Refugees and peace in the Central African Republic

It is key that peacemaking in the CAR prioritize inclusion of minorities, especially Muslim and Peuhl Central Africans.

Refugees of the fighting in the Central African Republic observe Rwandan soldiers being dropped off at Bangui M'Poko International Airport in the Central African Republic Jan. 19, 2014. Image credit SSgt Ryan Crane via Wikimedia Commons.

Every time the Central African Republic (CAR) seems close to recovering from the chaos of the past few years, a new outbreak of violence sends the ongoing peace efforts back to square one. Despite the numerous cease-fires and peace agreements negotiated and signed since 2013, violence continues throughout the country. Since early 2017, episodes of extreme identity-based violence have brought the number of displaced people in and from CAR recently to an unprecedented 1.2 million people. CAR has reached a crossroads. Its leaders should act boldly to stem the unending cycle of violence by creating pathways for meaningful inclusion of all citizens.

In July 2017, under the auspices of the African Union, a new roadmap for peace and reconciliation in CAR was signed in Libreville. But peace mediators still have no nationally organized and inclusive political dialogue to work with, and armed groups continue to fragment. Those involved in the peace process still overlook a group of Central Africans whose experiences and reflections could represent a precious source of inspiration in finding a way out of the crisis.

An incomplete peace

Refugees should have a critical role in the peace process. Their views on issues such as reconciliation and justice are deeply relevant both to their return home and to our understanding of the long-standing tensions that led to the horrific outbreak of violence. So far, however, the voices of Central African refugees have rarely been heard, and their experiences were little taken into account in local consultations leading up to the Bangui Forum in May 2015, which was supposed to launch a national dialogue on the elements of the political transition. 

The Bangui Forum’s recommendations — including for local peace and reconciliation committees, a Special Criminal Court, and a truth and reconciliation commission — have fallen short and have failed to respond to the recent upsurge in violence and displacement.

To support new approaches, we conducted research for the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) on the views of Muslim and Peuhl Central African refugees in Chad and Cameroon. We focused on these communities to draw attention to both the often-neglected injustices of displacement and the frequently misunderstood causes of the conflict. Although often attributed to religious factors, the crisis in CAR grew out of long-standing disputes about identity and citizenship and who is considered truly Central African.  

Our report highlights that, among other things, Muslim and Peuhl Central Africans have been largely perceived as foreigners by other Central Africans, even though they have lived in the country for generations, and they are thus most likely to face barriers to rebuilding social ties within their community of origin if and when they return home.

A top-down message of inclusivity

Central African refugees fled horrific violence, including kidnapping, torture, and killings. They saw members of their community and relatives shot to death, murdered with knives or machetes. Many families have been separated as a result of displacement. Many have lost all the material goods accumulated over a lifetime. Four years after being displaced, refugees’ want to return home but know it is not yet the right time to go back. They are waiting for peace, which to them means the freedom to move around and to work and go about their daily business, safely. 

Muslim and Peuhl refugees see the prospects of living together again with other groups in CAR resting on two crucial preconditions: being recognized as Central Africans and taking part in a new social contract based on inclusion. Only strong messages of inclusivity — coming from the highest state representatives and making it clear that Muslims are Central Africans and have equal rights — can, in their view, put an end to the rhetoric of hatred they have heard for so long.  

Those messages need to be accompanied by the restoration of state authority based on the broad inclusion of minorities and other vulnerable groups, together with symbolic gestures meant to demonstrate the commitment of national and local authorities to reconciliation. “The president should say that we all have to rebuild the country together and that our brothers who are abroad should come back,” said a 64-year-old man from Bouzoum.

This emphasis on a top-down approach to reconciliation is striking and unexpected, given the bottom-up, community-based strategies that have been promoted by international organizations in both CAR and other conflict-affected societies. It raises questions about the efficacy of current efforts to encourage communities to live together. Refugees see these efforts as being of limited value if people doubt the sincerity of the country’s leaders. 

Accountability and reparation

Justice is also a long-standing challenge in CAR. Even before the current crisis, widespread corruption among the few justice officials in the country had led to a deep distrust of public institutions, prompting Central Africans to find alternative conflict-resolution mechanisms. The vast majority of disputes have traditionally been resolved through mediation by a local chief, a system that refugees still see as valid for property and land rights, but not as a solution for crimes of physical violence.  

Even where the justice system functions, it is hard to tell who is accountable for abuses committed by leaders and armed groups, government authorities, and people’s own neighbors. In addition, conflict has often been used as a pretext to break the law, resulting in many common crimes occurring amid the disorder. 

Most refugees think that accountability for serious past violations — especially by those responsible for the crisis, including former presidents and leaders of armed groups — should be handled by an exclusively international body, due to these challenges. 

But while they endured incomprehensible violence and loss of life, refugees are also concerned about their material losses. Many identify as coming from generations of traders and businessmen and feel entitled to compensation for property and businesses they were forced to leave behind. “If they accept to rebuild what they destroyed, I can go back,” said a young woman from Berberati.

The urgency of listening to refugees 

Refugees’ experiences and reflections on reconciliation and justice are crucial to moving forward from violent conflict in a fractured society. This is the case even where ongoing violence and displacement are happening alongside transitional measures for reform. Ensuring full participation means consulting with victims early to prevent the reoccurrence of violations. For sustainable peace and development in CAR, policymakers and peacemakers must work to make sure that the voices of refugees are fully heard.

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