A relatively small country in the heart of the African continent, the Central African Republic (CAR) is facing a long-standing political and security crisis and hosts today the third largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the UN Global Humanitarian Overview.
It has experienced decades of violence and political instability with five coups d’état, eight presidents and two democratic transitions. Since 2012, eight peace agreements have been signed. Despite its reserves of diamonds, gold, uranium, copper, iron and oil, CAR remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
In 2019, brokered by the African Union, the African Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic (APPR-RCA) was the most recent peace agreement signed, on 6 February in Bangui, between the government and fourteen armed groups, after 18 months of exploratory work. It was considered a promising step towards ending the of years of fighting that have killed thousands and left many others in poverty. Today the country is still on the verge of a crisis, fed by intra-group violence and clashes between armed groups and governmental forces supported by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA), that profoundly impact people’s lives.
Until 27 December 2020, the country’s main efforts will be focused on the imminent presidential and legislative elections. The spike of violence between former Seleka – an alliance of rebel militias from the North – groups in certain parts of the country has made it more difficult for the electoral representatives to reach remote locations and proceed with voter registration and the setting up of polling places. Moreover, expansion of the armed group Union for Peace (UPC) in the south-east has been coupled with continuous clashes against the Anti-Balaka, self-defense militias that developed in 2013. In the west, the expansion of the 3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation) armed group, controlling most of the mining sites and transhumance corridors, led MINUSCA and the national army (FACA) to launch a joint military operation against them in mid-June this year.
On 23 September, the National Assembly adopted a law bill modifying the electoral code and giving more time to the ANE (National Elections Authority) to carry out the voter registration process, which has been hindered by the presence of armed groups. Up to September 2020, about 62,5% of the prefectures had been covered. In his speech during the General Assembly debate on 22 September, Antonio Guterres cited the APPR-RCA, stating that this agreement has led to a reduction in violence and will be the prerequisite to allow the holding of fair elections.
Presidential nominees have not yet submitted their candidacies officially, but the main names emerging so far are all coming from former presidents. A coalition is already in place called "Béoko" in Sango, which means United Heart Movement (Mouvement Coeurs Unis, MCU) supporting the candidacy of the current president. Elected in 2016, President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s government guides around a fifth of the country, the capital and areas around the main cities, and relies heavily on the MINUSCA for support. The rest of the territory is in some way controlled by armed groups often fighting each other to scoop revenues from exactions, roadblocks or mineral resources. On the other hand, the Coalition of the Democratic Opposition (COD 2020) brings together the major opposition parties such as Bozizé's Kwa Na Kwa (KNK), Doleguélé's Union for Central African Renewal (URCA), and other satellite political parties. On 29 August 2020, the former ad interim president after the 2013 coup, Catherine Samba-Panza, announced her candidacy, running as an independent. In 2017, she spearheaded the African Union Election Observation Mission (MOEUA) for the Senegalese legislative elections of July 2017 and only recently came back to the country.
The country is grappling with numerous challenges. Unlike previous elections, today the first concern leans towards security, as nearly 70% of the territory is controlled by armed groups. This situation impacts registration on voter rolls because of the displacement of the population under the threat of violence. It also impacts the deployment of ANE agents, prevented from entering certain areas under the control of such groups. In addition to security, logistical problems should be taken into account, such as the advanced state of deterioration of roads and infrastructures in the country, as well as financing the elections, whose estimated budget is about $US 33 million .
A never-ending humanitarian crisis
The general instability of the country, exacerbated by the continuous waves of violence and the fear for upcoming elections, have not improved the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
More than half of the population is in need of humanitarian aid and 1.7 million people are in a severely precarious situation. More than 44% of CAR’s population is food insecure, and 375,000 people have immediate survival needs and require emergency food assistance. Acute malnutrition is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in children under 5 (WFP). With only about 2.5 per cent of the road network in the country paved, humanitarian assistance becomes even more difficult, especially during the rainy season. According to UNHCR data, more than 658,000 internally displaced people are taking refuge within the country itself and more than 613,000 are in neighboring countries such as Cameroon and DRC. Close to a million children need aid and thousands are unable to attend school, because of displacement or schools being closed down, attacked or occupied by armed groups.
Protection concerns are also high on the agenda of humanitarian organizations, from gender-based violence to attacks on medical personnel and infrastructures and monies extorted from the population by armed groups. Crimes include arbitrary executions, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, injuries or mutilation, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, abduction, looting, destruction or appropriation of property, serious violations and abuses targeting children, including their recruitment and use as soldiers, and attacks on humanitarian workers.
Considering all the economic and humanitarian challenges the country still faces today, how will CAR be able to overcome them in the next decade? As some already argued in 2012, a stronger connection between the capital and the provinces would favor the establishment of governmental structures equipped to face the political deadlock. The ongoing programme of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) reinstated by the APPR-RCA in 2019 could also help to obtain peace and security. Others might be more doubtful about the effectiveness of these processes and wonder if the solution should not be found somewhere else besides politics. One thing remains certain, despite the lack of attention from the international community: humanitarian organizations will continue to be the lifeblood of the country until deeper changes will take place.