Marching south, armed brigades from the rebel Séléka Coalition of the Central African Republic attacked and captured the small diamond-mining town of Dimbi and a tourist attraction, Kembé, on January 20-21 – just ten days after a peace agreement was signed between the Séléka rebel force and President Francois Bozize’s government.
Waging a month-long siege on his administration, the northern-based alliance captured town after town, stopping short of seizing Bangui, the capital. But with the help of troops from other African states, Bozizé managed to stave off the rebels and, after intense negotiations, a ceasefire agreement signed in Gabon’s capital on January 11 created a national unity government with authority over the country for one year.
Yet, despite the ceasefire, violence has resurged in parts of the Central African Republic (CAR), signalling the first cracks in the Libreville peace accord. Séléka groups have been accused of a growing number of abuses, including raiding government offices and private homes, holding hostages for ransom and attacking farmers in parts of the north.
In the south, rebels reportedly raided and threatened residents in Alindao, before advancing on Dimbi and Kembe last week. The rebels were thought to be moving towards Bangassou, the border town between CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A Séléka spokesman had previously said the group had been sent back to its base, but confirmed reports from CAR said some armed forces were still in the border area.
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Although calm and order were restored, the attacks resulted in the destruction of police buildings and the release of prisoners in Kembé. Telephone lines were destroyed in Kembé, while in Dimbi the occupation of a diamond mine resulted in the temporary suspension of two mining operations.
The government quickly condemned the seizing of the villages, but the attacks could suggest dissatisfaction with the peace deal as Séléka factions have openly expressed their unhappiness, saying previous deals between Bozizé and CAR’s various rebel groups have brought little benefit to them.
A challenging recovery
Despite some instances of violence, much of the wider country is stable and recovering from the violence, with businesses, hospitals and schools reopening in most areas. But, as normality returns to CAR, the humanitarian situation remains dire. Almost 800,000 people are estimated to be living in areas currently under the control of the Séléka group and some 700,000 people in Bangui remain affected by the crisis.
The fighting forced international aid agencies to suspend their humanitarian relief programmes, while some temporarily relocated to Cameroon in order to provide support services. However, following the ceasefire, most international NGOs returned to work in CAR last week.
UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Country Director, Amy Martin, said the destruction of property during the rebellion meant aid organisations have little to work with. “When we came back, we found the offices had been completely looted and we have no goods to give out to the people and we have no implements to work with. We’re now starting from ground zero,” she told Al Jazeera.
Martin said there were currently no domestic commercial air flights from Bangui, and that fuel was in very short supply. She said although OCHA and UNHCR had been granted access by government and Séléka forces, medical and nutritional supplies provided by relief agencies were critically low.
Martin added that it was difficult to estimate numbers of internally displaced people, as many people had fled into the bushes or escaped to farms. “In Bria, Kabo, Ndele and Bambari, more than half of the population fled and went to their farms and they have not yet returned. They could be 60 kilometres away or even further, but we have no immediately available figures. UNHCR are still collecting data; there is no global figure,” she said.
The Red Cross said many of those who had fled were gradually returning. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesperson Vincent Pouget said an estimated 1,000 civil servants in Ndele had refused to come back to the town because they feared a resurgence of violence, although stability had been restored. Pouget also expressed grave concern about small children sleeping in the bush with their families, as they were most at risk of contracting tropical diseases such as malaria.
“It [malaria] is an issue because people have been displaced in the bush for some time now. The only people we could assist are in Ndele close to the airport. We are able to give them water, but we are also concerned about the 0-5 year olds who have slept for many nights in the bush and in the cold.”
“It might seem strange to be talking about the cold in Central African Republic, but these days it gets very cold at night. The contrast in the day and night temperatures is big,” explained Pouget.
With the world’s fifth-highest death rate from infectious and parasitic diseases, malaria is one of the leading causes of mortality in CAR. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) described malaria in CAR as “holoendemic”, meaning almost every individual in the 4.4 million population is infected at least once a year. Tropical diseases have long been a problem in the landlocked country, but its constant political conflict has had significant impact on the spread and treatment of illnesses. Pouget said the recent rebellion worsened the situation, as access to health care was more difficult for the tens of thousands of new internally displaced refugees.
In the post-rebellion phase, CAR not only faces healthcare challenges, but the sharp rise in food prices has also made life harder for the majority of the poorer population. According to a report issued by OCHA on January 17, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) found that commodity supplies were dwindling. The towns and villages with staple foods were captured by the rebels, while in Bangui, WFP estimates that food prices have risen by 27 percent in the past month, partly because of the scarcity of supply. During the rebellion, many shops across CAR shut down in fear of being looted and in its aftermath, there are reports of people being taxed and having their food taken away by Séléka militiamen in control of the towns.
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After Libreville, hard work begins
Once dismissed as a bunch of ” terrorist mercenaries ” from Sudan or ” Wahhabites supported by foreign powers” by the Bozizé government, the Libreville agreement now forces the administration to share power with some of its old adversaries. Bozizé came to power in 2003 through a popular coup over incumbent President Ange-Félix Patassé, but in the following year, the northern-based Union of Democratic Forces (UDFR) – now part of the Séléka alliance – launched a long offensive against the Bangui government. In 2007 and 2008 Bozizé signed peace deals with UDFR and several other rebel groups, but he stands accused of failing to honour past agreements.
Controversy over the results of the 2011 presidential election, in which Bozizé was re-elected, led to the formation of the Front pour l’Annulation et la Reprise des Elections de 2011 (FARE), calling for a re-run of the poll. FARE was co-ordinated by opposition leader Nicolas Tiangaye, and rebel groups loyal to ousted president Patassé.
A lawyer by profession and one of the main drafters of the constitution, Tiangaye was appointed prime minister on January 17 in line with the Libreville accord. While this has been widely welcomed as a significant move towards restoring stability in CAR, Thierry Vircoulon, project director of the International Crisis Group’s Central Africa programme, warned of tempestuous times ahead for the Séléka-Bozizé coalition.
“Transitional governments are not a walk in the park,” he said. “In Bangui, everybody expects this transition to be a constant fight between its components, and the region (the Economic Community of Central African States) will have to arbitrate.”
Noting that the peace agreement was yet to translate into reality for ordinary citizens, the ICRC’s Pouget added: “We are hopeful that the humanitarian situation will improve, but there has been no dramatic change for the people between the Libreville accord and the situation on the ground. The political discourse has not had an impact on the the daily life of the people and for there to be concrete changes, they need to be seen on the ground.”
In a bid to advance its peacemaking efforts in CAR, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA) until January 31, 2014. Addressing the council after the adoption of the resolution, CAR’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Charles-Armel Doubane, said his country was more fragile and “the scope of the damage was immense” after the crisis. Doubane said that, while a national unity government borne out of a peace agreement was a good sign for peace and statebuilding, CAR’s new leaders would need the “political will to move words to deeds”.
After Libreville, turning political resolutions into action remains the biggest challenge for a country which has witnessed coups and rebellions since its independence from France in 1960. As CAR struggles to recover from yet another political crisis, and a new government of allies and enemies is formed, the country’s cycle of violence continues to cast clouds of uncertainty over the incoming administration’s ability to create a lasting peace.
Follow Tendai Marima on Twitter: @i_amten