By Nathalia Dukhan
The midterm report published last week by the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic (CAR) reveals that the security situation throughout CAR remains concerning. Despite noticeable security improvements following the electoral process in early 2016, an upsurge in violence starting from June 2016 in the capital, Bangui, and in rural areas indicate that the root causes of violence persist.
Persistent insecurity and illicit mining by armed groups
“Armed groups in Bangui maintain a strong, if not heightened capacity as spoilers” according to the report, and some groups have been able to expand their areas of control in rural areas.
Since January, armed groups and gunmen have been expanding their presence particularly in the eastern and northern regions of the country. The Panel report notes that ex-Seleka factions have been able “to maintain their fighting capacity through illicit arms trafficking from Sudan and DR Congo.” In their areas of control, parallel administration and security services have been put in place by local Seleka commanders. Mining activities have continued to attract militiamen “seeking to loot or establish parallel taxation systems around the mines.”
Despite a lower profile, local Anti-Balaka continue to destabilize communities, particularly in areas where they have pastoral interests. The report indicates that the “competition over racketeering (of pastoralists) is the source of much of the violence perpetrated not only by the Anti-balaka but also the former Seleka factions.” It reveals that economic predation remains a strong motive for violence.
In Bangui, tensions between government forces and a local militia led by Haroun Gaye and Abdoulaye Hissène based in the Muslim area of PK5 led to security incidents reported in June. According to the Panel, “these incidents demonstrated the fragility of current security arrangements and further illustrated armed groups in Bangui maintain a strong, if not heightened, capacity as spoilers and pose a serious challenge to the efforts by the government to promote security.”
A recent example strengthens the conclusions of the Panel. On August 13th, Hissène and 35 heavily armed militiamen forced their way out of Bangui to the north in a convoy of seven vehicles, exchanging fire with government forces. They were later stopped by MINUSCA near Sibut. Seven militiamen were arrested and transferred to Bangui but the leaders escaped, which sparked tensions between the government and MINUSCA. After a seizure at Hissène’s house in PK5, 700 weapons and accompanying ammunition were reportedly found. The convoy’s destination was likely Bria and Kaga-Bandoro where ex-Séléka factions have been recently gathering according to local media reports. On August 18th, Bloomberg then reported that ex-Seleka militias gave the government a two-day deadline to free the seven prisoners, or they would employ “robust actions” in areas under their control.
CAR’s remaining challenges: Remaining armed groups, Reconciliation, Recycling of elites, and the arms embargo
The Panel’s latest report points out some of the major challenges that CAR’s government is currently failing to address.
The failure to negotiate peace deals with armed groups: Despite attempts by the government to promote a dialogue with armed groups, efforts to reach a consensus have failed so far. For President Touadera, disarmament is a precondition for peace talks. But rebel groups, particularly ex-Seleka leaders, want an agreement from the government that their fighters will be integrated into military or government ranks before they agree to disarm. Ex-Seleka is also demanding stronger Muslim representation in political processes. Public declarations made by President Touadera and various political leaders of armed groups, which are published in annex of the UN Panel report, reveal fundamental disagreements between ex-Seleka leaders and the central government.
Lack of reconciliation and political inclusion: In its latest investigation, the Panel found “minimal inclusion of Muslims in the overall State administration” and said that the gap “represents a missed opportunity to send a strong signal of inclusion and reconciliation.” Despite repeated presidential discourses that have presented reconciliation as one of the top priorities, the Panel notes that current political and military elites have shown little interest in reconciliation with the Muslim minority, and still consider Muslims as “foreigners.” The Panel also reports that the marginalization of CAR’s northern and eastern provinces continues to fuel discontent among Ex-Seleka. In the southwest, despite “armed group activity [not affecting] diamond mining,” according to the Panel, “the freedom of movement of Muslim operators is being threatened owing to frequent assaults on returning refugees and internally displaced persons.”
The recycling of Bozize elites and favoritism of Anti-Balaka leaders: The Panel notes that there is a strong feeling that “President Touadera is recycling political elites from the Bozize era.” The report welcomes the fact that the “the President and the Prime Minister excluded armed group leaders from the executive branch of the government” but that government officials have given special treatment to Anti-Balaka militia. The Panel found that “some leaders, notably sanctioned individual Alfred Yekatom, also known as ‘Rombhot’, were elected to the National Assembly.” Last July, Maxime Mokom, a notorious Anti-balaka leader responsible for some of the 2015 violence in the country, was integrated by Ministerial decree in the national Police forces. The Panel also reports that “anti-balaka combatants who formerly served in the national security forces have, de facto, easier access to re-integration” mostly because they continue to be active in areas where State authority is being restored.
The arms embargo debate and lagging Security Sector Reform: The government has repeatedly called for the UN to lift its arms embargo on CAR, though the Panel points out, “it has not submitted a formal request to the Security Council.” Pushing for the lift, government officials have argued that the “embargo perpetuates an imbalance of forces between armed groups and State security forces because armed groups continue to benefit from illicit arms flows.” Lifting the arms embargo would be problematic, particularly considering the chronic abuses and corruption within the CAR National Armed Forces (FACA) and a lack of effective FACA reform to date.
After the October 2015 violence, transitional authorities called upon FACA soldiers to take up their weapons kept at home to quell violence. Reported to operate outside central FACA military command, these ‘irregular FACA units’ started to racket populations and commit abuses at unofficial checkpoints, including the killing of one peacekeeper. To date, these units have not been dismantled and the Panel notes that the structural lack of capacity to maintain and control FACA units in the field is a major challenge.
MINUSCA’s mandate includes assisting the CAR government to develop a security sector reform plan that allows for the integration of a limited number of ex-combatants into state security services. Integration would require an agreement between the government and the armed groups to define eligibility and set up an actual vetting procedure, which has until now not been in place. A process of verification of the FACA is ongoing but not all former FACA, particularly those among ex-Séléka factions or living in areas controlled by the ex-Séléka, have equal chances to register in Bangui. Meanwhile, the few that did register continue to operate in armed group ranks. For instance, among the MPC – one of the ex-Seleka faction – 14 combatants are registered and continue to be paid as members of FACA. The Panel mentions that one registered and verified member of FACA currently serves as Director General of the MPC gendarmerie in Kaga-Bandoro.
Justice and Reconciliation as one way out of the crisis
The Panel’s latest report reminds us that the government and the international community are failing to address the root causes of conflict in the Central African Republic. The lack of consensus between the central government (accused of recycling Bozize’s elites) and armed groups, particularly ex-Seleka factions, could lead them to reunify their forces by temporarily overcoming their rivalries (described by Panel reports since 2014). In order to defuse hostilities, the CAR government will need to seriously consider a change of strategy that should to include, in particular, ending impunity for atrocity crimes, and implementing a comprehensive reconciliation plan that prioritizes political inclusion.
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