On a cool Friday morning in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, the conference room is silent for the first time in days. Expert presentations on disarmament and security sector reform, followed by lively debates, had filled the room since Wednesday afternoon. Now, only the air conditioning hums as a diverse group of mid- and-senior level officials and civic leaders—gathered by the U.S. Institute of Peace—pore over findings from citizen consultations held in communities around the country. They are men and women, Muslims and Christians. Their positions in ministries and civil society groups in the capital, Bangui, make them part of the political elite, a class that has historically governed the country without input from its constituents. Now, after decades of violence and instability, that’s beginning to change.
Located in the heart of Africa, the Central African Republic (CAR) is a former French colony that has suffered from persistent insecurity since gaining independence in 1960. This is due in part to the fact that its system of governance was never designed to govern: Based on the old colonial structure, it was geared primarily to serve international interests and local elites seeking to exploit CAR’s diamonds, gold, oil and uranium. The powerful profited while the rest of the population suffered from extreme poverty and sporadic outbreaks of violence. For decades, this was the status quo.
In 2012, a group from the North known as the Séléka, or “Alliance,” launched an armed rebellion against the government, and in March of 2013 seized power. Once in control, the predominantly Muslim Séléka exploited and abused civilians, particularly Christians. That provoked the emergence of the Anti-Balaka group, a primarily Christian and Animist force composed of local self-defense groups and former guards of President François Bozizé. Reprisal attacks between the forces intensified, splitting even ordinary civilians along religious lines for the first time in the country’s history.
By the end of 2013, the fighting began to veer toward the risk of genocide against the country’s minority Muslim population. It was time for the international community to intervene. In January 2014, governments in the region brokered the departure of the Séléka from power and installed a transitional government; in April that year, the United Nations approved a peacekeeping mission for CAR. Since his election in February 2016, President Faustin Archange Touadéra has pushed to disarm and reintegrate armed groups, but many have refused, and violence continues.
Unlearning the Past
“We hear all the time that, ‘We cannot repeat the failures of the past,’” Louisa Lombard, a professor of anthropology at Yale University and an expert on the Central African Republic, told the group, discussing disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), and security sector reform (SSR). Many previous efforts to break the country’s defining cycles of violence have failed. Now, the leaders she was meeting with, the Consultation Advisory Committee, had to consider: “How can we use the tools and techniques developed during the consultation process to make this situation better?"
Citizen consultation in the Central African Republic is not only rare but counter to the political culture. The beginnings of possible change appeared when the transitional government, with the help of the international community, convened a national dialogue in 2015 that included several months of citizen consultation ahead of a conference in the capital known as the Bangui Forum. While the effort was a positive step toward establishing a participatory political process, the transitional government largely viewed it as something needed in response to the crisis rather than a new mode of governance.
USIP’s work in CAR seeks to build on the initial momentum of the popular consultations by developing a mechanism for regular citizen input—the Consultation Advisory Committee. After eight months of meetings, expert presentations, and visits to communities around the country, the committee members have deepened their understanding of the value of eliciting citizen perspectives.
But today, in the cool, quiet conference room, they have a new challenge before them: How will they represent those voices in Bangui?
The Voice of the People
The room comes back to life as the committee members pass dozens of small pieces of colored paper down the conference table. On them, each person votes for the three issues that they think citizens in four locations around the country identified as priorities for community security.
The topics selected by the committee will be presented during a public exhibition hosted by USIP in two weeks that includes artwork produced by local communities on ending the conflict. The committee’s representatives will address ministers, diplomats, non-governmental organizations and the general public, and hopefully strengthen communication among these groups in the process.
In the room, the votes are counted and the results are clear: Dialogue, justice, and the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) are the three local priorities that the committee has chosen to present in Bangui. The group splits into three, one for each theme, to select and prepare a speaker to represent the perspectives of their constituents.
As they discuss how best to present their ideas, it is apparent how seriously the committee members take this task: the Central African Republic remains vulnerable to armed groups and a resurgence of conflict. Despite a decrease in the overall level of violence and a new administration, Séléka and Anti-Balaka factions continue to operate in many parts of the country, while nearly a million people remain displaced.
After a half hour, the small groups come back together to listen to the draft speeches each group prepared and to give feedback and advice. The speakers all do well, but one stands out. He talks slowly, a tone of conviction enveloping each carefully-chosen word. After giving a brief introduction, he lifts his chin and states in an even tone, “I am here today to express to you the heartfelt cry of the Central African people.”
He was giving voice to the country’s daunting problems, not yet as a solution, but as a rare expression of the degree of the citizens’ needs. It was a start.
Rachel Sullivan is a USIP program assistant who focuses on the Central African Republic.