Central African Republic: is justice being sacrificed for the illusion of peace?

On 21 May, over 26 people were killed and dozens injured when an armed group attacked two villages in the north west of the Central African Republic (CAR). The attacks were reported by the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR, MINUSCA, which confirmed that twelve people were killed in Koundjili village and 14 in Djoumjoum village. 

Whilst reports of violent and devastating attacks on civilians in CAR are not new, these attacks represent a new challenge for the recently re-constituted government following the latest peace agreement between the government and armed groups.

The alleged perpetrator of the attacks on the two villages is the rebel group known as 3R (Return, Reclamation and Reconciliation). The group was formerly part of the Seleka alliance that took over the country following a coup in March 2013.  The alliance was subsequently disbanded, but armed groups fragmented and seized territories outside of the capital, Bangui.

The price of peace

Previously the government could only condemn the actions of these armed groups and attempt to broker peace for the sake of civilians, but since the signing of the last peace agreement in February 2019 3R’s leader, Bi Sidi Souleymane, also known as Sidiki Abbass, is in the cabinet as a special military advisor to the Prime Minister. The military advisors are tasked with guiding the government as it reformulates the security infrastructure and integrates regular troops with fighters from the 14 armed groups operational in the country.

The integration of militias in the security infrastructure is as controversial as the inclusion of armed group leaders in the power sharing agreement.

The most recent peace agreement – the Agreement of Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic – was signed on 6 February 2019 in Bangui. The agreement was reached between the CAR authorities and 14 armed groups after talks were held in the Sudanese capital Khartoum between 24 January and 5 February. It was supported by the African Union and negotiated with the oversight of Sudan’s former president, Omar al Bashir.

The peace agreement called for the immediate surrender of arms by the militias and the cessation of hostilities; however, armed groups continued to use force in order to exert pressure as the power sharing arrangement was being negotiated.

Another key issue of contention during the drafting of the agreement was the issuing of amnesties to armed groups, a matter on which President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government had previously refused to concede. Whilst amnesties were not explicitly dealt with in the text of the peace agreement, neither was the issue of impunity, aside from comments in the texts that committed parties to the fight against impunity.

A mixed response

The peace agreement has received a mixed response in the country. Some community and religious leaders are concerned that work to de-escalate tensions and reduce the drivers of revenge could be undone. At the height of the conflict, religious leaders in particular worked with communities impacted by the violence, urging victims to wait for the state to execute justice against the perpetrators, many of whom are known to these communities.

With the inclusion of armed groups in the government, people who have suffered grave violations may be disheartened by the perception that those responsible for the violence are being rewarded after using violent means to secure real political power and economic advantage.

The government faces a complicated set of circumstances that it needs to respond to, but it must begin, first and foremost, with the unequivocal condemnation of violence and a swift investigation into the recent attacks, ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

On 22 May the government and MINUSCA issued a statement condemning the violence and giving the leader of the 3Rs movement 72 hours to present the perpetrators to the relevant authorities, otherwise he would be held personally responsible. As the 72 hour deadline approaches, the world will be watching to see how the government resolves this breach of a hard won peace agreement. An integral part of dealing with this crisis is ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

The establishment and operationalisation of the Special Criminal Court is a significant step forward in the fight against impunity, but these judicial institutions need political and financial support in order to effectively execute their mandates. Measures must also be put in place to deal with the continuing acts of violence against civilians committed by armed groups that are now part of the government.

The monumental challenge of bringing the government and 14 armed groups to the negotiating table to sign a peace agreement is significant; however, it does not prevent the creation of alternative armed groups that resort to violence because they do not feel their needs are adequately represented by those that are part of the power sharing agreement. If this precedent is allowed to stand, then violence will be seen as a means of accruing political power and legitimacy. It is therefore incumbent on the state to ensure a robust response to the attacks by the 3R, if necessary, by holding its leadership to account for the actions of its members. 

By CSW’s Central African Republic Team