The future of the Central African Republic rests in part on whether the international community can avoid mistakes of the past by supporting its development for the long haul and building institutions and infrastructure rather than abandoning the country after elections later this month, a group of experts said at an event organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Photo Courtesy of DFID/Simon Davis

After more than two decades of international intervention in the Central African Republic, “we seem to keep repeating old formulas that haven’t seemed to work,” said Tatiana Carayannis, deputy director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council and the co-editor of a volume of essays, Making Sense of the Central African Republic. The international community treats each crisis as if it’s the first of its kind, without regard to the long roots of conflict, she said.

International players including the United Nations, the U.S., France and others have failed to capitalize on periods of peace by building institutions and infrastructure, she said during the Nov. 30 panel discussion. Instead, they tend to depart post-conflict countries right after elections, denying recovering nations crucial support when they need it most. Some of the contributors to the volume of essaysfear that may happen again in the Central African Republic after the country holds elections in stages starting later this month, Carayannis said.

“The basic social fabric is evaporating by the day.” -- Roland Marchal, Paris Institute of Political Studies

The former French colony has been beset with violence since gaining independence in 1960. In 2012, an armed coalition called the Séléka, primarily made up of the country’s Muslim minority, seized the capital city of Bangui and staged a coup in March 2013. In response, a group of Christian and Animist fighters calling themselves the Anti-balaka have carried out reprisal attacks. More than 6,000 people have died since 2012, while about 456,000 refugees have fled the country and an additional 447,000 have become internally displaced.

The U.N. responded in April 2014 by creating a peacekeeping force with extensive powers to intervene in the conflict. Although a ceasefire agreement was reached in July last year, the various sides to the conflict have violated the deal. Pope Francis, who visited Bangui last week, went to a cathedral as well as a mosque and called for both religious groups to lay down their arms.  

Reconciliation in the Central African Republic needs to happen on multiple levels, Carayannis said. The differences aren’t just between Muslims and Christians but also between urban and rural populations as well as between the country’s political elites and average citizens, she said.

Continuing Violence

“It’s a long road ahead,” Carayannis said.

With continuing violence and absence of order, there has been a marked breakdown in social and ethical standards, said Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “The basic social fabric is evaporating by the day.”
Meanwhile, the international community is rushing to organize an election without addressing fundamental questions such as the role of the state and its armed forces, and the rights of Muslim citizens, Marchal said. The timing of the election is likely tied to France wanting to pull out its troops from the country, Marchal and Carayannis said. Although France had wanted to reduce its troop presence to about 600, after the flare up of violence in September, leaders in Paris committed to keeping 900 troops on the ground.

Conducting elections also poses the tough logistical challenge of moving ballot materials around the country as well as maintaining security throughout the process, said Faouzi Kilembe, an independent researcher and a Central African who spoke to the USIP event via video.

But Ambassador Laurence Wohlers, a senior fellow at Meridian International and a former top U.S. diplomat to the Central African Republic, said waiting for conditions to get better before holding elections is not the answer.

The international community instead should prepare for the next steps following the election, Wohlers said. A new president who’s likely to be a Christian from the south may take office with no institutions of state, no army and totally dependent on the international community, and can quickly lose credibility, he said.

U.S. Role and Joseph Kony

“Clearly security is the No.1 question, especially in the south,” Wohlers said. The new government and the international community must look at “how do you rebuild an army, as difficult and complicated as it’s going to be. As long as all the guns are controlled by those who are not supposed to have them, you are not going to have security,” he said.

The U.S. has seen its role in the Central African Republic mostly through the anti-terrorism efforts undertaken in the search for Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, said Ledio Cakaj, an independent consultant who tracks the militant group.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, which originated in Uganda but has been chased out of that country, now finds home in nearby nations with weak security structures and porous borders, including the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. has about 50 special operations forces tracking down Kony, and the overall military expenditure could be as high as $500 million, including classified spending, Cakaj said. In comparison, U.S. humanitarian aid is roughly about 5 percent of that amount, he said.

“That’s something that’s going to be a problem if you want to talk about lasting change,” especially since many local communities still suffer for lack of assistance in getting projects off the ground, he said.

The difficulty that international actors face in finding solutions that work in the Central African Republic is compounded by a poor understanding of the country’s history and an absence of contextual knowledge, said Louisa Lombard, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University and a co-editor of the collection of essays.

“If you look at the history of CAR, you find that during the colonial era, the French government leased the entirety of the country’s territory to concessionary companies to run for profit and administer as they saw fit,” Lombard said. “The central government didn’t have the money, the resources and manpower to be able to undertake those tasks. And that legacy remains with us,” she said.

People in power still see their role mostly as contracting with global agencies to provide governance and extract the country’s resources, she said.   

Aid donors, U.N. officials and foreign military leaders often discuss solutions to problems among themselves and not with Central Africans, which makes it “difficult to bring those issues into the open and debate,” Lombard said.

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