The Central African Republic Must Avoid a Violent Flare-Up as the Elections Approach

This article first appeared on the International Crisis Group website.

The pre-electoral period in the Central African Republic (CAR) is heating up. In the capital Bangui, youth militias engage in daily criminality and intercommunal tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims are now very high. Meanwhile in the provinces, rival militia groups are gathering to march toward Bangui, deliberately seeking violent confrontation. Until now, international forces have managed to prevent some of the combatants from reaching the capital, but the latter have not abandoned their aim of destabilizing the transition. While Bangui continues to experience daily murders and sporadic surges of violence, elections are scheduled to go ahead in December.

With militiamen in control of several neighborhoods of the capital, and intercommunal tensions spreading to the west and central regions of the country, the immediate priority must be to loosen the grip of armed groups. A French military intervention in December 2013 allowed the installment of a transitional government that is now supported by around 900 French troops and 10,000 U.N. stabilization forces; their numbers should be rapidly increased.

A new consensus around the electoral process is also needed, based on a realistic assessment of the security situation. A constitutional referendum is now slated for December 6 and a two-stage presidential election due in late December and in January. Despite numerous warnings from the electoral commission and civil society actors, the international community prefers an election at any cost to turn the page of the transition. Yet a rushed organisation of elections advocated by the international community will only further fuel instability. The elections should be delayed until 2016 in order for them to be held in a climate of peace.

The latest cycle of violent intercommunal clashes began at the end of September, when a Muslim motorcycle-taxi driver was killed in Bangui. The call for protests by some civil society leaders and widespread looting generated an atmosphere of insecurity exploited by leaders of rival militias. The September events killed about 70 people, injured hundreds and displaced over 40,000. They also stoked up anger toward the transitional government and the international presence in the country.

The crisis in CAR is characterized by sporadic surges of violence against a backdrop of state disintegration and deep inter-ethnic cleavages. Armed groups, including rival factions known as anti-balaka and ex-Seleka, are fragmenting and becoming criminalized. This is compounded by growing conflict between armed communities. In areas with frequent intercommunal clashes, ex-Seleka combatants are seen as the protectors of Muslims and anti-balaka fighters as the defenders of Christian communities. By contrast, communities in other parts of the country are keeping their distance from armed groups.

The roadmap for the transition—which planned for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of militiamen after the May 2015 Bangui Forum and before the elections—is now completely off track. The Bangui Forum's recommendations have not yet been implemented, primarily due to a lack of means, political will, and consensus among armed groups and within CAR's political elites. The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process has been pushed back until after the elections, and the elections themselves are plagued by technical and financial issues as well as security and political concerns.

The violence that engulfed Bangui in late September and the ensuing demonstrations all occurred while CAR transitional President Catherine Samba Panza was in New York to participate in a side meeting on the crisis in CAR during the U.N. General Assembly. The timing of the unrest reveals the destabilization strategy and opportunism of certain politicians and civil society actors—including anti-balaka supporters of former President Francois Bozizé and affiliates of the ex-Seleka close to Nourredine Adam. Even so, the civil disturbances must be taken seriously as they reflect strong dissatisfaction among the wider public. The international forces in CAR are criticized for not managing to secure the capital or the country's main road, while ordinary people are dissatisfied with transitional government leaders, who promised a lot at the Bangui Forum but delivered little.

The political and communal impasse risks triggering a new flare-up. In fact, groups of ex-Seleka combatants close to Adam and his Popular Front for the Rebirth of the Central African Republic, FPRC, have been assembling since June 2015 near Kaga-Bandoro, more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) northeast of Bangui. They tried in early October to reach the capital, using alternative routes to avoid cities under the control of international forces. International forces clashed with the ex-Seleka combatants on 10 and 11 October, halting the fighters' advance a few kilometers from Sibut, located 150 kilometers (93 miles) northeast of Bangui.

While these clashes caused several casualties within the rebel ranks, the destabilizing capacity of these armed groups remains relatively intact and preparations for new attacks are likely underway. Several groups of anti-balaka militiamen, in turn, are assembling in several cities in the west of the country, including Bossangoa, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Bangui, and Berberati, in the southwest. Their objective is to reach the capital to provide support to the young anti-balaka militants and chase Muslims out of Bangui. Some of them in fact took part in the violence in Bangui at the end of September.

The spread of intercommunal clashes is the principal risk in CAR, not a coup. The international community's focus on organizing elections as soon as possible is thus the wrong objective. Rushing into elections in December 2015 was opposed by CAR's National Electoral Authority president, who resigned. This election calendar is neither safe nor feasible. Before any polls, international actors and the Samba Panza government should form a genuine partnership to create the technical, political and security conditions necessary to make them transparent, free and inclusive.

Thierry Vircoulon is the project director for Central Africa. Thibaud Lesueur is Crisis Group's Central African Republic analyst. Both write for the International Crisis Group.

The Central African Republic Must Avoid a Violent Flare-Up as the Elections Approach |