In late 2017, from his air-conditioned office inside a fortified compound in central Bangui, the man tasked with keeping the peace in the Central African Republic gave the Mail & Guardian an unusually frank interview.
“The CAR has been in this situation, I want to say, for the largest part of its existence,” said Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the United Nations Special Representative to the CAR and the head of Minusma, the 15 000-strong international peacekeeping force.
“In 57 years of independence, [there have been] 47 years of cyclical violence. Mutinies, coups, civil unrest. This country has never enjoyed peace and stability,” he added.
When asked how long he thought it would take to turn the country around, he said that he “hoped” that UN peacekeepers would not be needed in 20 years time.
From this perspective, the news from Khartoum this week could not be more welcome: in a major breakthrough, 14 armed groups initialled a peace deal with the government that will, in theory, bring an end to a bitter civil war that is now in its sixth year. The deal was signed in Bangui on Wednesday.
But don’t expect things to change quickly.
There have been eight previous attempts to resolve this particular conflict since it erupted in 2013. All have been unsuccessful, so it is to the credit of the African Union, acting as chief mediator, that negotiations have come this far.
The exact text of the deal has not been released. What we do know has been gleaned from leaks or comments from rebel leaders.
“Not many details are available yet, apart from four points that have been shared or leaked,” said Eva Michaels, a conflict analyst specialising in Central Africa. According to Michaels, these are: the granting of amnesty for rebel group leaders; their participation in a new inclusive government, with a new prime minister to be chosen from among their ranks; the planned establishment of a new commission for justice, reconciliation and reparations; and the planned creation of mixed brigades [incorporating rebel soldiers into state security forces].
President Faustin Archange Touadera, who initialled on behalf of the government, welcomed the peace deal. “Now is the time for us to turn a new page, the page of Central African Republic which has reconciled with itself, in order to preserve its dignity,” said President Faustin Archange Touadera, according to news agency AP. He added: “We do not have the right to disappoint.”
And yet the potential for disappointment remains high, as even the signatories themselves admit. “The difficult time starts now, and that is implementing the Khartoum Agreement…This agreement is crucial for peace,” said Herbert Gontran Djono Ahaba, speaking on behalf of the rebels, again according to AP.
Greatly complicating efforts at implementing any agreement is the unusual nature of the CAR’s civil war. The very fact that there are 14 different armed groups at the negotiating table — and not every armed group is represented — is an indication of just how fractured the Central African state has become. Some of the armed groups are large, nominally controlling territory the size of a small country, while others are consist of just a few hundred fighters, and may not control any territory at all.
Nobody — not the government, which barely has any authority outside of Bangui, and not the United Nations peacekeepers, who are stretched thin across a vast territory — has the ability to implement the terms of the deal by force, so its success is reliant on the good faith of the signatories.
For long-suffering Central Africans, even a partially-implemented peace deal could open the doors to much-needed humanitarian aid. “The armed groups need to provide humanitarian organisations with safe access to people in need. At the same time, the international community needs to show that when this is in place, we are ready to scale up the support, and to stay and deliver,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking before this round of peace talks commenced in January. But so far the international community has been reluctant to provide the necessary funding: in 2018, less than half of the $516-million humanitarian aid appeal was funded.
The Central African Republic has been in turmoil almost as long as it has existed. It would be naive to think that this peace deal, on its own, can fix a broken country. Although the agreement is a good start, it is still far too early to celebrate.