Reconciliation and peacebuilding in the Central African Republic will require a national dialogue supported by a grassroots movement, according to the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonné Nzapalainga. He spoke at USIP alongside a Muslim imam and Protestant minister about the trio’s efforts to end a brutal two-year-old conflict that reportedly has killed more than 5,000 and forced more than 830,000 people from their homes.

religious leaders

The archbishop, along with Imam Omar Kabine Layama and Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyama outlined their interfaith initiative to foster dialogue and social cohesion across religious lines, and their vision for peace, during a discussion Nov. 10. Through their Interfaith Peace Platform, the three religious leaders have worked to spread peaceful messages throughout the country, advise political leaders, and articulate for the international community what a common vision of peace in the country would look like.

The religious fiber of our people is being used and manipulated.

Security in the Central African Republic began to deteriorate on December 5, 2013, when clashes erupted in Bangui between the Muslim Séléka militants and Christian forces who call themselves “anti-balaka,” a term that can be interpreted as “anti-machete” or resistant to bullets from an AK-47 weapon. The situation remains precarious as ethno-religious violence continues despite the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers.

The religious leaders who spoke at USIP, however, said the violence was not really motivated by religious concerns but rather by political interests. A UN panel of experts said earlier this month that the violence is being financed heavily by the illicit gold- and diamond trade. The Associated Press reported in September that at least 5,186 people have been killed in the conflict.

“The religious fiber of our people is being used and manipulated for political purposes,” the archbishop said. To treat the conflict, there is a need to understand its deeper political and social roots, he explained.

Former President Francois Bozize “pushed the Christian community to attack the Muslim community” when his government began to fail, said Layama.

The state’s reach currently is limited to the capital, Bangui. The roads leading to the rest of the country are in such disrepair that they are almost impassable. Consequently, the government is unable to enforce laws, and to provide the basic health and educational services its citizens need and deserve.

Based on this lack of governance, and the division of the country among armed groups, Nzapalainga argued that it is not realistic to proceed with elections at this time. Not only would such a project be extremely difficult, but if anything were to go wrong with the elections, it could cause more violence. Greater stability is needed before the Central African Republic is ready to take this step, he said.

'Lost Youth'

In addition to political instability and insecurity, the religious leaders also pointed to two major social drivers of the conflict: a lack of education and economic opportunity for young people.

With more than half of its population under 25 years of age, the Central African Republic is a youth-driven nation, and it is primarily the young that are engaging in the violence when they are recruited by the armed groups. Much of their motivation stems from hopelessness and anger about the poor prospects for their future.

With nothing to aspire to, Nzapalainga lamented, “they dream of something else. That dream, for many of them, is death.”

Nzapalainga ascribes the lack of educational and professional possibilities for young people in the Central African Republic to the failure of the state. The government cannot adequately pay its workers, including school teachers, and without education there is nothing to prevent the widespread poverty and unemployment that young people face. There is no path, no project and no alternative to violence.

Guérékoyama said the issue is further complicated by the fact that many youth have learned to distrust authority figures, as the government and rebel leaders have consistently let them down.

“Political leaders always try to manipulate young people,” he said. “They try to buy their consciences to get people to campaign for them on their behalf, and once they are in a government position, they let people down.”

Developing trust in political leaders and creating a cohesive vision for the future are the next steps in meeting this challenge, he said.

Security Sector Reforms

To restore trust in political leadership, Layama suggested that members of the international community need to support the state in developing its capacity to govern, which includes equipping it to secure itself and its people. One of the great challenges currently facing the Central African Republic is widespread insecurity, due to the absence of effective police and military forces. Individuals have instead taken to arming themselves for protection against rebel groups, who operate with impunity throughout the country.

The existing military and police forces in the Central African Republic remain unarmed due to a weapons embargo imposed by the UN. Layama argued that the military is no longer constituted of rebellious factions and should be re-armed on the condition of broad reforms in security institutions.

Such an effort would improve security and open space for improving governance and building a sustainable peace.

Dialogue, Justice and Reconciliation

The three religious leaders said the process of peacebuilding must start with listening. The myriad victims of violence and injustice, the disenfranchised youth, and the hundreds of thousands who have lost their homes in the conflict need a space to be heard.

The Interfaith Peace Platform has started this work by engaging with young people throughout the country, but the dialogue needs to continue on a national level. Layama recommended that everyone organize and share their perspectives with their religious communities through a grassroots movement, and then the religious communities should come together to support a national dialogue.

Still, the project of achieving justice and reconciliation is daunting. Nzapalainga suggested that justice would best be realized in the hands of the village chiefs and the traditional councils of the wise, who are experienced in resolving tensions but need to have their authority restored.

Layama added that the Central African Republic needs to be reminded of its history of unity between Muslims and Christians. Leaders need to promote a common language that solidifies the traditional fraternal bond into the social cohesion necessary for peace.

International Support

While a popular grassroots movement is necessary for social cohesion, the Central African Republic also needs help in achieving that vision. The three leaders identified several concrete steps that the international community could take to assist their efforts:

Equip religious leaders with radios so that they can combat false information, and convey messages of unity and reconciliation.

Supply farmers with seeds to prevent famine, as well as transportation suitable for the poor road conditions to increase distribution capabilities.

Provide educational support to help young people find an alternative to violence, and to alleviate crippling poverty.

Advise and assist officials in good governance, without imposing a specific framework. Instead, the international community should take a supporting role in empowering local leaders to achieve a Central African vision.

“We have come to bring the voice of the Central African people,” Nzapalainga said, “and to [explain to] you the heart of the Central African people, who hope for peace.”

Rachel Sullivan is a research assistant at USIP. Susan Stigant is the institute’s director of Africa programs.

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