The Central African Republic (CAR), a small landlocked country in the center of the continent, has long been beset by conflict with dire humanitarian consequences for civilians. The people of CAR are currently trapped in the grips of an unprecedented increase in violence sparked by the December 2020 presidential elections. The humanitarian consequences for CAR’s civilian population remain dire. Communities are consistently cut off from essential goods and services, as well as livelihoods. As a result of the recent spike in conflict, more than 200,000 Central Africans have fled their homes since mid-December. The total of displaced Central Africans now stands at 1.4 million people, more than a quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people.
Central Africans face increased threats to their safety including forced displacement, mass executions, arbitrary detentions, torture, forced disappearances, and violent persecution based on ethnic and religious grounds. A group of UN experts has reported numerous instances of atrocities, grave human rights abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict, including armed rebel groups, the Central African Forces (FACA), and their Wagner group allies—a Russian paramilitary force. Mankeur Ndiaye, the head of the UN Peacekeeping mission in CAR (MINUSCA) recently stated that “[n]ever have violations of human rights and international humanitarian law equaled those recently committed.”
In July, Refugees International convened a group of civil society leaders from CAR and international researchers to discuss the impact of atrocities on population displacement. This brief summarizes the main findings of that discussion, including recommendations on how to resolve conflict and prevent further atrocities and displacement.
The most recent flashpoint in violence finds its roots in CAR’s 2013-2014 civil war, when the Muslim-majority Séléka rebel group staged a coup against the Christian-majority government. In the hope of preserving his authority, then-President François Bozizé responded by forming the anti-Balaka militia. Although this did not maintain Bozizé’s power, tensions between these armed groups escalated into a year-long vicious civil war. Despite this official end, violence has continued to ebb and flow over the years, and state authority still does not extend much beyond the capital city Bangui. Repeated attempts to stabilize the country through national peace accords (2014 and 2019) and elections (2015 and 2020) have failed to end hostilities or address grievances that had sparked the conflict. New rebel groups have formed, and armed alliances constantly shift as groups vie for land control and their associated mineral resources and migration and trade routes. A large portion of the population has been forced out of their homes by waves of conflict.
In the lead up to the December 27, 2020, presidential elections, the country’s security landscape witnessed a dramatic shift. The COVID-19 pandemic, poor electoral planning, and simmering tensions between armed groups and the government led many to expect turbulence ahead of the vote. However, the levels of violence and forced displacement outstripped most expectations. Since December, the country has been the scene of a “widespread, unprecedented pattern of incidents” and attacks and the increased sophistication of weaponry (most notably with the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
At the height of the civil war in 2013, an estimated 1.2 million of the country’s 4.6 million people had been displaced by the fighting. But following the recent election-related violence, more than 1.4 million Central Africans are either internally displaced or have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
The decision to exclude former President Bozizé from the presidential ballot because of an outstanding international arrest warrant for alleged crimes during the civil war appears to have triggered the wave of violence that engulfed the country. In public, Bozizé called for his supporters to accept the court’s decision to exclude him. Behind the scenes, however, the former president was instrumental in creating the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC). The CPC is an armed alliance that brought together the country’s six main rebel groups—each of which had signed the 2019 peace accord. Together, they launched coordinated attacks on security forces and key cities. The CAR government was under tremendous international pressure to hold the elections and chose not to delay the ballot, even as city after city fell under the CPC’s control.
Incumbent President Touadéra managed to secure his second mandate with 53 percent of the vote. However, insecurity caused by armed groups—both for and against the government—prevented 40 percent of the population from voting, and rebels further disrupted election day by stealing and burning ballot boxes. In addition, the government excluded more than 600,000 Central African refugees from the electoral registration process. Fighting between armed groups and the FACA—and their Rwandan and Russian partners (often referred to as the ‘bilateral forces’)—continues to date.
The Link Between Atrocities and Displacement in the Central African Republic
From the onset of the 2013-2014 civil war to today, widespread violence and atrocities have pushed Central African civilians to flee their homes—either because of the presence of violence or in anticipation of its spread. For years now, the armed groups making up the CPC have repeatedly committed atrocities—ranging from pillaging villages to rape and sexual slavery. These abuses have been extensively documented. A June 2021 report by the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic found that, since mid-December, Central African forces and their Russian allies have increasingly engaged in similar acts of brutality. The panel observed that “[c]ivilians were disproportionally targeted throughout the crisis. […] Initially the target of exactions by CPC-affiliated combatants, civilians later became victims of international humanitarian law violations by FACA soldiers and Russian instructors.” Despite their violent approach, the CPC is still gaining support. Participants in the panel discussion argued that the CPC’s popularity was perhaps in part because the government forces and their Russian allies are also committing atrocities.
