Central African Republic (CAR) is often condemned in the media to the now familiar stereotype of the “war-torn African nation.” Since a coup in 2013, the country has indeed been embroiled in an ongoing conflict set to the backdrop of state breakdown. But in December 2015, CAR made the headlines for two new, more positive reasons.
To start, Pope Francis visited. It was his first visit to an active war zone, spreading a message of peace and national unity across a religious divide that had come to define dimensions of the conflict. To the surprise of many, it went well. Second, in late December, CAR held its first national elections since the crisis broke out and did so peacefully.
Leading up to these events, the general outlook was pessimistic. A growing sense of stability over the course of 2015 was lost to a resurgence of violence in September. After a young motorcycle taxi driver was killed, retaliatory attacks shook the capital of Bangui, killing at least 79 people and injuring 512. The United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in CAR (MUNISCA) were accused of responding too slowly, and inadequately.
The arrival of the Pope to this hostile environment on November 29, was viewed with disbelief. Not only was he visiting an open conflict zone but he went to the neighborhood of PK5 in Bangui, where the city’s remaining Muslims were based and where much of the violence has been concentrated. He refused to wear a bullet proof vest as he rode into the neighborhood in an open popemobile to meet with the Imam of Bangui.
In the face of great personal danger, greater skepticism and grave warnings, he succeeded in spreading a message of peace. Due to his visit, for the first time in months, 15,000 Muslims, who had previously been isolated from the rest of the city, were able to trade and travel freely outside of PK5. Muslims and Christians alike welcomed the Pope and embraced his message of peace. It was an undeniable success. The legacy of his visit was palpable as the city went into election season in December with a sense of optimism for the first time in months.
A constitutional referendum was held on December 13 to pass the proposed new constitution ahead of national elections held on December 27. On referendum day, violence broke out in PK5, leaving 2 dead and 25 injured from gun wounds. Despite this tragedy, the new constitution was passed with a 90% approval rate and a renewed determination to bring peace to CAR.
The rebels may have alienated their support base with the violence during the referendum. They remained silent on election day: no shots were fired. The elections were considered a great success especially in light of the shaky foundations this peace was built on and the all too recent violence. An astounding 72% of eligible voters participated. As the country prepares for the second round of voting on January 31, one cannot help but hope that CAR’s next leader will guide the country out of conflict, and that the Pope’s message will stick.