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Behind the Headlines: Drivers of Violence in the Central African Republic

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Behind the Headlines: Drivers of Violence in the Central African Republic

Posted by Kasper Agger on May 1, 2014

Behind the Headlines: Drivers of Violence in the Central African Republic

The situation in the Central African Republic, or CAR, remains chaotic and violent with public lynchings and daily attacks terrorizing civilians across the country. The United Nations estimates that more than 1 million people—roughly one-quarter of the total population—have been displaced or fled the country.1 Thousands of people have been killed—at least 2,000 since December alone, although no one knows the exact figure, which is likely much higher.2 Despite having the largest number of peacekeepers ever deployed to the country, the violence in CAR continues unabated. At least 60 people were killed in the capital city of Bangui over a period of just 10 days in March.3

Armed groups in CAR are financing their activities in part with significant revenues from natural resources and looting. When the Séléka rebel alliance captured the capital in March 2013, heavily armed and well-trained wildlife poachers and mercenary fighters from Chad and Sudan—some of whom were members of the Sudanese government-supported Janjaweed militia—backed the group. Séléka rebels and foreign fighters have been plundering, looting, and smuggling diamonds and ivory to pay for arms, fuel, food, and soldiers. Meanwhile, Anti-Balaka militias have been looting and killing in Muslim communities and have taken control of diamond-rich areas in the western part of CAR.

Séléka forces used violence and threats against local populations in CAR to extract diamond revenues through forced mining, theft, and cheap purchases from local traders. The diamonds were then sold to local traders or taken out of the country and sold to intermediaries, mainly in South Darfur, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. CAR was suspended in May 2013 from the Kimberley Process, an international certification mechanism designed to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the international market.4 However, the diamond trade has continued in CAR and conflict diamonds are likely entering markets abroad.

Other countries have pursued political and economic interests that have exacerbated violence in CAR and destabilized the country. Neighboring Chad and Sudan provided support to the Séléka with the goal of installing a cooperative government that could help protect Chadian oil interests and prevent CAR from becoming a safe haven for rebels that could potentially destabilize the two countries. South Africa deployed up to 400 soldiers to protect South African investments in the oil and diamond sectors when former President François Bozizé was in office.5 South African soldiers fought to protect the Bozizé government when Séléka fighters attacked Bangui, leading to the death of 13 South African soldiers.6 The Chadian and French governments, which also sent soldiers to CAR, did not intervene to save President Bozizé, as they had done previously in his decade-long rule. They helped him to capture power in 2003 but gradually withdrew support when he favored South Africa and China for trade and military cooperation arrangements.7 Bozizé’s shift, and that of France and Chad, helped enable Séléka forces to capture power.

Bringing an end to the violence in CAR is no easy task. The National Transitional Council and Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, who has been in office since January, struggle to drive the political process toward elections, planned for 2015,8 while armed Anti-Balaka and Séléka groups continue to fight each other and kill civilians. Most of these groups operate without significant central command and have taken control of villages and rural areas across the country. This complicates any national peace process, since CAR’s leaders are largely unable to exercise direct control of numerous local armed groups. The peacekeeping mission slated for deployment in September—the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, or MINUSCA—is a welcome step and should play an important role to deter and arrest armed groups that undermine the peace process. Some of the recently announced $176 million in aid from international donors to the CAR government9 should be used to strengthen the state administration and rebuild the justice system, which is largely dysfunctional. The appointment of Ambassador W. Stuart Symington as the U.S. Special Representative for CAR will add momentum to diplomatic efforts.10

We recommend the international community build on these security and state building efforts and take the following steps to support a peace process, expand diplomatic engagement, and promote accountability for those most responsible for the violence and for economic criminal activity.

