This piece was originally published in the Fair Observer.
Central Africans have good reason to be skeptical about the peace process.
This week will start the next, and possibly final, round of an African Union-led peace dialogue on the Central African Republic (CAR) held in Khartoum. The talks will bring together the CAR government of the 14 armed groups that collectively control the vast majority of the country. This offers an important opportunity for CAR to begin the long, hard road to peace. A lot could go wrong, and stakes are high with millions of civilian lives hanging in the balance. But failure is avoidable if the negotiating parties are patient and stop repeating past mistakes.
Central Africans have good reason to be skeptical about the peace process. The CAR has leaped from conflict to conflict since its independence in 1960 and botched countless peace accords. Such deals often ignored tough socioeconomic issues, political marginalization and weak governance. In the past, these mistakes were only magnified by the focus on demobilizing armed groups, which should have been accompanied by the inclusion of influential leaders in national decision-making.
The country has paid a high price for these failures. Since the last civil war in 2013-14, over 80% of the land in the Central African Republic has been controlled by a myriad of armed groups who pillage and slaughter with impunity. A quarter of the small country’s population has been displaced by the violence — the highest number since the peak of the civil war. The UN estimates that 2.9 million of the country’s 4.6 million citizens need humanitarian aid.
In late 2017, the African Union launched the peace process, known as the African Initiative, to broker an agreement between the armed groups and the CAR government. These militias dragged their feet on setting a date for the next round of negotiations. In the meantime, they became richer and more powerful. They also committed more attacks — on civilians, on aid workers and on the United Nations Peacekeeping force. During my time in the CAR in the fall of last year, three densely populated displacement camps were set ablaze, and hundreds of their inhabitants injured and killed. Finally, last week, in a welcomed breakthrough, Central African Republic’s president, Faustin Archange Touadera, announced that talks would resume in Sudan on January 24. But those at the negotiating table must take steps to ensure that the talks are meaningful.
First, if real progress is to be made at the table in Khartoum, there can only be one peace process. Last August, Sudan and Russia held competing peace negotiations. This process undermined the AU’s work to advance national reconciliation. Moreover, Sudan has been an active participant in CAR’s history of violence and has provided weapons to armed groups in the country over the years.
The decision to hold the next round of African Initiative talks in Sudan may well be a move to appease Russia and Sudan in order for them to back the AU process. But there is still a very real danger that Sudan, as the host, may seek to meddle in the talks to further its own agenda. The same goes for Russia, which has provided defense advisers to the CAR’s forces, reportedly in return for mineral concessions. The African Union’s commissioner for peace and security, Ambassador Smail Chergui, and coordinator of the African Initiative’s Panel of Facilitators, Professor Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt, must assert their authority to lead the discussion. And they must be backed by other key regional and international stakeholders like Chad, Cameroon, the United States and France.
Secondly, for its part, the Central African government must be more proactive. It should demand that armed groups cease their attacks on civilians and guarantee humanitarian access. And none of the parties should expect that negotiations will simply lead to a ceremony in which amnesty is granted to armed groups. Several critical issues need to be addressed before amnesty is even considered.
Third, participants and mediators must set realistic expectations and avoid rushing the process. Patience to build a credible and sustainable process is crucial. The commitments generated should not be overly ambitious. This dialogue should be used as a platform to show good faith and culminate with an agreement on basic principles. Technical working groups should be established to design and implement solutions. Those working on the African Initiative signaled to me that many issues have been sources of significant contention in past negotiations. The failure to address them has set the stage for a return to conflict. To be successful, the working groups must be staffed by outside experts with the knowledge and experience to help the parties and mediators.
This expertise will be vital to create a peace-building agenda that includes demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programs for armed groups, building social cohesion between communities and determining a process of transitional justice that permits populations to voice and document their grievances. While armed groups may request amnesty, the Central African population has made it clear that justice is needed to heal from the vicious cycles of violence.
When the country eventually stabilizes, displaced populations — refugees and internally displaced alike — will want to return home. This process should be supported by the appropriate technical assistance needed to ensure their dignified return and address housing, land and property law issues for those whose homes have been damaged or occupied. Lastly, transhumance access — the seasonal routes used by cattle herders throughout the country and into neighboring lands — will necessitate careful negotiation. This will also require the involvement of officials from Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan.
The AU and Central African officials should move quickly to mobilize the necessary expertise. The Central African minister of humanitarian action and national reconciliation, Virginie Baïkoua, must seek and request the assistance of experts. Local civil society groups are being excluded from this round of talks; they should be called on to contribute their invaluable expertise to the thematic working groups and to the implementation of agreements reached.
Additionally, some of the technical expertise can be provided by the UN Peacekeeping force. The mission’s mandate was amended late last year to allow it to play a supporting role to the African Initiative. Since its arrival in 2014, peacekeepers have worked to address intercommunal tensions at the local level. Their efforts to decrease violence and demobilize armed groups have been less visible but successful. While this new role is a welcome step, peacekeepers must not let their work on local peace efforts fall by the wayside.
Peace and reconciliation in the Central African Republic will take patience, difficult bargaining, well-thought-out plans and diligent implementation. Rushing the process or repeating mistakes of the past will only lead to more violence. The people of the Central African Republic have long waited and long suffered. If done right, the African Initiative can, with time, give them the peace they have paid so dearly for.