CAR attempts democracy and justice amid violent chaos

The turbulence in the Central African Republic raises questions about the timing of institutional reform.

The arrangements to transition the turbulent Central African Republic (CAR) to normality could be described as the triumph of naive hope over brutal reality. Attempts to administer justice and hold elections in that country are certainly heroic. But they do raise important questions about the sequencing of reforms.

On 16 February the trial of Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the CAR opened at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

This was the first trial before the ICC for crimes of the anti-balaka. After Muslim Séléka leaders ousted president François Bozizé in 2013, the anti-balaka Christian militias retaliated in what became a brutal tit-for-tat war, killing many civilians. On 24 January, the CAR government transferred the first Séléka suspect, Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, to the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Bangui in 2013.

Elise Keppler, Associate International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch, hails these trials as milestones of justice in the CAR. ‘A justice void has fuelled repeated violence in the Central African Republic, with a new wave of attacks in just the past two months. Fair, credible trials of atrocities are key for the country to break these cycles.’

The ICC case is weak because it’s hard to gather evidence when armed groups control much of CAR

Yet will these cases – or any prosecutions for such crimes – really break the CAR’s cycle of violence, given the chaos in the country? The CAR largely remains a battleground despite a peace agreement with armed groups and even an election on 24 December.

Allan Ngari, Regional Organised Crime Observatory coordinator for West Africa at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) ENACT project, is doubtful. He believes the cases will probably lead to acquittals as the evidence linking the accused to the crimes is weak, ‘because the Office of the Prosecutor has been unable to get to those ungoverned spaces to get the right evidence.’ And that’s because armed groups still control much of CAR territory.

And administering justice is even harder for the CAR’s own under-resourced Special Court. The court was created in the previous peace agreement in 2015 to try atrocities committed before 2013, when the civil war that erupted after Bozizé’s ousting ended. Ngari notes that investigations have supposedly been completed in eight cases and prosecutions should be launched.

But the cases don’t seem to be starting. And, like the ICC, this hybrid court cannot gather evidence on crimes outside Bangui and Bambari unless investigators are escorted by soldiers of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA)

For Ngari the CAR raises starkly the familiar debate about the sequencing of peace and justice. The problem, he believes, is not so much a question of which comes first, but of having the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. So in both the CAR and South Sudan he notes that the peace brokers decided to implement peace agreements before embarking on transitional justice.

Peace brokers should rethink the linear peace–justice process and be more prepared to adapt it

‘But that seems to be falling apart, because as soon as you have set up those transitional justice mechanisms, there is a recurrence of violence. New armed groups are formed, or the same groups start fighting with the government. So then the whole question of sequencing, let’s do peace and then justice, is thrown out the window.’

So Ngari believes the peace brokers, in the African Union (AU) and elsewhere, need to rethink this linear process and be more prepared to adapt it. They could write into peace agreements that if violence recurs, the establishment of institutions will be postponed.

This applies not only to institutions and processes of transitional justice, but to other others, like elections. He notes that the AU stipulates that election commissions must be fair and independent and so on. But how can an election commission carry out its mandate if it’s impeded, and how can it ensure elections are conducted properly in ungoverned spaces where there’s conflict?

The CAR perfectly illustrates that dilemma. On 27 December it held a presidential election and the first round of legislative elections, despite considerable violence in large parts of the country. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra was officially re-elected.

On 24 January, armed groups – who had signed a peace agreement with the government in February 2019 – laid siege to the capital Bangui. It was only the intervention of external forces that partly lifted it.

Are meaningful elections or justice humanly practicable in the midst of violence and instability?

The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) congratulated all concerned for the ‘successful conduct of elections’ and for their ‘quest to deepen and strengthen democracy.’ But were the elections really successful? Did they deepen and strengthen democracy?

As Mohamed Diatta, Researcher with the ISS points out, the electoral commission announced a voter turnout of 76%, but the Constitutional Court corrected this to only 32%. For the national assembly, the court could validate the elections in only 22 seats – it was unable to do so in another 58 seats. Elections in the remaining 60 seats simply didn’t happen. A second round of elections is planned for 14 March to fill these gaps.

But as Diatta observes, the disruptions and low turnout – or no turnout in many constituencies – have inevitably impaired Touadéra’s legitimacy as well as that of the national assembly. Especially as Diatta doubts the rerun will happen, at least not in all constituencies. ‘Both the armed groups and the political opposition will use this to their advantage in their dealings with the government,’ he says.

Diatta believes the CAR was nevertheless right to press ahead with the polls. For Touadéra to have extended his term of office without an election would have been even more damaging to his legitimacy and the country’s peace and stability.

The fault wasn’t in holding the elections, but in how they were held, he argues. He says the organisers should have picked up the obvious signals that the February 2019 peace accord signed with 14 armed rebel groups wouldn’t hold – and should have taken pre-emptive steps.

Yet big questions remain about whether meaningful elections or justice are humanly practicable in the midst of such violence and instability.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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