A voter holds a ballot in CAR’s February 2016 election.
Bangui hummed long into the early hours. Crowds took to the streets of the Central African Republic’s capital to celebrate the election of former Prime Minister Faustin-Archange Touadéra. The new President was elected in a run-off election, gaining 62.71% of the vote, after initial voting in January failed to provide a conclusive winner. The crowds sung and danced through the night, a chorus of hopeful voices trying to drown out the discordant rhythms that had provided the backdrop of the past few years.
A lot of hope rides upon Touadéra’s shoulders as the country gradually tries to find a semblance of normality after rebels ousted the unpopular president, François Bozizé, in March 2013. Rebels stormed Bangui, the capital, arriving at the outskirts late on a muggy Saturday evening. By early Sunday morning, they had reached the presidential palace, only to find it already deserted. Bozizé, who had taken power in a coup in a similar fashion ten years prior, had already fled by helicopter. He managed to get away with five suitcases.
The subsequent violence, between the predominately Muslim Seleka group responsible for overthrowing the government and the Christian anti-balaka movement which rose up to oppose it, brought the country to the brink of full-scale civil war. The conflict saw close to one million people displaced, and 2.5 million, nearly half the population, needing some form of humanitarian support.
The conflict in the CAR was defined by Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, as “the worst crisis most people have never heard of.” While the violence ostensibly split the country along religious lines, between the Muslim Seleka and the Christian anti-balaka, these categories were largely figurative. As the anthropologist Louisa Lombard argued, in a country as fractured as the CAR, “this is a case of religion being bound up in other dividing lines in the society.” A human rights worker, quoted by The Guardian similarly stated that the Seleka were “not Islamic fundamentalists. They are Muslim-lite. They are here for prosperity and power; they are not here to change anyone’s confession.”
The Seleka, whose name means “alliance” in the local language, comprised a loose grouping of rival rebel factions who had long opposed Bozize’s rule. Bolstered by troops from neighbouring Chad, South Sudan, and Congo, the rag tag group immediately lapsed into raping and pillaging. The organisation has been described as “a military-commercial enterprise,” underscoring the tenuous religious affiliation it claimed. Upon seizing power, the Seleka leadership began plundering the nation’s coffers and natural resources. Illegal logging quickly became the primary revenue source for the Seleka.
The Seleka leadership, too busy enriching itself, turned a blind eye to the excesses of the rank-and-file. The steady increase of egregious abuses prompted the rise of opposition forces. The anti-Balaka, a nominally Christian group, quickly mobilised and started to seize territory back from the Seleka. In the vacuum left by fleeing Seleka troops, the anti-Balaka took its reprisals out on the wider Muslim population, indiscriminately killing whole villages. The CAR swung wildly between bouts of reprisals from both sides – a metronome keeping time against the clack of machine gun fire, the thwack of machetes, and the cries of those slain.
Tensions only abated with an influx of foreign peacekeepers – there are still 900 French troops and 11,000 UN Peacekeepers present. Pope Francis managed to tour the country in November 2015, his first trip to an active war zone. His visit passed without incident and provided a clear indication that the country was ready to try and move on. A transition government took power and called elections. Both elections, the December general election and the more recent run-off, were peaceful and saw large turnouts, 79% and 61% respectively. Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye, the head of the African Union observer mission, praised the run-off for its “calm, serenity and transparence.”
Still, while hope is the timbre of the day, there are legitimate fears that this is a mere interlude. Ben Shepherd, a researcher at the think tank Chatham House has said in relation to the CAR that the international community is “ignoring the fact that Rome burned down ten years ago.” The tensions that wracked the country are still bubbling under the surface. Touadéra will have to find a way to disarm and reintegrate the young rebels who have profited handsomely from the lawless environment.
In post-conflict Disarming, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) initiatives, reintegration typically proves to be the sticking point. An Institute for Security Studies report called reintegration “the Achilles heel of DDR.” Even if Touadéra manages to wrest the guns from both rebel factions and breaks the skeletal remains of their hierarchies, he will be left with a mass of disaffected youth who have grown accustomed to war. Touadéra will have to provide a better alternative than violence, which will prove difficult in a nation where the average income is $320 a year. He will also need to ensure that the nominally Islamic Seleka does not find refuge or material support from Boko Haram, which has started operating in neighboring Chad.
The new President may find his position even less secure once the French withdraw their troops in the coming months as the new government formally takes power. This will still leave 11,000 UN Peacekeepers in the country, but with allegations of rapes against girls as young as 11 years old, their place in the country is not without reservation. Nor does the presence of Peacekeepers axiomatically guarantee peace, as proven in Rwanda, Srebenica, and more recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where peacekeepers have routinely failed to stop mass rapes.
Touadéra’s election was something of a surprise. He was not one of the favorites going into the initial ballot, and he ran as an independent. His lack of party affiliation was seen as a break from what came before. His election is symbolic of a nation trying desperately to move on. Let’s hope that the cheers he evoked in Bangui can silence the echoes of the past.
Barclay Bram has an MSci in International Relations and Global Issues from the University of Nottingham. An excerpt of his Thesis, The Dragon & The Flea, about terrorism in Western China, was published by Taylor & Francis in the journal The International Affairs Forum. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, The Huffington Post, and The Millions. His Twitter is @