A year ago, the embattled nation of Central African Republic (CAR) — a 623,000-square-kilometer landlocked swathe of land situated exactly where its name implies — was a nation on the brink.
Ravished by three years of protracted conflict and brutal sectarian violence between Muslim and Christian paramilitaries, the former French colony was one of the most unstable and impoverished countries on Earth, despite boasting vast reserves of diamonds, gold, oil, uranium and timber.
In fact, in 2016, CAR ranked as the world’s third-poorest country in terms of GDP per capita income, and in addition to the unbridled violence of ethnic feuds that were tearing it apart at the seams, the fragile nation was caught up in a labyrinth of regional conflicts that were ripping at its last remnants of a viable economy and social order.
But, now, despite all odds, Central African Republic may be on the verge of an incremental peace.
With the help of United Nations peacekeepers, a slow and tedious process of reconciliation between rival factions has begun to be hammered out and is showing initial signs of a political resolution, notwithstanding a sudden upsurge in violence last May between Muslim rebels and Christian militias. (There have also been isolated cases of attacks on UN Blue Helmets.)
Still, the UN Secretary General’s special representative for Africa, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, was cautiously optimistic in a briefing to the Security Council earlier this month, stating the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (Minusca) was “gradually gaining control” in parts of CAR and overpowering clusters of armed groups, which he said constitutes “a victory for stability.”
“Each time tensions are defused through dialogue, it is another gain for peace, and we close the distance to attaining the end-state of the mission a little bit more,” he said.
But instituting nationwide peace and stability in CAR will be no easy matter.
In order to achieve that goal, the United Nations will not only have to implement disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs, but also establish an inclusive national dialogue between the government and rebel fighters.
Moreover, rampant acts of mass murder and human rights violations will also have to be addressed and a legal system set up to enforce accountability.
Onanga-Anyanga’s report to the Security Council detailed 620 documented abuses, including accounts of entire villages being burnt to the ground, multiple incidents of gang rapes and extra-judicial killings.
To fully understand the chaos that is CAR today, you have to go back in history to see its conception as a nation eternally on the periphery of collapse.
Officially, the former colony of Ubangi-Shari became Central African Republic when it theoretically gained independence from Paris in 1960.
But while France may have offered a de jure independence to the Central Africans, Paris, having leased out most of CAR’s territory to private companies before relinquishing sovereignty over the colony, effectively maintained control over the new nation’s entire economy and natural resources, as well as its development.
In other words, CAR’s administration of both national and international affairs was outsourced to and subcontracted by foreign private corporations and international development and humanitarian organizations.
And as long as these external players were getting their money’s worth on their investments, little to no attention was paid to what sort of internal governing was going on, at least until the early 1990s.
But after three tumultuous decades of political misrule — mostly by military regimes — a civilian government came to power in 1993, with the promise that the country would at last become a de facto independent state.
Sadly, in March 2003, the civilian government was deposed in yet another military coup and a transitional government was established.
Elections held in 2005 affirmed the junta government, which was reelected in 2011 in voting widely viewed as flawed.
It is worth noting that none of the aforementioned administrations — nor the elected and otherwise governments that would follow — ever managed to gain control over the CAR countryside, where religious feuds and lawlessness prevailed.
In 2013, tensions between these Muslims and Christians intensified, and a deadly cycle of sectarian violence in eastern parts of Central African Republic began to spin out of control, leaving thousands of civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.
When fighting escalated between the mostly Muslim Séléka rebels and the Christian and animist anti-balaka militias, a bloody tit-for-tat, genocidal revenge killing spree took hold.
Foreign interventionist diplomacy managed to quell the violence partially in late 2015, and in February of 2016, peaceful elections were held, with a soft-spoken former mathematician winning the vote as an independent (i.e., neither Séléka nor anti-balaka).
Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who took office on March last year, represents CAR’s one chance to find stability and sustainable peace by addressing the complex array of political, economic and social woes that have plagued the country from its very inception.
Although he is not a politician (and still has very little control outside CAR’s capital Bangui), he is committed and determined to implement the law and order platform which won him the presidency.
Under Touadéra, CAR is slowly inching toward peace and political stability, particularly in the capital city of Bangui, but sectarian violence persists in the in the war-torn countryside.
Armed groups and criminal gangs still have control over valuable mining areas and commercial towns, where they extort illicit taxes and trade diamonds and gold.
Over half the population suffers from malnutrition and hunger, and corruption is rife at all levels of society.
Resolving religious and ethnic conflicts that date back centuries will have to be at the core of any efforts to allow real peace to take root.
The United Nations and Touadéra are both doing their best to try to reinstate the rule of law and social stability in CAR, but as long as armed militias dominate the countryside, any steps towards peace will be fragmentary at best.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]