Presidential and legislative elections loom large in the Central African Republic (CAR) amid high tension and spikes in violence. CAR’s religious leaders have been on the frontlines of efforts to calm tensions ahead of polls opening on December 27. From religious leaders in the capital to those at the grass roots, they have made their voices and positions clear. The question, therefore, is not if religious leaders are crucial actors in conflict stabilization and peace efforts in CAR: They already are. Rather, policymakers and practitioners should be unpacking these leaders’ experiences—past and present—and asking how to strengthen their role as peacebuilding partners in the immediate post-electoral context and longer-term.

Muslim men, displaced by violence in rural areas, prepare for a wedding in a camp in the community of Bambari, Central African Republic, April 24, 2019. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)
Muslim men, displaced by violence in rural areas, prepare for a wedding in a camp in the community of Bambari, Central African Republic, April 24, 2019. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

There are significant challenges facing CAR’s religious leaders in a country where peace can seem elusive. After all, it was almost two years ago that the government and 14 recognized armed groups signed a peace agreement in February 2019. Yet, instability remains far too prevalent. Armed groups control a majority of the country’s territory and some have used the election period to forge new alliances as well as consolidate and expand their territory. Some also disrupted the electoral registration process, using violence and intimidation. As a further escalation in recent days, several of CAR’s existing armed groups created a new coalition in a show of collective force against the incumbent regime.

The return of ousted former President François Bozizé in December 2019 after over six years in exile also increased tensions. So, too, did his announcement in July, declaring his bid for the presidency. CAR’s constitutional court rejected his candidacy on December 4, however, citing several reasons including the U.N. Security Council sanctions against him and a 2013 international arrest warrant issued for him for alleged crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide in CAR. The invalidation of his candidacy has done little to reduce his destabilizing influence for one key reason. Although he is a deeply divisive figure, he has broad popular support among his ethnic group as well as with current and former military officers and political elites. As he continues to rally his supporters, it’s clear he seeks power by other means.

Where does the strength of CAR’s religious leaders lie in the face of this daunting conflict landscape?

The answer lies largely in their ability to calm tensions at and across multiple levels of society, among elites and locally. This is essential as CAR politics and conflict dynamics are increasingly localized.

Religious Leaders and the CAR Conflict

As the official leaders of faith communities—who are often formally trained, male clerics such as priests, pastors, and imams—they have strong ties to Central Africans throughout CAR. A majority of the population is Protestant, approximately 28 percent Catholic, and Muslims make up an estimated 9-15 percent. Yet, religious leaders also acknowledge their influence can fluctuate. For example, there can be a disconnect between higher-level leaders and their communities, particularly as they engage in national efforts to calm tensions.

Such national efforts in CAR have been largely conducted through the Interfaith Religious Platform. CAR’s three most senior religious leaders established the platform officially in 2016, motivated by the ongoing conflict and the need to reconcile Christians and Muslims. The platform has been recognized by international partners for its peacebuilding efforts in CAR but also faced critiques domestically for its international ties. Specifically, as ties deepened between international actors working to stabilize CAR and these three leaders, they faced criticism from their communities for being too political as well as profiting from the conflict. These dynamics have undermined the platform’s local legitimacy and raise concerns about its ability to act during the tense electoral period and beyond.

Nationally, however, Cardinal Nzapalainga and Pastor Guérékoyaméné—two of the platform’s founders—continue to have significant authority among CAR’s political elites, which they have used to appeal for calm. On November 30, after meeting incumbent President Touadéra and then Bozizé, the Cardinal used his authority to speak publicly. In a small step forward, Bozizé announced that he accepted the court's decision to invalidate his candidacy. However, offering his support and his party's significant voter turnout abilities to any single candidate the opposition can unite behind suggests he still seeks power, as do his alleged ties to the new armed coalition.

By denouncing the hateful rhetoric from all sides and their supporters and calling for calm, the cardinal reinforced the Catholic church’s independence from the political sphere. This, along with the cardinal and other national leaders’ convening powers and emphasis on dialogue, underscore they must have a seat at any post-election mediation table.

Religious Leaders: Turning to the Local

Local religious leaders are on the frontlines in a different way for one key reason. Unlike national faith leaders, local priests, pastors, and imams live among CAR’s armed groups. From this position they play a careful, often overlooked, but ongoing role in managing CAR’s increasingly local patchwork of conflicts, as main mediators and parties to local peace and stabilization processes. These processes include local peace and security dialogues, brokering freedom of movement agreements, and intercommunity mediation and reconciliation agreements. For example, under the local interfaith platform in CAR’s southwest, religious leaders act as main mediators among opposing armed groups in the area and in continued dialogue between ethnic communities, particularly farmers and herders, to manage fluctuating tensions.

Where armed groups share a religious identity, local religious leaders often prefer to work discreetly with other leaders of the same faith. For example, imams met repeatedly with representatives of rival armed groups during recent hostilities in CAR’s northeast to hash out these groups’ grievances through dialogue and reach a consensus on how to avert ongoing violence. A form of reconciliation agreement was agreed based on reparations collected among local traders and shared to mitigate acts of vengeance by opposing ethnic groups. In the northeast prefecture of Vakaga, religious leaders were among the main mediators and parties to peace and security processes in 2018 and 2019, including dialogue between rival ethnic communities and between armed groups, facilitating small-scale successes around the cessation of hostilities, de-escalating ethnic tensions, and freedom of movement.

What is the key to their access and successes? Local religious leaders know the best fora to use and their appeals are typically less confrontational, as they manage local conflict through communication and ties with these groups in the form of interpersonal relationships or in informal settings. These are not reasons to underestimate their actions but rather highlight the complex and ambivalent role local religious leaders occupy in peace and conflict. International actors should continue to monitor these local agreements more actively, documenting their potential to address drivers of conflict, and drawing insights to strengthen overall dialogue and peace efforts.

Post-election and Beyond: Involving CAR’s Religious Leaders

CAR’s religious leaders have unique access in conflict stabilization and peacebuilding through their significant local authority and trust in comparison to political actors. They are important and constant interlocuters in managing tensions and mediating across CAR’s complex security environment. Understanding these leaders’ diverse perspectives and interests also helps to clarify that although they have unique peacebuilding abilities, they also have existing divisions like other social groups in conflict contexts. This understanding can prevent international peacebuilding efforts from exacerbating existing divisions among these leaders or leaving out potential spoilers. Finally, involving religious leaders more effectively, including to manage likely post-election instability and tension, should be done in creative ways, including a range of fora and with an eye to tailored, inclusive, approaches that recognize their existing local expertise in how to engage armed groups and bring communities together. 

Laura Collins is a Ph.D. candidate at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and was a 2019-20 USIP-Minerva peace and security scholar. Her dissertation, "Guns and Prayers: Religious Organizations and Wartime Violence in the Central African Republic," leverages data gathered throughout CAR to examine how religious organizations operate in war to shape non-state armed violence against civilians.

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