary political consensus to create an effective peacekeeping operation. Second, there was no effective coordination among the different peacekeeping operations deployed by regional, sub-regional and international actors. Third, the African Union peacekeeping mission on the ground faced economic and logistical difficulties which hampered its effectiveness.

The EU, too, had also been actively involved in the conflict in CAR, sending a combined military force (EUFOR Chad/CAR) of 4,300 troops to Chad and the CAR in February 2008. The EUFOR Chad/CAR was transformed into the UN military force, the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) in March 2009. In January 2014, EU foreign ministers agreed to send a military force consisting of 1,000 soldiers to the CAR.

After the 2020 election, there is a chance of widespread rebellion, which could either render the country ungovernable for Touadera’s second term or even one day overthrow him. As for Bozizé, he has UN sanctions on him, and the alternative for him might be referral to the International Criminal Court.


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