Central African Republic: let's keep people safe, not push for elections

17 October 2014
Comment
Last week, an angry crowd killed a man, decapitated and burned his body in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). The man was a former fighter with the largely Muslim Séléka rebel coalition; his assailants came from the anti-Balaka Christian militia.

This sparked a cycle of revenge attacks, starting with the murder of a taxi driver by Muslim fighters and days of violence that have left at least 12 people dead. More than 6,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

And yet only two days before, the head of the UN Regional Office for Central Africa, Abdoulaye Bathily, lauded the signing of a peace agreement, stating “I think we can...reasonably think that with a few extra weeks we can wrap things up”. He also urged for elections to be held promptly.

As violence once again rocks the capital city of Bangui, this statement is misguided, even dangerous. Portraying CAR as a nearly stable situation, where the political process is the main priority, risks ignoring the fragile reality for most of the people: a reality marked by regular and devastating threats to their lives and livelihoods.

It’s clear that the international community needs to continue supporting peace negotiations to resolve the crisis, eventually leading to a wider political process including elections. But while the violence continues, protecting people from brutal attacks by armed groups must be the main priority. This is all the more important as the United Nations peacekeeping mission has not yet reached its full capacity (with over 4,000 military and police officers still to be deployed in CAR), making financial and human resources scarce. The fact that the various armed groups signed an agreement to end hostilities in Brazzaville in July 2014 is undoubtedly a positive step. But it also led to disagreement and power struggles within the two main armed groups. Most importantly, it has not succeeded in stopping violence against civilians. Now is not the time to celebrate.

Painting a positive picture of fragile situations never ends well. We’ve seen it all before in places like South Sudan where signs of a worsening situation were ignored – and look at where the country stands today. Another example is Afghanistan where premature declarations of stability have been largely proved false.

Statements like Bathilyin’s risk putting CAR in the same situation. Elections are often – mistakenly - portrayed as synonymous with stability, however pushing for elections in a climate of hatred and revenge, as is the case in the CAR, may harden positions and further divide communities already torn apart by war.

Instead, the focus must be on what can really improve the lives of civilians caught up in this inter-communal conflict. A first priority must be stepping up peacekeeping to provide effective physical protection for civilians. But the second, equally if not more crucial priority, is dealing with the inter-communal tensions. While the conflict has been led by politicians in search of power, months of violence has created hatred and deep-seated animosities between and amongst communities. That’s what some humanitarian organisations have tried to address in their programming.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been one of few NGOs that has conducted workshops to try to reunite and restart dialogue between Christian and Muslim communities divided by the conflict. These workshops provide communities a safe space to speak among themselves, to share their personal histories and address some of the issues to reduce the feeling of revenge. As documented in an issue of the Humanitarian Exchange, during one workshop an imam, who hadn’t talked to his Christian neighbours for weeks decided to bridge the gap by going to give bread to the Christian family living next door. The mother of the family came out of the house and, hesitant at first, thanked him and inquired about his wife. He told her that his wife had fled to Chad, and the mother responded by offering to wash his clothes for him as a gesture of good will.

While this exchange may seem fairly unremarkable to foreign observers, it’s an example of some of the most critical steps in bringing people together, rebuilding communities and preventing further trauma to avoid fuelling further hatred. All actors involved in CAR, humanitarians and peacekeeping forces, should consider stepping up local mediation efforts to aid reduce tensions and risk of further violence.

The election agenda in CAR risks overshadowing the fragile nature of the situation. The reality in CAR remains one where violence can erupt at any time. The violent mutilation of this Muslim man in Bangui is a stark reminder of this. What is most important now is to help make sure that people are and feel safe by helping to heal deep rifts within communities – only then will elections have a positive impact on the future of CAR.