Deep in the center of forgotten Africa, the Central African Republic has fallen victim yet again to escalating violence. Since the weekend, following the death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver, more than 40 people have been murdered and 100 injured in retaliatory attacks. In the capital Bangui, more than 40,000 people have been displaced.
As officials warn of a possible return to extreme violence, overthrow of the interim president Catherine Samba-Panza, or even complete descent into civil war, many speculate as to what is the next step for CAR.
“I don’t think one can overestimate the risk of this getting worse,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said at a Geneva conference. Elections scheduled for October 18th have been postponed. The international community has stressed that elections must take place before the end of the year but many national leaders have expressed concern that this may be too soon. At this precarious time, what is most needed and most absent is international commitment.
The conflict in CAR has a long history. Since independence from France in 1960, chronic instability has been one of the few constants of life in CAR. A combination of an extremely weak economy, state failure and corrupt political elites who use resources to buy loyalty of the army has led to years of increasingly sectarian conflict over power and resources. On top of that, ethnicity and religion have been politicized and rebel groups run free in large areas of uncontrolled wilderness. Every few years, a violent crisis emerges, calling limited international attention again to the small nation.
The most recent of these crises came in 2013 when a coalition of mostly Muslim rebel militias called Séléka from the northeast of the country seized the government to address political grievances. Local Christian militias called the anti-balaka, attacked Muslims around the country in retaliation, leading to massive displacements and loss of life. The violence continued sporadically through 2014, but began to fade in intensity. And as the violence faded, so did CAR from the international agenda. Until this week.
Between long term governance failures and short term crises, little has been done to address the root causes of strife. International organizations are hesitant to invest in long term development projects in such a volatile and geopolitically insignificant country. Rather, the international community has tended towards short term fixes, sending troops to prevent further fighting and providing vital services like food and health care.
But what the people of CAR desperately need is long term commitment and a focus on governance reforms to create a more transparent, accountable state.
In the face of current violence, the international community has continued to push for elections. Though currently postponed, France and the UN would prefer delays be kept to a minimum, hoping to hold them before the end of the year. But, as the International Crisis Group has elaborated on in their recent report, without proper disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), elections could risk further exacerbating tensions.
DDR is a common recommendation for stabilization operations, aiming to reduce arms circulating in society, remove combatants from military structures and reintegrate militia forces back into civilian life. These processes are especially important in a context like CAR’s in which militia groups are plentiful and armed coups are the most common form of regime change. Out of the four democratic elections that CAR has had since independence, only one has resulted in the peaceful transfer of power.
And so as CAR struggles to quell the most recent surge of violence, the international community must demonstrate its commitment to a long lasting peace. Short term responses to the crisis are absolutely vital but those responses should be paired with longer term actions. This means more time on the ground, more commitment to peacebuilding and institutional reform.
Written by Zoe Hamilton