Pope Francis will be in the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of November. The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will visit a refugee camp in the CAR, hold a meeting with evangelical Christians, and visit a mosque in the capital Bangui. The wave of violence that has engulfed the country since the end of September has led to the postponing of the general election in the CAR, scheduled for October 18th, then re-scheduled for the 27th of December. It remains unclear what will happen to the mandate of the transitional government that expires at the end of the year. The imminent visit of the Pope is a remarkable event. Will it be seen as a sign of peace?
As part of his first visit to Africa, Pope Francis will be in the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of November. This visit comes at a time when the country is experiencing widespread violence, between the Séléka group – mainly Muslim – and the anti-Balaka militias. After initial uncertainty, the Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will visit a refugee camp in the CAR, hold a meeting with evangelical Christians, and visit a mosque in the capital Bangui. Despite fears that the Pope’s visit will be plagued by security issues, there is hope that his presence will be welcomed as a reconciliation message in the country.
Violence escalated in CAR in late 2012, when the Séléka group launched a violent campaign against the government of President François Bozizé. In March 2013 he was removed from office by the Séléka rebel group who took control of the capital Bangui. Michel Djotodia became the first Muslim leader of an overwhelmingly Christian country – approximately 80% of the population. This exacerbated the violence between Séléka and the anti-Balaka forces that include supporters of Bozizé. In April 2014, following the humanitarian and political crisis in the country, the United Nations deployed the MINUSCA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) peacekeeping operation which is still in place. Catherine Samba-Panza has been serving as Interim President since January 2014, after Séléka left power in the face of international pressure. Her transitional government - whose mandate will expire at the end of 2015 - has been set the task of leading the country through elections. The most recent round of violence broke out at the end of September 2015, following the killing of a 17 year old Muslim motorcycle taxi driver in Bangui. This triggered a new wave of violence between Séléka and anti-Balaka forces. About 100 people have been brutally killed and several buildings – homes, shops, and humanitarian offices too – have been destroyed by armed groups of both rebel factions.
The wave of violence that has engulfed the country since the end of September has led to the postponing of the general election in the CAR, which was initially scheduled for October 18th. Initially the election was postponed indefinitely, then re-scheduled for the 13th of December and later re-scheduled once again for the 27th of December. The possibility of a further delay cannot be excluded. Not only holding an election in such a tense environment would risk adding fuel to the fire, but also the infrastructure necessary to guarantee free and fair elections, and to support a new government, are not yet in place. Seeing an election as a sign of progress in the country fails to look at the bigger picture of the conflict in the CAR. A deeper analysis of the ongoing conflict is necessary in order to design a roadmap that has at its core the long-term stability of the country.
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, listed at the bottom end of the Human Development Index. Freedom House (FH) ranks CAR as “not free” providing it with the lowest score in both civil liberties and political rights. The FH 2014 Report highlights the magnitude of the ongoing humanitarian crisis – often amongst the “forgotten crises”. According to the United Nations, more than 2.7 million people – out of a population of 4.6 million – are in need of assistance and protection, and close to a million people have been forcibly displaced internally or have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, and Congo-Kinshasa.
Framing the CAR conflict only in religious terms – as a Christian vs. Muslim conflict - does not fully capture its complexity. Interestingly, some anthropological studies have highlighted that the country presents a long story of ingrained violence, but not necessarily along religious divides. This suggests that a solution aimed at long term stability has to address the root causes of violence in CAR, rather than looking solely at the political or religious component. For example, joining an armed group is often the only alternative for unemployed youth; and too often violence becomes a way to express social grievances.
Containing and eliminating violence is the number one priority for the country. And holding an election too soon risks pushing the country in the opposite direction. Prioritizing the disarmament process, in order to slowly reduce the impact of the current violence, is strongly necessary. In May 2015, at the Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation - which saw the participation of 700 leaders from the transitional government, political parties, armed groups, civil society, religious authorities, and the private sector - a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration agreement was signed. However, several armed groups have rejected it. Energies and resources - which are already highly scarce in the country - need to be focused on this issue in order to lead the country towards stability.
Logistically too, holding an election soon would encounter obstacles. The National Elections Authority (NAE) has stated that an electoral register is not ready yet. Moreover, the rainy season would reduce mobility and accessibility, and funds are lacking. However, President Samba-Panza has recently announced to the BBC that “95% of eligible voters have already registered”. The issue of nationality is also critical in a country where most people don’t have identity papers. A recent Report by the International Crisis Group (“Central African Republic: the Roots of Violence”) issues some recommendations to be addressed before organizing an election. The Report stresses that the vote should not become a further pretext for violence. In order to ensure this, the religious fracture between Muslims and Christians needs to be smoothed. As stated in the Report, “the transitional authorities should reaffirm Muslims’ equal rights, register them to vote, demonstrate the government’s concern for populations in the north east, and diversify recruitment in the public service”, where Muslims are often underrepresented. Inclusion represents a key issue. The NAE, with the support of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has to ensure that refugees living in camps are entitled and registered to vote.
After almost two months of renewed tension and violence, holding an election may sound risky and unfeasible. But President Samba-Panza said to the BBC that “this is the only way out for CAR”, adding that “there is no alternative because the country cannot stay indefinitely in a transitional process”. She appears to consider an election per se as a turning point for the country towards a more stable political situation. However, this seems not to be the case in CAR. The country is not in the position to guarantee internal security for those who intend to vote neither to sustain a new government in the post-election phase. Following the declaration of the President, the Head of UN Peacekeeping Mission in CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, said that there are no reasons for any further delay in the electoral process. French President François Hollande, whose troops are present in CAR, announced that the aim of Paris “is to hold fair and transparent elections as soon as possible”. Organizing an election might represent a straightforward exit strategy for the international community; however, it does not appear as a solution for the violence in the country. As it is too often the case for fragile countries, elections are seen as a step towards stabilization: however, it is worth considering not only the “election momentum” – which might itself raise tensions and violence – but also the scenarios that might follow after the election.
What is happening in the CAR revives the debate over the role of elections in peacebuilding and state-building processes. Given the very unstable context, it is still unclear if the country will actually hold the election on the 27th of December. If not, it remains unclear what will happen to the mandate of the transitional government that expires at the end of the year. The imminent visit of the Pope is a remarkable event. But will be welcomed as a sign of peace or will it coincide with an escalation of violence?