Op-Ed: Peace in CAR is a tale of two cities

Opinion: Caesar Poblicks leads Conciliation Resources' work in the Central African Republic, including providing advice to the CAR government on its approach to reconciliation.

Bossangoa is adjusting to a new era of peace. The town, situated in the north west of Central African Republic, lies 300 kilometers from the capital Bangui, where one year ago today, the government signed a peace deal with the leaders of 14 armed groups. It was the latest in a succession of peace deals since 2013, but unlike its predecessors, where ceasefires were broken in a matter of months, this deal is making some headway.

There seems to be some willingness from those who signed the deal, and the international community, to make it work. The UN mission MINUSCA is leading civilian protection and supporting the implementation of the peace deal. A disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and repatriation (DDRR) program has begun, and aims to help 9,000 fighters return to civilian life. Mixed brigades, comprised of military personnel and former members of armed groups, are being formed across the country. If the rebels break the ceasefire, it will be the responsibility of these brigades to respond, and be answerable for their actions.

The transition has not been entirely peaceful. Huge swathes of this country are controlled by armed groups, and violent attacks are still occurring in the hot-spots, mainly in the northeast of the country. But much of the violence now is centered on in-fighting between the groups, often over territory and resources, and occurring in border regions where government control is even more fragile.

In Bangui, leaders of the rebel groups have been given government positions as part of CAR’s transition to peace. But the opposition aren’t happy. The president is being accused of giving in too much to armed groups, and many people are shocked that those accused of human rights violations are being rewarded with government positions. The political temperature is rising ahead of elections in December 2020.

In towns like Bossangoa, people feel almost completely alienated from politics, seeing these as distant and incomprehensible affairs conducted in the capital, rather than relevant to them. Here, the most pressing peace issues are how to reintegrate displaced people back into communities and how to support fighters’ transition out of armed groups.

Bossangoa is the heartland of the anti-Balaka movement. The group are held in high esteem here - they are seen as the force that liberated the town from Seleka insecurity during the crisis. To support their transition to peace, we need to understand their motivations and what would encourage them to lay down their arms. International peacebuilding organisation, Conciliation Resources, has conducted interviews with commanders and rank-and-file members of various armed groups in CAR. Many fighters reported a desire to return to a normal life, but a lack of job opportunities and economic prospects offered little incentive to pursue life outside of the group. Indeed, job opportunities were cited as the most important potential factor for respondents in persuading them to leave their armed group. A lack of security and threats from other groups that are yet to disarm have also combined to complicate the DDRR processes.

In Bossangoa and Pauoa, Conciliation Resources is now working with War Child UK on a project funded by UN Peacebuilding. It's helping young people, some formerly associated with armed groups, to develop the skills to start their own business or find meaningful employment through education, alongside psycho-social support and training in conflict resolution.

Another challenge for towns like Bossangoa, is the reintegration of those people displaced by conflict. Opinion is divided on whether these people should be allowed to return, and how this can be done. Over the past weeks, we’ve consulted with more than 1000 people in Bossangoa town and surrounding communes, and a small majority said they would welcome the return of displaced people. However, many felt it was still too soon to start the process of return, and first there needed to be a recognition of the impact of the violence on the population. In our survey of armed groups, many members reported a desire to return to a normal life, but also feared that they would no longer be welcome in their communities.

This is where community-led reconciliation processes must play a role. In the CAR, volunteer-led Local Peace and Reconciliation Committees (LPRCs) have been established across the country. They bring people together in dialogue and create space for conversation. They are mediating between communities and armed groups, supporting the reintegration of former fighters, and undertaking other local initiatives to build peace.

These initiatives need to be supported, but they also need to be better connected with the national peace process, so that the voices and experiences of the people of Bossangoa and beyond, can shape the actions and policies of the leaders in Bangui.

Photo: Conciliation Resources