A year ago, we ignored the warning signs and missed the window to prevent the current violent crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR). However, today there is an opportunity to bring the crisis to an end, and we can’t afford to miss it.
In the late summer of 2013, as Washington was focused on the power struggles in Egypt, the impending government shutdown, and the Assad government in Syria, the first reports of intercommunal violence in the CAR began to trickle into capital cities around the world. NGOs and human rights groups warned of a deteriorating situation. Although then-President Michel Djotodia dissolved the Séléka rebel group that swept him into power, abuses of the civilian population continued and self-defense militias expanded rapidly. The fighting in the country became increasingly characterized along the lines of religious identity, causing the situation to spiral into violence that has claimed thousands of lives. In a November 2013 testimony to the U.S. Congress, Search for Common Ground warned, “We see many of the same features emerging in this situation that we have seen in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], Syria, Nigeria and other regions that have seen protracted violence on a large scale.”
The conflict has its roots in longstanding problems. People across the country lack equity in access to opportunities and basic services while the political system has, for years, yielded a ruling elite often disconnected from the needs and demands of the vast majority of the population. A culture of winner-takes-all leadership raised the stakes of political competition. The international community was often willing to prioritize short-term crisis management over long-term progress. This latest violent outbreak was the sad result of these and other longstanding issues that went unaddressed, both by Central Africans and their international partners. The result brought the country to the crisis we see today.
So What Has Changed in the Past Year?
On Monday, the United States reopened its embassy in the CAR, and the United Nations took over the helm of the international peacekeeping mission to protect Central Africans. Preparations for an inclusive, national dialogue process are beginning. There are courageous efforts underway in the CAR, led by ordinary citizens, religious leaders, local officials and community groups working to overcome the legacy of war. The economy is slowly coming back to life. The nation’s new transitional leader, President Catherine Samba-Panza—the country’s first female leader and Africa’s third—is making her first official visit to the United States and is laying out her priorities for recovery at a speech at Brookings on Friday, September 19.
Despite the progress, the CAR has a long way to go. Daunting challenges include ensuring security throughout the country, leading an inclusive political process, promoting reconciliation, and enabling the return and reintegration of displaced people. Overcoming these challenges will create the necessary conditions for economic growth and for rebuilding the structures for transparent and accountable governance. A successful recovery will require extraordinary commitment and leadership from the Central African Government, the United Nations, and regional bodies, as well as business, civil society, local leaders and ordinary citizens.
The United States plays a key role in supporting sustainable peace in the Central African Republic. The American government, religious community and aid organizations mobilized people and resources, boosting local peace efforts to help stop the growing crisis. U.S. support helped save lives and bring about the conditions for recovery. The increasing intercommunal violence made the Central African Republic a test case for President Obama’s Atrocities Prevention agenda and mobilized American diplomatic, military and humanitarian resources. As a result of the work of courageous Central Africans and the support of their international partners, the country now has its best opportunity to break out of the cycle of violence and begin the path to stabilization, recovery and growth.
Sustained investments in stabilizing the country now can serve to break the cycle of violence and prevent the need for heavier investments in the future. The causes of the crisis are deep-seated, but not insurmountable. Over 40 countries and organizations, including the U.S., have committed to the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile and Conflict Affected States,” which focuses on helping countries establish inclusive and accountable governance systems. During last month’s Africa Leaders Summit, the United States pledged to invest in supporting fragile countries to become more resilient to crises and shocks. This brings us one step closer to a safer world.
Search for Common Ground’s office in the CAR opened over a year ago. Since then, we’ve witnessed astonishing transformations through our peacebuilding programs. We’ve seen women and men put down their arms and take to the streets with messages of reconciliation and solidarity. We’ve seen the change a collaborative approach manifests. We have hope for CAR. We believe the future for its people will be bright if we—together with Central Africans—make a concerted commitment to build on the progress already being made.
Shamil Idriss is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Search for Common Ground. SFCG works to end violent in 35 countries including in the Central African Republic, where it has offices in Bangui, Bossangoa, and Zemio and supports community leaders, civil society groups, and journalists to help rebuild social cohesion in the country.