Negotiating the Next War

Allowing rebels to leverage a cease-fire into political power will only lead to more death in the Central African Republic -- as it has in South Sudan and too many other African states.


For a moment last week, it looked as though the people of the Central African Republic (CAR) were getting some much-needed good news. Representatives from two rebel groups, the mainly Muslim Séléka and the mainly Christian anti-Balaka, whose fighting has displaced more than a quarter of the CAR’s population since March of last year, signed a cease-fire agreement.

The signing, in the nearby Republic of the Congo, should have been cause for celebration. But inside the CAR, the reaction was muted. Perhaps it’s because Central Africans have seen this show before.

The history of the CAR, and those of many of its neighbors, is replete with barely maintained cease-fire agreements marking the first step in negotiations that hand power to those whose claim to leadership is really just the strength of the firepower they wield. Today’s rebels become tomorrow’s leaders. It’s a cycle that never ends well.

Last week’s cease-fire was violated less than 24 hours after it was signed. "We don’t see that [cease-fire] here. Each day we have attacks," Maj. Fredrick Duprez, the commander of French peacekeeping troops in the town of Bambari, just over 200 miles northeast of the CAR’s capital, Bangui, told the BBC three days post-agreement.

Part of the problem is that both the Séléka and the anti-Balaka are plagued by factionalism, and those who represented them at the cease-fire negotiations have a limited ability to enforce a promise of peace throughout the country. "Many of the Séléka and anti-Balaka, especially outside of Bangui, are essentially criminal gangs, for lack of a better term," says Lewis Mudge, a researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "It’s going to be very difficult to rein them in based on a cease-fire agreement."

The post-independence period of the CAR — which is commonly described as a "failed" or "phantom" state — has been characterized by a series of coups. The motivation to gain power flows from the desire to plunder state resources, including oil, diamonds, and ivory. Those running the country have generally been more concerned with lining their own pockets than with governing. As a result, the CAR ranks 185th out of 187 countries in the U.N.’s Human Development Index, which measures health, education, and living standards.

The latest iteration of this bloody pattern began in December 2012 with a campaign by the Séléka, based in the marginalized northeast of the country, to overthrow then-President François Bozizé. En route to the capital, the Séléka committed horrific crimes against civilians. In March 2013, they installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, in the presidency. The anti-Balaka, who initially formed as self-defense groups against Séléka attacks, soon began revenge violence against Muslim civilians they associated with the Séléka.

By the end of 2013, under pressure from the international community, Djotodia stepped down. In January 2014, he was replaced by a Transitional National Assembly — headed by Catherine Samba-Panza, who led previous reconciliation efforts in the CAR — under an agreement that promises genuine elections by February 2015. Virtually no one close to the crisis, however, believes this is realistic. Today, the transitional government rules in name alone, with no functioning police, judiciary, or civil service.

In this chaotic scenario, with a death toll that continues to rise by the day, leaders from both rebel groups are seeking to secure government positions through the Forum for National Reconciliation in the Central African Republic. "They are trying to cut a deal with the government and the international community," says Kasper Agger, a field researcher for the Enough Project, which seeks to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

Sponsored by the Economic Community of Central African States, the forum brought about last week’s cease-fire agreement. But even if that agreement had held or a second one does, a brief look at those representing the rebel groups at the forum does little to instill confidence that, with a power-sharing deal as the endgame, the people of the CAR will end up any better off than they are now.

HRW’s Mudge observes that representatives of each side at the forum could be subject to scrutiny by the International Criminal Court, which opened a preliminary examination into the situation earlier this month. A recent U.N. Panel of Experts report concluded that the lead anti-Balaka negotiator, Patrice-Édouard Ngaïssona, is responsible for attacks on international peacekeepers. On the Séléka side, Mohamed Moussa Dhaffane represents Michel Djotodia and Noureddine Adam, both of whom are already under U.N. sanction for their roles in the crisis.

By definition, a cease-fire must be negotiated with those who have the most military might, which often means people who have committed human rights violations. There is no way around this. The problem comes when a cease-fire agreement gets leveraged into a claim to a formal position of power, without ever pausing to account for the crimes that brought the fighters to the negotiating table — a common problem in Africa.

"Amnesty is often the first demand from leaders who have blood on their hands," says Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Accountability gets kicked down the road as short-term peace is traded for long-term stability.

International diplomats have long been complicit in this myopic approach to peace negotiations. In fact, there are incentives to go along with it: A signed peace agreement brings rounds of applause in the immediate term. By the time the perpetrators with whom the power-sharing agreement has been reached revert to type, diplomats — and the foreign reporters who follow them — have long since vacated the country. Civilians are left alone to deal with the fallout.

Exhibit A of this scenario lies next door to the CAR, in the fledgling nation of South Sudan. Atrocities committed by Southern Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar during internecine fighting throughout the Sudanese civil war were swept under the carpet in the process of trying to create peace. The power-sharing government that took South Sudan to independence in 2011 placed Machar in the position of vice president, as the international media spotlight shone on diplomats celebrating.

Fast-forward to today, and peace seems a distant memory: South Sudan is bordering on disintegration as forces loyal to Machar battle for control of the country. According to a recent U.N. report, Machar’s forces have committed gross violations of human rights, as have those loyal to President Salva Kiir, with "civilians targeted, often along ethnic lines."

Back in the CAR, the violation of last week’s cease-fire is undoubtedly a concern. But it pales in comparison to the possibility that the international community is setting itself up to foster the same structural problem that has plagued the CAR and its neighbors for decades.

The lesson the leaders of rebel groups have learned is that, if you take up arms, you can secure a seat at the negotiating table, which can then be leveraged into a government position. The lesson should be that, if you take up arms, you will be held accountable for the crimes you commit.

By repeatedly giving rebels an exit route through power and putting off accountability to another day, international negotiators are only setting up the people of the CAR to be plunged back into crisis.

Rebecca Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Law at American University, Washington College of Law. She is the author of Fighting for Darfur.

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