In the Central African Republic, Verging on Peace or Back to War

This piece originally appeared in PassBlue.

This is a make-or-break moment for the Central African Republic. After years of conflict, a small window of opportunity is open to make real progress toward peace. The United Nations peacekeeping mission’s mandate is being renewed by the Security Council by Nov. 15. Soon after, the final round of the African Union-led peace negotiations is scheduled to occur.

If all the relevant players can make coordinated investments in the peacekeeping mission, the talks and the humanitarian-relief effort, progress can be sustained.

For many people across the world, this small, French-speaking country is relatively unknown. It has been in turmoil since a civil war erupted in 2013 and lasted technically for a year. Armed groups committed unspeakable crimes and used religion to stoke conflict among communities. Vicious cycles of revenge attacks caused the country to collapse, forcing more than a million people to flee their homes. In 2013, the French military intervened to stop the worst bloodshed. The next year, the UN deployed the peacekeeping mission, known as Minusca.

Is the situation still dire? Yes.

Five years on, violence continues to ebb and flow, and the country’s humanitarian crisis has deepened. A semblance of state authority has been re-established in the capital, Bangui, but local armed groups control much of the rest of the country. The risk of mass atrocities has risen, as attacks on humanitarians have, too. Approximately 621,000 Central Africans are internally displaced, and 573,000 citizens have sought refuge in neighboring countries. The UN estimates that more than 60 percent of the country’s 4.6 million people need humanitarian help, a 16 percent increase since last year.

Despite this bleak picture, there have been improvements. In recent months, 14 main armed groups and the government have participated in the African Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic, an African Union-led peace process involving many regional nations. Russia and Sudan, however, have hosted competing negotiations — to the consternation of France, which has had a long presence in the Central African Republic — and a strong possibility exists that the latter talks could undermine the African Union process.

But Minusca forces have brokered peace agreements locally, reducing violence in some areas. Central Africans need better progress, of course. By taking these three key steps, the international community can improve conditions on the ground:

First, before the next round of African Union peace talks at the end of the year, the major regional and international leaders must publicly support the African Initiative and ensure that all players in the country support it as well. It is crucial for all parties to lean on President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to back this process and not take part in parallel negotiations.

Second, the Security Council should amend Minusca’s role in four important areas in renewing its mandate:

  • Expand the mission’s activities in brokering peace beyond the local level and give it a formal place in supporting the African Initiative;

  • Call for the appointment of a joint UN-AU envoy to bring both institutions closer as they work toward establishing peace;

  • Strengthen the mission’s abilities to increase humanitarian access beyond stabilized areas;

  • Bolster its abilities to keep the protection of civilians at the core of its work.

Third, the UN should organize another donor conference for the Central African Republic. This week marks the second anniversary of the last donor conference, hosted by the European Commission. A follow-up event should provide funding for both humanitarian and recovery programs in areas of the country that are stabilizing. Without flexible funding, hard-won gains could slip away.

The Security Council, the Central African government and international donors must move quickly to take advantage of this small window of opportunity. If they don’t, the country’s fragile progress could prove ephemeral and it could relapse into war.