The peace agreement signed in the Central African Republic (CAR) in early 2019 is the eighth in seven years, numbers that suggest how difficult it will be to even attempt to end to the country’s multi-sided conflict. That said, the accord this time was reached after more extensive preparations for talks and with greater international support than in the past, perhaps improving conditions for a sustainable halt to violence that has displaced more than 1.2 million people. Developments in recent months, however, have triggered growing concern that the agreement, already fragile, may fail to effectively take hold. USIP’s Elizabeth Murray and Rachel Sullivan look at what is different about the current peace agreement and assess what progress has been made toward implementation.
How does this peace agreement differ from previous ones? How did it come about?
Negotiations for this agreement were built on the experience of previous failures. This time, the mediation team, under the leadership of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), spent a year consulting with armed groups, civil society and CAR’s government to reach common understanding of the issues and grievances at play and to set the terms for a dialogue.
Additionally, the peace agreement itself was formally signed in Bangui, the capital. That represented an important shift; previous deals were negotiated among elites and signed outside of CAR. This symbolic effort to respond to the population is now combined with more follow-up from international stakeholders seeking to hold all parties accountable for compliance with the agreement.
Talks leading to the accord took place in Khartoum from Jan. 24 – Feb. 5 of this year and were led by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations, with support from ECCAS in the lead-up and follow-up to the process. The U.S., the European Union (EU), and Russia also helped support preparations for the talks.
During the preparations for the dialogue, Russia, in conjunction with Sudan, attempted to initiate a separate peace process. Ultimately, the two processes were merged to prevent them from undermining one another.
The government and 14 recognized armed groups signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation on Feb. 6.
What progress has been made toward implementation of the agreement?
The process has not been smooth by any measure. CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra formed a government that includes 13 ministerial-level posts for armed-group leaders in addition to several advisory and regional-level positions. But this came after several of the armed groups protested the president’s original nominations of eight armed-group leaders as insufficient. Their objections spurred the AU to call for additional negotiations in March in Addis Ababa. The government ultimately increased the number of positions for armed groups and offered more posts to Muslims. That addressed a longstanding grievance of both constituencies, although new disputes over parceling positions have already broken out.
With support from the U.S. Institute of Peace, ECCAS is helping with implementation by holding workshops to improve understanding of the agreement between the CAR government and armed-group leaders and to explain it to rank-and-file combatants. These workshops also open dialogue between government representatives and armed-group leaders and members, and have improved communication and understandings among the parties to the agreement.
On the other hand, a plan to build confidence between armed groups and the government by setting up joint military units is far behind schedule, raising doubts that the initiative can work. Under the peace agreement, the “special mixed security units” are slated to include up to 1,200 armed-group combatants. On August 27, rebel group leader Mahamat Al Khatim of the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC), resigned from his post in the prime minister's office over disputes related to the units. Sidiki Abbas, head of the 3R rebel group, followed suit. There are also disagreements within the government and various armed groups about their respective roles and responsibilities within these units—stresses exacerbated by the Khartoum agreement’s lack of specificity. If the units are to succeed, they will they require serious attention from parties to the agreement and the international community.
This agreement has been the subject of some criticism. What are the main concerns? How can they be addressed?
The main criticism is that high levels of violent conflict persist. In the first six months after the deal was signed, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an open source database, recorded 83 violent incidents involving Central African armed groups and local militias resulting in 267 fatalities. Attacks on humanitarian aid workers nearly doubled in the same period, and a record 1.2 million people are currently displaced by the crisis.
A second important criticism is that the agreement excludes civil society, other unarmed actors, and newly formed armed groups. Government mediators decided to include only the 14 groups that signed the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration agreement during the 2015 national dialogue for peace and reconciliation known as the Bangui Forum. The decision to exclude civil society from the dialogue in Khartoum—although including it in consultations during the runup to the talks—was based on the perception that participation in this process could produce positions that differed from the Bangui Forum, which is still in effect and used to inform policymaking. As a result, the perspectives of ordinary citizens were underrepresented during the negotiations.
Further, it has become clear that misunderstandings persist about implementation of certain provisions, particularly regarding amnesty and power sharing; Touadéra has stated publicly both that there will not be impunity for armed-group members and that armed groups must be included in the political process. Armed groups’ desire for amnesty is also unaddressed, creating a possible source for future conflict. These challenges highlight the need for an inclusive implementation process that allows for ongoing mediation and negotiation.
What will influence further progress toward implementation of the agreement?
The 2020-2021 electoral period could have a significant effect. Many armed group leaders are tied to current or aspiring politicians who may calculate that supporting the agreement—at least as candidates—would draw votes. At the same time, Touadéra will find himself stretched thin as he campaigns for reelection while trying to deliver on commitments made in the agreement.
Ordinary citizens of CAR have a mixed view of the deal: Some are optimistic, others doubt it will affect the conflict. Backing for the agreement ultimately will depend on whether citizens see it improving their daily lives. In CAR, where some 2.9 million people need humanitarian assistance, better access to aid, for example, would offer widespread, tangible benefits achievable only with reduced conflict and sustained cooperation from armed groups.
The extension of government presence—virtually absent in some rural zones—would be another peace dividend to bolster confidence in the agreement. The government is trying to deploy additional civil servants throughout the country with the support of MINUSCA and the United Nations Development Programme. Provision of state services, particularly in the remote north and east, would send an important signal of government commitment to addressing longstanding regional disparities.
Since many citizens remain concerned about possible impunity for armed group leaders, further support for the Special Criminal Court would be another important indicator. The Special Criminal Court was created in 2015 and inaugurated in late 2018, but still faces serious funding and staffing shortages.
What is the role of the AU, the region, and the broader international community?
The AU and ECCAS are co-guarantors of the agreement. With the financial support from the EU, the African Union will also deploy civil and military observers to monitor its implementation.
MINUSCA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in CAR, has played a multi-faceted role in the country. The mission has helped to facilitate local peace agreements and figures critically in raising awareness of the agreement’s details among the general public and the armed groups’ rank-and-file. MINUSCA is also financing the mixed units through support to the AU and backing for the CAR armed forces.
The porous borders with Chad and Sudan have allowed armed-group leaders to easily traffic weapons from neighboring countries and to export illicitly mined minerals. Tighter border controls and a concerted effort by Chad and Sudan to stem the flow of weapons and combatants into CAR are essential to lasting peace. In recent years, armed group leaders in CAR have amplified local conflicts that stem from seasonal migration of cattle, particularly along the Chad-CAR border. Regional or bilateral efforts to stanch those conflicts are under discussion and could ameliorate grievances that fuel select armed groups. In Sudan, the prominent role of Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, popularly known as “Hemmeti,” in that country’s nascent transition has raised concerns that Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, under Hemmeti’s influence, could further destabilize CAR.
There has been a lot of news lately about Russians in CAR. What is Russia doing?
Russia’s growing role in CAR has sparked international concern. Russia provides the government with military trainers and personal security, and a Russian, Valery Zakharov, is serving as a top security adviser to the president. There is a significant “Friends of Russia” group within the CAR National Assembly. Beyond the official realm, Russian businesses are engaged in diamond mining, sometimes through relationships with armed groups. While Russia helped facilitate the peace agreement, it is not closely involved in the international cooperation around its implementation, which may represent further risk to an already fragile deal.