The Central African Republic’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, came to Washington this week seeking to bolster U.S. support for a peace deal with internal armed groups, saying steady international assistance will be needed to rebuild the state and end years of metastasizing violence.
Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Touadéra said that the current agreement, reached in February and amended on March 19, stands a far better chance of success than its seven predecessors. This time, he said terms and specific commitments were debated, negotiated and agreed to on a word by word basis with plenty of consultation beforehand. Furthermore, he suggested, rank and file fighters are losing confidence that their groups will provide the economic opportunities that led many of them to join the fray.
“When I took office in 2016, I swore to the people that I would focus on foundational actions for reconstruction and to reconcile our people through a process of seeking truth and justice,” Touadéra said. “The path to peace came about through dialogue between the Central African Republic and the armed groups that saw the light during talks that took place under the aegis of the African Union. We are now at the stage of implementation.”
Despite his optimism, Touadéra left no doubt that his impoverished, mineral-rich nation faces enormous challenges to ending violence that began in 2012 when anti-government militias— spurred by perceptions of economic and political exclusion and the government’s failure to implement a 2008 agreement—organized and later seized the capital, Bangui.
“My country became a cliché of hate that might be considered almost predictable between Christians and Muslims,” Touadéra said. Except, he added, religious strife had little to do with the conflict at the outset. The religious dimension came later as Christian militias (anti-Balaka) organized against the Muslim Séléka coalition that took power by a coup in 2013, leading to violence against citizens on the basis of their religion.
The unprecedented bloodshed that followed was fed by hateful propaganda that imperiled the country’s unity and threatened the foundations of the state, he said. Recently, Touadéra indicated, the conflict has been driven primarily by splintering armed organizations fighting for control of lucrative resources including diamonds and wildlife.
Today, about 20 percent of CAR’s population is displaced from their homes, and vast stretches of the country remain beyond government control. Indeed, Touadéra said, the government gets no fiscal benefit from the country’s substantial mineral mining as it’s controlled by local warlords. Hopelessness prevails among the country’s largely unemployed youth. Institutions from the military to the courts are weak and largely ineffective, he said. Delivery of services such as healthcare and education barely exists.
The peace agreement, on the other hand, opens a way forward as the government begins to rebuild the state, Touadéra said.
Detailing the deal—and explaining why he believes it holds hope—Touadéra said all the signatories agreed on four principles: To respect the constitution; to respect CAR’s territorial integrity; to recognize the authority of state institutions; and to reject impunity for anyone who committed a war crime during the seven years of civil conflict.
USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who moderated the discussion with Touadéra, called balancing amnesty with demands for justice the “classic problem” in rebuilding post-conflict societies.
Truth and Reconciliation
Touadéra asserted that mechanisms for delivering justice were under development—a fact-finding commission, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a special court to handle conflict-related offenses. USIP Senior Advisor on Africa Johnnie Carson, who saluted Touadéra’s efforts in forging the February peace agreement, said its key shortcoming was the lack of representation by and for victims in the talks.
“We won’t abandon victims or the rights of victims,” Touadéra said. “The Bangui Forum, which is the basis of the constitution, had such consultations and they said, ‘No to amnesty.’”
But demobilizing the armed groups will require a demanding level of inclusion. When some elements complained that the February agreement left their interests underrepresented, another round of talks in March led to more leaders of the armed groups being brought into the government. Touadéra discussed the need for laws that would ensure “a decent life” for former “dignitaries” that would encourage them to leave office. Security sector reforms will incorporate plans for integrating vetted militia fighters into the national army.
U.S. assistance in CAR—aside from humanitarian efforts—is focused on improving justice and security, said Lucy Tamlyn, the U.S. ambassador as of January.
“In a sea of need, where do you start?” she asked. “We are training police and gendarmes, helping to rehabilitate court houses and police stations, providing uniforms and equipment and a lot of training to have these actors understand that they are servants of the people.”
Carson said that CAR exists in a “tough neighborhood,” surrounded by six countries, five of which are embroiled in internal conflicts of their own that can spill across the border. CAR should look for help in the wider world and the steps toward peace taken by Touadéra’s government are likely to create an incentive for major countries in the region and international and multilateral organizations, he said.
The activities in CAR of one country—Russia—have raised concerns among U.S. officials. A Russian is serving as Touadéra’s national security adviser and the Russians have obtained mining rights in the country. The New York Times reported on March 31 that Russia said in a statement last year that 175 instructors had trained more than 1,000 CAR soldiers, with the trainers believed by Pentagon officials to be employed by the Wagner Group, a private military force founded by a former Russian intelligence officer. The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement last year.
Asked if Russia was contributing to peace in CAR, Touadéra said “there is a role for everybody in the Central African Republic.” The country is eager for foreign investors, including certainly Americans, and the country’s laws set the terms, conditions and approval processes for investment, he said.
The Russian trainers came to CAR openly in conformance with U.N. sanctions, he said, adding that the arms embargo on CAR helps only the armed groups who obtain their weapons illegally. There is no ideological dimension to the relationship, he said; studies are underway on how the U.S. can further help the national army.
CAR should not be viewed through the lens of other disputes that the U.S. may have with Russia, Touadéra said. “We have an urgent need. Our people need peace and stability.”