Early September 2019, for at least the second time this year, the Mouvement des libérateurs centrafricains pour la justice (MLCJ) and the Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) faced off in the town of Birao in the northern Central African Republic (CAR). Both groups had signed the 6 February peace agreement and the head of the MLCJ, Gilbert Toumou Deya, is now a cabinet member in charge of relations with armed groups, according to the agreement.
Clearly, six months after the peace deal was concluded between the government of the CAR and 14 armed groups, several serious challenges continue to affect the stability of the country and could cause the collapse of the peace agreement.
The upcoming presidential and legislative elections, scheduled to take place in December 2020, could also lead to further instability, as opposition leaders and parties are already gearing up to face off with incumbent President Faustin-Archange Touadera. There are fears that a breakdown of the peace agreement, in this context, will reverse the progress made so far in stabilising the country.
The African Union (AU), as guarantor of the 6 February agreement, should implement the clauses that sanction spoilers and make sure that those armed groups still on board remain compliant.
Challenges to the peace agreement
Since February 2019 dozens of violations of the peace agreement have taken place each week. Following negotiations in Addis Ababa in March, Sidiki Abass (also known as Bi Sidi Souleymane), leader of Retour Réconciliation Réhabilitation (3R), was appointed military advisor to Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada. He was put in charge of the mixed special security unit – composed of government forces and armed group members – in the Ouham Pendé region, which his group already controlled. This was part of the AU’s attempt to iron out differences over the post-Khartoum national unity government and salvage the February peace agreement.
However, the 3R group was subsequently responsible for the massacre of 46 civilians in Paoua, Ouham Pendé in May 2019.
Two other rebel leaders, Ali Darassa and Mahamat Al Khatim, had entered the government at the same time as Abass. Both were also made military advisers in charge of mixed special security units, also in areas they controlled before their appointments. The decision to appoint rebel leaders to lead regions already under their control was bound to create challenges for the peace agreement.
Subsequently both Abass and Al Khatim resigned from the government over unclear roles and differences with the prime minister. This means they have officially reneged on the February peace deal and gone back to the bush.
Meanwhile, on 30 July 2019 another rebel leader, Abdoulaye Miskine, called on Touadera to resign, short of which he would be ‘removed by all means necessary’. Miskine had also been a signatory to the Khartoum peace agreement and was appointed to the government, but declined to take up the position, although his group is represented in cabinet. Miskine has now formed an alliance with the Parti du Rassemblement de la Nation Centrafricaine, a rebel group created in June 2019.
This raises questions about the commitment of armed groups to implement the peace agreement they signed. The opportunity they have been given to remain in charge of areas they already controlled has clearly shown its drawbacks. This decision has helped to preserve the prevailing power balance and has failed to create strong incentives for armed groups to fully commit to the implementation of the agreement, while legitimising their control over those areas.
Compounding the above challenges, the United Nations Panel of Experts on the CAR reports that weapons are still flowing into the country. Several armed groups have shown reluctance to comply with the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, scheduled to end in January 2020.
The tri-border area – between Chad, Sudan and the CAR – has always been a hotbed of various kinds of trafficking and has fuelled instability in all three countries. The current instability in Sudan and the situation in Chad contribute to fragility in the CAR.
CAR’s internal politics and external actors
Meanwhile the CAR also has to contend with a proxy battle between Russia and France.
Historically a preserve of France, the CAR authorities have built strong ties with Russia since 2017. The Russian presence and France’s pushback are creating unnecessary distractions and are likely to intensify, especially in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
In October 2018 then Speaker of the National Assembly Abdul Karim Meckassoua was removed from office, allegedly due to Russian interference. Meckassoua has benefited from the support of Western countries, particularly France, where he is a regular visitor. He intends to appeal to the constitutional court to overturn the decision that dismissed him.
In addition, France also supports the CAR government in its quest to set up army barracks in strategic areas of the country to cover and protect the entire territory, especially high-risk areas. This while Russian, French and European Union programmes have been providing training to different contingents of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA).
Another political complication in the run-up to 2020 is that, at the end of May 2019, civil society and opposition parties set up a platform called the ‘United Front for the Defence of the Nation’ or E Zingo Biani. It blames the government for appointing armed group leaders to government in what it calls a bad compromise.
E Zingo Biani places itself in radical opposition to Touadera’s rule, which is bound to contribute to a tense political climate. In the past violence has erupted before elections to prevent them from taking place or to highlight the government’s incapacity to stem insecurity.
Too many diverging interests, both among Central African leaders themselves and among external powers, make the Central African quagmire even more intractable.
Using existing tools and reviewing current approaches
The AU, with its partners, should now trigger the clauses in the agreement that hold spoilers accountable. All hands must be on deck to keep those armed groups that are still abiding by the agreement compliant.
The guarantors and partners should also review the implementation of the agreement and the very real challenges it has faced thus far. One possibility is reversing the balance of power, which remains overwhelmingly favourable to armed groups. They should also look at whether mixed special security units are appropriate in the current context and what strong coercive and mitigating measures can be taken against spoilers. All of this must be done within a clear timeframe.
The AU also has to ensure it is responsive to the demands of its role as guarantor, including ensuring the timely allocation of resources to implement and monitor the agreement.
The diverging interests of external powers and those within the CAR domestically, as well as the instability in neighbouring Sudan and Chad, will continue to pose a major challenge to peace and stability in the country.