A recent joint report by The Sentry, a non-profit investigative group, and CNN detailed the extent of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner group and the FACA’s involvement in “large-scale and systematic acts of torture, forced disappearance, extra-judiciary executions and mass killings, pillaging, kidnapping for ransom, and mass rapes” across the country. This report has garnered a great deal of international attention—with significantly more interest in Wagner’s wrongdoing compared to the actions of the Central African security forces.
In a statement in late June 2021, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide, expressed her concern about the increase in human rights violations, targeted violence against communities, and forced displacement of civilians by armed groups, government forces, and bilaterally deployed security personnel. She warned these crimes “could contribute to the risk of atrocity crimes.”
Participants in the July 2021 panel observed that for years international attention had focused almost exclusively on the abuses committed by rebel groups. However, that attention had now shifted abruptly and disproportionately to the actions of Russia’s Wagner group. As a result, abuses by armed groups and Central African forces were receiving much less scrutiny than they deserved. Civil society actors explained that all parties to the conflict have committed atrocities and are drivers of displacement among the civilian population. One participant observed that in the south-central city of Alindao, the civilian population was forced out of their homes “because of a great ping-pong match between the [FACA] and the CPC, who took turns taking over the city and occupying it overnight.” Another participant noted the years of violence – or the threat thereof – is “putting the civilian population in a state of anxiety.” Many believe that the tactics employed by the FACA and Wagner fighters have the potential to spark further intercommunal violence.
For years, the government has failed to extend its presence and authority much beyond the capital Bangui. This has been a central grievance of rural communities for decades. Many participants believed that the FACA’s current military operations were managing to recapture territory. But one participant noted that military control of land does not mean that the government is providing basic services to the population. Although participants appeared to welcome the government’s gains on the battlefield, seeing these gains as bringing the country closer to stability, a recent UN report details that the national security forces continue to struggle to consolidate and maintain their control in these areas.
The civil society representatives detailed some of the troubling and impossible choices Central African communities face. For example, civilians feel that they have to choose between tolerating the abuses committed by FACA and Wagner because they currently are the only possible means to tackle the armed groups, or letting armed groups wreak havoc across their country.
Russia signed a deal to provide military support and training to the FACA in 2017 in exchange for mineral concessions. Over the years, Russia has successfully lobbied for the relaxation of the UN Security Council arms embargo on CAR to provide light weapons and military mounted vehicles. While official tallies of the presence of Russian mercenaries in CAR are around 500, many believe that there may be twice as many.
Civil society representatives explained that the Central African forces desperately need support for efforts to address the violence by armed groups, and no international ally other than Russia seems to be willing to provide this hands-on assistance—despite signals from the government that they would be open to other partners. As one discussant put it: “the Russian attacks are a problem; endangering the lives of our compatriots. But in the life of many Central Africans, it is the lesser evil, it is an evil to solve another evil,” and bemoaned feeling forced to decide between the lesser of two imperfect options. However, there is still a great deal of popular frustration with the type of material support offered by Russian fighters and their disproportionate use of force.
This troubling reality not only underscores how dire the situation is for Central African civilians but also showcases that the government has gone down a path that may have been avoidable if another international partner had stepped up before Russia. This relationship must not be the focus of international narratives and analysis—and must not be instrumentalized to justify any country’s lack of engagement in CAR. Instead, discussants called on international stakeholders to increase political engagement and support the Central African government to steer it in a different direction.
Need for Accountability
Discussants bemoaned the rampant climate of impunity—for members of armed groups, national security forces, and the Wagner group alike—and the government’s inability to prosecute some offenders and lack of interest in prosecuting others. As one civil society activist explained: “we really need justice. Up until now, we must be honest, there is only justice for the strong.”
In a March 2021 statement on the prevalence of human rights violations and atrocities in the country, UN experts deplored that “there seem to be no investigations and no accountability for these abuses” and called on the Central African government and their Wagner group counterparts to comply with their obligations under international law, end the climate of impunity, and hold accountable all perpetrators. To address these concerns, the government announced in May 2021 the creation of the “Special Commission of Enquiry into allegations of human rights violations by FACA and their allies.” The Commission’s investigation will last until August 2021, after which its findings are expected to be released publicly.
The Central African government must ensure that these investigations of abuses of human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law are thorough, transparent, and uphold the rule of law. The international community should echo these calls through diplomatic channels with Central African authorities. International donors and the United Nations should set clear and firm expectations that the commission will conduct an independent and thorough investigation. In an effort to encourage and ensure the government complies, the international community should offer to provide technical support to the commission to aid its investigation.
