In early February, five Central African friends and I hopped in a weathered Toyota pickup and retraced most of Route Nationale 3 (RN3), which runs through the Central African Republic’s (CAR) northwest from Baoro to the capital Bangui. Connecting Cameroon’s Douala and Bangui, the RN3 corridor accounts for 80 percent of internationally traded goods in CAR.

The main street in Paoua, a town in the northwest of the Central African Republic. February 8, 2009. (Simon Davis/U.K. Department for International Development)]
The main street in Paoua, a town in the northwest of the Central African Republic. February 8, 2009. (Simon Davis/U.K. Department for International Development)

As we crawled past hamlets dotting the roadside, we bought gozo and nyama ti ngonda. At each major town, we were stopped at checkpoints run by Central African Armed Forces (FACA), the Gendarme and occasionally customs — all while northbound four-wheelers barreled by, dragging colossal logs as part of CAR’s timber trade, officially the country’s most important export.

This relatively relaxed journey along the RN3 would’ve been impossible at the same time last year. That December, an alliance of six armed groups called “La coalition des patriotes pour le changement” (CPC) started a 50-day blockade of the RN3 in coordination with ex-CAR President François Bozizé, who had been disqualified from running for president earlier in the month.

The Long Shadow of Civil War

Bozizé’s ten-year rule from 2003-2013 was characterized by increased corruption and violent repression of rebellions in CAR’s north — where many of the country’s minority Muslim communities live. In 2013, a predominantly Muslim rebel alliance called Séléka began a violent sweep through the country, ousting Bozizé in the process.

Instrumentalizing religion in a bid to regain power, Bozizé tapped into and worked with networks of predominantly Christian and animist self-defense groups that formed the “anti-Balaka” movement to resist the Séléka. But anti-Balaka fighters then began targeting Muslim communities generally, plunging CAR into a bloody civil war that tore the country further apart and divided control among various armed factions.

The ensuing struggle for economic and political power saw ever-shifting allegiances between increasingly fractured militias, with elements of ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka quickly finding ways to work together as the government struggled to expand its presence outside the capital.

The civil war has been devastating for ordinary Central Africans, who have suffered the most from these political machinations. The U.N. has reported hundreds of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by every side in the conflict. And currently, 30 percent of Central Africans are displaced while half the population is food insecure.

Some hope came in 2019, when — after previous attempts at peace failed — 14 armed groups signed the Khartoum Agreement.

That deal had mixed results. But the violence wrought by Bozizé’s CPC alliance in December 2020 sparked a return to widespread conflict, as other signatories to the Khartoum agreement abandoned the peace process. That the CPC alliance contained several organizations previously at odds with one another is further testimony to the nominal role religion and ethnicity play in CAR’s armed group politics.

Clearing the Roads in Northwest CAR

Before the road trip along RN3, I stopped in Bouar, a large, frontier town 60 miles from the northern border with Cameroon. On January 9, 2021, the CPC took Bouar, displacing at least 5,000 and paralyzing those who stayed until FACA and allied forces retook it a month later. A year later, a degree of stability has returned. Commerce has increased; people can cultivate fields.

To Bouar’s southeast, down 35 miles of asphalt with painted lines (something I’ve never seen before in CAR) lies Baoro. There, I met Arun, a leader in the Peul (or “Fulani” in English) community — a predominantly Muslim and pastoralist ethnic group living across west and central Africa.

“In the town itself there’s security,” Arun said. “Outside town, armed groups are still stealing cattle.” Behind us, boys and girls learn Arabic by rote, repeating from the Qu’ran. “The main roads are good now,” he added. But the mix of armed groups in the area don’t use the roads and their checkpoints, instead opting for the cattle trails that “have always been here.”

When asking about security in CAR, the answer usually involves roads: Their “dégradées” condition. The number of “barrières,” or roadblocks, between two towns and who runs them, FACA or armed groups. How steep the “taxes” are that they charge — painful but still preferable to getting stopped by bandits who may or may not be tied to an armed group, but who can take everything, including your life. Which, of course, armed groups and security services can do too.

Roadblocks Persist in Southeast CAR

But while security — that is, road security — is improving in the northwest, it’s a different story in CAR’s southeast. Close to the border with South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lies Obo, a town under siege. The FACA and a contingent of soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR hold its center and perhaps a two miles radius outside. They are surrounded by the UPC, a powerful, loosely aligned armed group that controls most of the surrounding province.

I went to CAR’s southeast to learn how Central Africans navigate life under a weak or absent government. In Obo I met Gisele. Her field where she grows manioc and corn is just seven miles from us. But she doesn’t dare go there: “The rebels [UPC] have their trails around there. They’ve killed people.” Gisele tends her other field, which is three miles away, and sells cakes in a shop. But that can’t cover the loss — she and her eight children have gone from eating three meals a day to one.

Another woman in Obo named Priscille is a shopkeeper, a farmer and owns a small bar in town. Her field is six miles away. She goes but says it’s “very dangerous” and she has run into UPC fighters before.

With roads closed off and most fields fallowed, prices have skyrocketed. The price for a beer at Priscille’s bar has increased 250 percent because, as she explains, “It’s taxed three times: first by the South Sudanese, second by the UPC in Bambouti and third by the FACA in Obo.” And if you happen upon UPC fighters between Bambouti and Obo, you’ll pay again — or they might just take everything.

To the west of Obo is Zemio, a town controlled by the UPC. There, Ousman, the local deputy head of communications for the UPC, tells me that they’ve “lifted all our roadblocks,” and that the UPC there are looking to disarm and reintegrate into the FACA.

The next day I ask Peul women in a refugee camp if Ousman’s declaration is true: Has the UPC lifted taxes and roadblocks in Zemio? “Of course not,” they reply. The real problem, they say, is that “there’s no state here. No FACA.”

Waiting for the Arrival of the State

Most Central Africans long for a “return of the state” to their communities. Schools, potable water, nutrition, health care, seeds for farming, capital, identification cards to prove citizenship — they need everything in most regions of CAR.

Yet tragically, the longed-for “state,” in its idealized form, has never really existed. The complex layers of CAR’s current conflicts were preceded by decades of military coups and outsourced governance, both which had been preceded by disastrous colonization.

A return of the state in CAR requires, in many respects, building it from scratch.

Today, the country finds itself in a unique moment. The government is in control of more territory than it’s held in decades. And citizens view armed groups as predatory and a key obstacle to the country’s development.

Still, regional context matters. From conversations with many in CAR, a general ranking of security preferences becomes apparent. If one defines security as the absence of violence, then citizens broadly prefer security under FACA — and the potential flow of goods and services that theoretically entails — to security under armed groups.

The FACA’s return to the northwest and the southwest has brought an observable degree of security in places like Bouar and Baoro. But CAR’s center and northeast continue to experience extreme insecurity as government forces and armed groups clash (although even these clashes have decreased in recent months). In CAR’s southeast, in places like Zemio and Obo, there is great hope that a DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) program will allow the region to transition to full government control while avoiding conflict.

It is now critical that current President Touadéra and his government work to accompany their pursuit of territorial integrity with the provision of goods and services. Negative peace — or the absence of violence — is only a partial solution.

Whether the government is genuinely interested in such endeavors is an open question — it would prove a significant break from the country’s history and power structures. But even if the desire is there, Touadéra’s choice in security partners will make funding more difficult. This puts at risk the meager state benefits Bangui offers its citizens, including critical DDR programs like the one discussed in Zemio. With levels of violence in CAR finally dropping, now is the time for the international community to double down on engagement.

Some names in this piece have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.

John Lechner is a researcher working with USIP’s Africa Center.

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