Leaving the Embers Hot: Humanitarian Challenges in the Central African Republic

The people of the Central African Republic (CAR) have been mired in cycles of violence since the country became independent from France in 1960. These cycles have been driven by overlapping tensions between armed groups, religious and ethnic groups, and herders and farmers. As a result, CAR has endured repeated outbreaks of conflict, population displacement, alarming food insecurity, and limited access to basic services and economic opportunities.

In 2013, the country once again descended into civil war when the Muslim-majority Séléka group staged a coup against the Christian-dominated government. Following the coup, supporters of that government formed the Anti-Balaka coalition. Clashes between the two groups led to vicious cycles of revenge attacks and a quick deterioration of the country’s security infrastructure. Hopes for peace grew when talks brought the civil war to an end in 2014 and elections were held the following year. However, the country remains deeply unstable.

In recent years, armed groups have continued to manipulate religion to incite inter-communal conflict. The most recent cycle of violence has uprooted a quarter of the small country’s population – 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. However, the humanitarian response fails to provide for all those in need due to the limited access caused by logistical and security impediments, weak coordination, and gaps in funding.

New armed groups have formed and risen to prominence in the country, alliances are constantly shifting, and factions break off in the struggle for control of land and resources. Although some state authority has been re-established since the end of the civil war, the humanitarian situation has yet to improve significantly. More than 80 percent of the country is under the sole control of armed groups.

Armed factions have repeatedly attacked displacement camps – in many cases, despite the presence of peacekeepers. The failure to protect these camps has fueled the CAR government’s premature push to close some of them and have their populations return to their areas of origin, and this has taken place without determining whether such returns are safe and without monitoring conditions upon return. In late 2018, many densely populated sites were closed without warning.

Despite this bleak picture, the prospects for peace have gradually increased. On February 5, 2019, the CAR government and 14 armed groups signed an African Union-led peace accord, known as the African Initiative.(1) The UN peacekeeping mission, whose mandate has been renewed for the year, has been successful in brokering peace agreements at the local level, thus reducing the levels of violence in key areas and allowing hundreds of thousands to return to their areas of origin. 

To better understand CAR’s recurring cycles of violence and displacement, Refugees International (RI) traveled in the country from November to December 2018. The team conducted field research in Bangui, Paoua, and Bangassou. RI found that more locally tailored, coordinated, and robust responses would make the humanitarian response more effective in meeting urgent needs. Specific improvements would allow UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to overcome many of the challenges confronting the humanitarian response and better safeguard human life.

On the ground, UN agencies and aid organizations must strengthen their coordination, ensure that new UN leadership will protect and adhere to humanitarian principles, and increase the transparency of their analyses and programming. At about 4.6 million, the country has a relatively small population compared to other African countries in the throes of displacement crises, and the emergency in CAR presents an opportunity to effect real change. Concerted action now could prevent the further degradation of the humanitarian situation.  


The Central African government must:

  • Temporarily suspend organized returns of displaced populations. The government should pause its efforts to return displaced populations through its PARET(2) return initiative. Future returns should be based on a more robust effort to survey the intentions of the displaced and conditions in the areas of return. The findings of these surveys and plans for future returns or camp closures should be coordinated closely with the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).

UN leadership must:

  • Mobilize critical support through another CAR donor conference. It has been two years since the European Commission held the last donor conference in Brussels. Although that conference focused on stabilization funds, a new one should be hosted with NGO support to mobilize donors to provide more flexible humanitarian funding.
  • Appoint another strong Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator/Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (RC/HC/DSRSG). The departure of the current incumbent – a well-respected leader in the CAR humanitarian community – appears to be imminent. The appointment of a similarly capable successor must be a top priority.
  • Review UN participation in the PARET initiative. The Humanitarian Coordinator should convene the HCT to review UN participation in the PARET initiative. As part of that review, the HCT should develop a joint position on the conditions that must be in place for UN agencies to participate in population returns and camp closures. Such conditions should include more robust efforts to survey the intentions of the displaced and conditions in areas of return
  • Strengthen the UN cluster coordination system. The UN should ensure that all members of the cluster system have access to the findings of their ongoing performance evaluation conducted by each cluster. The Humanitarian Coordinator should work with the leadership of the clusters to develop and oversee a plan to address identified shortcomings, especially as they pertain to protection.
  • Bolster the UN’s capacity to assess security conditions on the roads used for aid delivery. The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), with support from donors and the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), should strengthen its ability to provide up-to-date security assessments of roads to rationalize and minimize the use of armed escorts for humanitarian personnel.

The United States government must:

  • Designate the Central African Republic as a Country of Particular Concern. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom should recommend that CAR be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in light of the prevalence of religious marginalization – a problem that the CAR government has largely ignored. Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should then designate CAR as a CPC and create a binding agreement for the United States to assist the CAR government in increasing its capacity to protect its people and their religious freedom.

