Thibaud Lesueur, Thierry Vircoulon: Central African Republic - three crises in one

Three months after the Seleka rebel coalition took power from François Bozizé’s decade-old regime, the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) remains uncertain. Relief organisations have limited access to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the economy is in freefall. The security situation in Bangui is gradually normalising, but the new national-unity government has found no solution to the country’s essential governance challenges (democratisation, security sector reform, economic governance reform, including the management of natural resources).

After grabbing headlines, the Central African crisis is fast disappearing from international attention. The country’s international partners favour a “wait-and-see” policy in a country that has experienced more coups than elections since gaining independence in 1960.

Wait-and-see is not enough. The crisis in Central African Republic is really three crises, and the effects will reach far beyond the republic’s borders.

The first crisis is internal. Seleka’s coup signifies not only an end to one of the weakest presidential regimes on the continent, but also a major change in the country’s political composition. While power has traditionally been under the control of the Christians from the west and the south of the country, Seleka’s leaders are mostly Muslims from the north east. For the first time since independence, these marginalised communities are in charge of CAR’s political life.

This new religious and geo-ethnic development should not be ignored in a context of Muslim radicalisation in Africa. Many Central Africans and leaders of the neighbouring countries are worried. By reaffirming several times the non-religious nature of the CAR state, -- and by hosting “the religious leaders” and promising investigations of looted churches by Seleka elements -- the interim president, Michel Djotodia, is attempting to defuse the country’s religious time bomb.

This internal crisis may also quickly spiral into a regional crisis. Indeed, the collapse of the state structure, disappearance of the security forces and weapons proliferation in the country, as well as porous borders, could turn CAR into a new grey zone in the middle of the continent.  François Bozizé’s government was notorious for its loose grip on the country, which has long been a “safe haven” for armed groups from neighbouring countries.

Combatants from the Lord’s Resistance Army have been located in the south east of the country since 2008; several Chadian rebel groups, like the United Front for Democratic Change, have previously established rear bases in the Vakaga; Sudanese poachers and traffickers have got into the habit of crossing the country to hunt and trade, especially in the north east. If CAR’s governance remains weak, it could then become a sanctuary for radical Muslim groups with agendas more threatening than those of Chadian rebels and Joseph Kony’s disciples.

The Central African crisis is also a crisis of Africa’s peace and security architecture. After militarily containing the rebels’ progress and imposing a political settlement on the belligerents through the Libreville Agreement in January 2013, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has simply not ensured implementation of the agreement.

The Libreville Agreement steering committee did not meet; ECCAS’s Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central Africa Republic (Micopax) interposition force has seen its troops diminish and did not step in during the last Seleka offensive on Bangui. Further, Seleka’s coup has underlined the divergence of views between the African Union – which suspended CAR and sanctioned some Seleka leaders – and a much more tolerant ECCAS.

With the support of its international partners, ECCAS can help the Central African Republic to get a second chance. A much tighter supervision of the transition by the steering committee led by the Congolese president, Sassou Nguesso, is needed, along with a reinforcement of the mandate and the troops of Micopax.

Donors, in particular the European Union and France, should finance the transition while being much more demanding about vital governance reforms. Finally, ECCAS, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union should organise a meeting to draw lessons from the management of the Central African crisis and find solutions to improve Africa’s peace and security architecture.

| © The South African Foreign Policy Initiative 2012 | Developed by Octoplus