Ongoing clashes and the national army's brutal response to rebel groups have created widespread insecurity.
Once best known for the excesses of its former president-turned-emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the Central African Republic is a landlocked, resource-rich but poor country at the heart of the African continent. Its post-independence history has been characterised by successive coups d’état, poor governance, poverty and the persistent interference of France, its former colonial parent.
In 1993 Ange Félix Patassé was elected in what were widely considered the country’s first free and fair elections. However, despite the popular support Patassé enjoyed he was not able to address the country’s major structural problems, such as unpaid civil-service salaries and the reconstruction of a basic administrative and economic structure. Patassé‘s failure fuelled renewed frustrations, which resulted in the resurgence of coup attempts and the militarisation of social discontent.
In March 2003 former army chief of staff François Bozizé seized power with the help of soldiers from neighbouring Chad. Although Bozizé won presidential elections two years later in 2005, this did not really solve his regime’s lack of legitimacy. Instability was further compounded when Patassé and his closest followers launched a rebel movement in the north-western part of the country that enjoys great support among the rural population.
Since then clashes between the myriad armed movements operating in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the country, and the national army’s brutal response to the rebel groups, have created widespread insecurity.
After years of conflict the government signed a peace agreement last week with two of the most significant armed movements, the Armée Populaire pour la Restoration de la Democratie (APRD), which operates in the northwest, and the Union des Forces Democratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR), operating along the northeastern frontier with Sudan.
Brokered by Gabon’s President Omar Bongo, the agreement is the culmination of a year of negotiations aimed at ending the violence. The deal includes a general amnesty for all combatants and the participation of the various rebel leaders in the government.
But in a country in which armed rebellions are generally considered a stop-over on the road to power, the value of the peace agreement will depend greatly on the capacity and will of the current political actors to share power and respect the terms of the peace. Fortunately, unlike previous agreements which were signed between individual armed groups and the government, there are several reasons to believe that the most recent peace accord has a real chance of bringing a lasting solution to the conflict-prone republic.
The international spotlight on the conflict in neighbouring Darfur is of some advantage to the country, as the international media have created the impression that the Darfur conflict is the cause of instability in Chad and the republic, thereby casting a rare spotlight on the Central African nation. Unfortunately, in framing the conflict this way, they are ignoring the origins of the sociopolitical crises in both countries, which are primarily a failure to democratise and deliver basic services.
Like neighbouring Chad, the Central African Republic is wrongly perceived as a collateral victim of the Khartoum regime’s alleged regional hegemonic agenda, and the recent deployment of a United Nations Mission (Minurcat) as well as a peacekeeping force (Eufor) in Chad and the republic is motivated by this perspective.
But unlike Chad, where the deployment is unlikely to bear fruit in the medium term, the arrival of foreign soldiers and UN personnel in the volatile northern region of the republic, coupled with the pressure put on the political participants, seem to have created a positive new dynamic.
Another important factor is the fatigue of the rebel leaders. Maintaining an armed opposition movement over many years is costly and time-intensive. This is particularly true for the pro-Patassé APRD, the leaders of which used to be in government, and which seems to understand that this agreement is its last chance to negotiate an active role in the national political dialogue.
The country’s challenges remain great. It currently ranks at the bottom of most international development indices; unemployment rates are among the highest on the continent, infrastructure is poorly developed and the national security forces are in dire need of reform. But the country has great potential in agriculture and mining, sectors in which South African and other foreign companies are already active. Creating a minimum of security outside the capital will only enhance the country’s socioeconomic prospects.
Paul-Simon Handy is the director of the African security analysis programme at the Institute for Security Studies