Donor governments and institutions must:

  • Increase funding. Donor governments must provide longer-term financial support for humanitarian assistance – especially to address food security and child protection – and should coordinate to fully fund the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) request for $430 million to assist those in need.
  • Strengthen oversight of the implementation of the PARET return initiative. Donors should exercise greater oversight of the conditions surrounding the population returns carried out as part of the CAR government PARET initiative. They should push for more robust intention surveys of the displaced and stronger coordination of future returns or camp closures under the leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator and across the HCT.
  • Fund the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). UNHAS has funding to operate only until April 1, 2019. Given the widespread violence and limited road access in CAR, humanitarian groups rely on UNHAS to transport lifesaving material. Donors should provide full coverage of UNHAS’s $13 million budget for 2019.
  • Encourage the development of locally customized programs. By viewing CAR’s crisis as a series of localized emergencies that require different remedies, donors can better equip humanitarian organizations to address root causes at the local level.
  • Provide flexible multiyear humanitarian funding. The volatile security context often forces humanitarian organizations to pause operations and slows down the provision of aid; donors should offer multiyear funding to give these organizations more time to work around access issues and security concerns.
  • Extend and bolster the Bêkou Trust Fund. The Bêkou Trust Fund facilitates the transition from emergency response to longer-term recovery. The European Commission must extend Bêkou beyond 2020, and more donor countries should consider contributing to it.


Years of instability in the Central African Republic (CAR) have led to massive displacement and a desperate need for increased international aid. Violence and poor infrastructure obstruct access to food and basic services. In 2019, more than half of its population will rely on humanitarian assistance for protection and survival. Donor interest has been fading, however, despite increasing geopolitical attention on the country.

The current crisis erupted in 2013, when the Séléka, a Muslim-dominated armed group, staged a coup against the Christian-majority government. In an effort to defend state authority, the Anti-Balaka coalition was formed and more violence ensued, creating vicious cycles of revenge attacks and causing a rapid deterioration of the state infrastructure.

Armed groups committed atrocious crimes and instrumentalized religious beliefs to fan the flames of intercommunal conflict. Cycles of revenge attacks caused the state to collapse and forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes. In late 2014, the UN Security Council established the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) in an effort to stop the bloodshed. In that same year, national reconciliation efforts helped bring the civil war to an end. Hopes for sustained peace continued to grow after the country’s peaceful 2015 elections, but little has changed.

CAR’s humanitarian crisis is the third worst in the world in the number of citizens per capita in need.

Five years on, while a semblance of state authority has been re-established in the capital city of Bangui, local armed groups control much of the rest of the country, and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating. Roughly the size of the state of Texas, with a population of only 4.6 million, CAR’s humanitarian crisis is the third worst in the world in the number of citizens per capita in need. Currently, more than 643,000 people are internally displaced,(3) and 574,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries – the highest numbers since the peak of the civil war in 2013.(4) The UN estimates that 2.9 million of the country’s 4.6 million citizens need humanitarian aid.

The fighting in CAR is highly localized, and the dynamics of conflict shift from community to community. Sectarian tensions are often key drivers of the violence. The identity of armed factions and their religious composition, strength, and ambitions vary greatly from town to town. As a result, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the violence that drives displacement in communities across the country.

New geopolitical dynamics have further complicated the situation. In 2017, Russia announced its intention to supply arms to CAR, and the two countries concluded a cooperation agreement in August 2018. This agreement provides the national armed forces and the country’s president with Russian defense and security advisors. In return, the CAR government has awarded mineral concessions to Russian companies. France and the United States opposed this deal but have been unable to derail it.

Despite these negative trend lines, 2019 offers opportunities for change for CAR. The United Nations peacekeeping mission, which continues to successfully negotiate local peace accords, has had its mandate renewed and expanded for another year. Furthermore, the African Union’s African Initiative peace talks have led to an agreement between fourteen armed groups and the Central African government.(5)

“Areas throughout the country face different obstacles to protecting civilians, accessing aid, and facilitating population return efforts.”

These steps, though important, are only the first ones on a long road to sustainable peace. The granularity and diversity of conflict dynamics across CAR suggest that even if the African Initiative accord improves conditions, violence and displacement will continue. Areas throughout the country face different obstacles to protecting civilians, accessing aid, and facilitating population return efforts. Unfortunately, donors have provided funds to address issues from a macro level and tend to ignore the divergent localized questions. Sustainable change is possible if responses at the local level can be created to overcome local impediments.

Donors must keep in mind that, unlike other crises in Africa, CAR’s relatively small size and population should make its crisis more manageable and amenable to solutions, although the issues are complex and the needs dire. Moreover, increased international attention and targeted humanitarian and development programming can help prevent further atrocities and reduce suffering. Aid organizations and donors thus must shift their approach and view this crisis as a series of localized emergencies that require different remedies.

Limited Reach of Humanitarian Groups

Like many other humanitarian crises, underfunding weakens the aid community’s ability to respond effectively. Although humanitarian organizations can identify populations of concern and emerging needs, relief organizations then struggle to address them with limited resources. Humanitarian groups are forced to pivot between the most severe emergencies, thus sometimes ignoring hard-to-reach areas and abandoning populations. As a result, the humanitarian intervention often merely contains the situation and rarely leads to sustainable improvements.


[1] “Closing Ceremony: Peace Agreement between the Government of the Central African Republic and 14 Armed Groups,” February 5, 2019, https://au.int/en/newsevents/20190205/closing-ceremony-peace-agreement-between-government-central-african-republic-and.

[2] PARET is an acronym for the initiative’s French name: Projet d’Appui au Retour et à la réintégration en RCA.

[3] “2019 Plan de Réponse Humanitaire,” OCHA, accessed February 8, 2019, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/2018_hrp_car_french_final.pdf.

[4] UNHCR, “Central African Republic situation,” accessed February 13, 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/central-african-republic-situation.html  

[5] “Closing Ceremony.”