Almost all participants underscored the paramount importance of dialogue to negotiate an end to the country’s conflict by addressing longstanding grievances, and in turn, allow displaced civilians to return home. A Central African human rights activist explained that while the FACA’s military gains were a step towards stabilizing the country, “every conflict and every war end at a table.” This sentiment was echoed by an international aid worker who argued that CAR’s future and its prospects for peace will depend on how the next few months unfold and that “everything will depend on the national dialogue and on communication between the parties.”
Since the Civil War in 2014, hopes for lasting peace have been repeatedly dashed. The continued fighting brought the government and 14 armed groups to the negotiating table again in 2019, when they signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Stability in CAR (APPR). However, events since December 2020 have demonstrated the failure of this accord, like others before it, to foster peace and stability in CAR. Participants explained that the government appears reluctant to negotiate with certain armed groups, and seems to disproportionately support a military solution, but international pressure has compelled the government to work with international brokers to revitalize the APPR. Discussion participants felt that any efforts to draft a new road map to peace must be made more inclusive in order to be effective.
Many believe that the government’s purely military solution will not succeed in removing armed groups in the long-term. An example of this reality can be found in the aftermath of the April 2021 death of Sidiki Abass, founder and leader of the Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) rebel group. Although the group initially faced succession issues following the death of its leader, aid workers reported that 3R is as strong as ever only a few months later—proving that more than military operations is needed.
Although participants agreed that dialogue was necessary, discussants explained that Central Africans remain divided about who should participate in a national dialogue—many think the CPC should not be included. There was also a division of views on whether immunity should be guaranteed for those who participate—which was granted to some degree to many armed group members with the Bangui Forum (2015) and the Political Agreement for Peace and Stability in CAR (APPR) (2019).
Central African participants in the discussion strongly advocated that any new roadmap for peace must include:
1. Decentralization of dialogue
Discussants believe that the many iterations of peace deals in CAR have not had concrete or long-lasting results because they have been limited to negotiations among the political and armed elite in Bangui. Throughout the discussion, this theme was recurrent: that when people inside CAR and beyond talk about the country, whether about prospects for peace, people’s grievances, or even when highlighting any governance successes, the conversation is limited to issues and power relations in the capital. Similarly, efforts to overcome fundamental political challenges rarely effectively engage rural communities. Participants argued that this history of neglect and ongoing exclusion of communities outside the capital were central to the failure of the peace process. These were also a main driver of the 2013-2014 Civil War. Therefore, it is crucial that dialogue include actors and voices from across the country: from Bangui to other large cities, and to remote communities.
A Central African human rights activist noted that the 2015 Bangui Forum peace deal was relatively more successful and comprehensive because “we realized that our compatriots in the hinterland know the problems of the country as well as those of Bangui. When a more localized and community-based approach was used, the understanding of the new dynamics of humanitarian access improved.”
2. Inclusion of civil society organizations (CSOs), especially women and youth-led organizations
Participants also underscored the importance of including Central African CSOs—especially those led by and dealing with issues faced by women and youth—in any future peace effort. The exclusion of these groups had contributed to the failure of past peace processes. Central African CSOs and aid groups were excluded from the negotiation and implementation of the 2019 APPR. This exclusion is believed to have hindered the peace accord because the government ultimately rushed the process, ignored key issues, and agreed to terms with little technical knowledge of how many of its clauses could be achieved.
One Central African civil society leader explained that the youth account for more than 60 percent of CAR’s population, and it is the youth who are being recruited into the armed groups and used for demonstrations. Given that they are the country’s future and account for such a big portion of the population, the youth must be included in any future dialogue. In the words of that leader: “giving them responsibility is necessary for the peace process to be effective.”
The civilian population face atrocities from Central African forces, their Russian allies, and armed groups alike. The constant threat of violence has continuously pushed people out of their homes, and even pushed some out of the displacement camps where they hoped to find safe refuge.
The discussion not only highlighted the clear link between increased displacement and atrocities, but showcased the population’s desire for peace, dialogue, and justice. Without justice and accountability, atrocities in a climate of impunity will only fuel the Central African crisis, and without dialogue, efforts to address displacement and humanitarian needs will only bring temporary solutions.
Refugees International would like to thank Karifa Magassouba for providing significant research and writing contributions to this brief.
Support for Refugees International’s work on atrocity prevention in Africa has been generously supported by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) and the Leo Nevas Family Foundation.
BANNER COVER PHOTO: A woman carries water to her home in a rebel held town December 12, 2007 in Gordil in the northern Central African Republic. Photo Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.