  • The United Nations should deploy experienced mediators to work with a diverse group of CAR leaders to spur a bottom-up peace process for CAR. The decentralized nature of the conflict in CAR and the lack of a central command of the armed groups require a bottom-up peace approach that tackles each individual armed group through local negotiations. Such a bottom-up process should include local dialogues across the country and a national peace conference. Top-down negotiations between elites in Bangui fall short of breaking the political deadlock and ending the violence; those leaders are simply not able to control the myriad armed groups. Dialogues should prominently feature the voices of civil society actors, including women, traditional leaders, religious figures, youth, and armed groups. Moreover, the United Nations should work with CAR leaders to ensure that recommendations from the bottom-up peace process and its participants are made an integral part of CAR’s transitional political process.
  • The United Nations, European Union, and/or bilateral donors should fund international advisors to support the National Transitional Council and the interim government in CAR. Immediate support is needed to strengthen the capacity of the transitional government to deliver basic state services such as functional hospitals, schools, police, judges, tax collection, and general state administration. The strategic placement of international advisors working together with civil servants and political leaders in CAR could help increase the capacity of the state when used in combination with financial aid from international donors.
  • The United Nations and international donors—such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and European Union—should work closely with the leaders of the CAR transition to rebuild the justice system and prosecute those most responsible for the violence. Such prosecutions and investigations should include the illicit wildlife and natural resource trade that helped fund the Séléka and Anti-Balaka, including support to armed groups from neighboring countries.
  • The International Criminal Court, or ICC, should accelerate cases against those most responsible for the violence in CAR, including those involved in economic criminal activity.
  • The U.N. Panel of Experts on CAR and the U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry on CAR should investigate and document economic criminal activity and coordinate their efforts. The panel investigates illicit trade, while the Commission of Inquiry investigates violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Panel of Experts should investigate and recommend targeted sanctions for those most involved in the illicit trade of natural resources. The Commission of Inquiry should investigate international human rights and humanitarian crimes that are associated with looting and pillage, including sexual violence.
  • The AU Peace and Security Council should appoint a special envoy to address transnational security and economic matters that involve CAR, Sudan, and Chad. The marginalized and underdeveloped border region between Chad, CAR, and Sudan has been a source of instability in Central Africa for decades. Shifting regional alliances, rebel groups, smuggling syndicates, and mercenary networks have the ability to threaten regional stability. The AU special envoy should work with the U.S. special representative and heads of state to identify a common policy approach to the tri-border region and develop measures to prevent the governments of CAR, Sudan, and Chad from meddling in the sovereign affairs of their neighbors.
  • The African Union and United Nations should mediate negotiations between the governments of Chad and CAR on a bilateral agreement for the exploration of the cross-border oilfields between the two states. Chad is extracting oil from cross-border oilfields along the border with CAR, which may be depleting the oil revenues accessible to CAR in the future. Typically, such disputes are handled in bilateral talks, but given CAR’s weakness, a mediated dialogue is necessary. An agreement that is developed transparently and with international oversight could ensure that the governments and people of both Chad and CAR benefit from the oil wealth.
  • The United States and China should urge the Kimberley Process to send review missions to the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, and India for investigation into the smuggling of conflict diamonds from CAR. CAR has been suspended from the Kimberley Process, or KP, since May 2013 because of the military coup and the danger of conflict diamonds. Rebel groups in CAR, however, continue to mine and trade conflict diamonds, which are then likely to enter the international diamond trade through the neighboring countries of Cameroon, the DRC, and Sudan. From here, the diamonds go to the main international trading centers for diamonds: Dubai, Antwerp, and India. Review missions and investigations are needed to tighten controls in the trading centers, halt this illegal trade, and identify individuals and companies against whom the United States and the United Nations could issue targeted sanctions.
  • The U.S. government should, if security allows, reopen the embassy in Bangui. The U.S. Embassy in Bangui is important to support U.S. Special Representative Symington's peacemaking efforts, monitor the drivers of violence, communicate early warnings. Moreover, it is in the national interest of the United States to prevent CAR from becoming a safe haven or recruitment zone for rebel groups and terrorist networks that can further destabilize an already volatile part of Africa.

Read the full PDF of the report here.