A senior UN official said he expected armed groups in Central African Republic (CAR) to sign a disarmament agreement during this week’s peace forum, boosting efforts to improve security across a nation torn apart by more than two years of sectarian violence and decades of coups and poor governance.
Aurélien Agbénonci, the head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in CAR and the secretary general’s deputy special representative, said the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Minusca, was ready to support the implementation of any disarmament accord, and had made this clear to the myriad militia that still hold sway in large parts of the former French colony.
“One of the achievements we are expecting from the forum is this agreement on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR). If [the armed groups] agree to DDR, if they agree to get involved in [Minusca/UNDP-run] labour-intensive work programmes … we will boost the restoration of state authority,” he said.
In March 2013, mainly Muslim Séléka rebels ousted CAR’s president, seized the capital Bangui and installed the first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. The Séléka terrorised the predominantly Christian population, killing men, women and children until they were forced from power in January 2014 and took refuge in the north.
The Séléka killings sparked reprisals by “anti-balaka” Christian militia, who drove out tens of thousands of Muslims from the south.
The peace forum, which opened in Bangui on Monday and runs until 11 May, has brought together government officials, Séléka rebels, anti-balaka militias, civil society leaders, international partners and religious leaders to analyse the root causes of the conflict and prepare for elections, due to be held before the end of the transitional government’s mandate in August.
CAR’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, who was appointed in January last year, said the forum should allow citizens to define “a new vision of our nation state, a new social contract of values and national cohesion and a global and definitive accord for peace and reconciliation”.
Nearly 900,000 people have fled their homes since the crisis started. Fragile health systems have been decimated, preventable diseases like malaria are on the rise, and NGOs are still unable to access some areas because of attacks by roving armed groups who loot and torch homes, hemming terrified people into remote enclaves.
Before the Bangui forum, a series of consultations were held across all the provinces to draw communities into the reconciliation process. Agbénonci said this allowed politicians to see at first hand how people outside the capital were excluded and marginalised, and to witness the extreme poverty of their everyday lives.
“At the root, it’s a crisis of poverty, it’s a crisis of mismanagement of resources, it’s a crisis of inequality, of injustice – and then they bring the religious element as an excuse,” Agbénonci said.
Landlocked CAR has rich deposits of diamonds and gold, but little of that wealth has trickled down to its 4.6 million people.
Agbénonci described the forum as an opportunity for “collective catharsis”, saying it would give a voice to those who lacked one and break a decades-old trend of all dialogue taking place between elites in the capital.
In an early result, the UN children’s agency Unicef said on Tuesday that the main armed groups had agreed at the forum to release all children associated with their forces and end any new child recruitment. Between 6,000 and 10,000 children are associated with these militias, including fighters, children used for sex and those working as cooks, messengers and in other roles.
The groups have yet to agree on a schedule for the releases, but Unicef said they had agreed to grant access to areas under their control to plan the releases.
Agbénonci said the Minusca peacekeepers had played a critical role in re-establishing security. Minusca, working with the UNDP and other UN agencies, had enabled transitional leaders to visit parts of the country where residents had never before seen a president during the pre-forum consultations.
However, the role of French troops – sent to restore stability after the 2013 coup as part of Operation Sangaris – has come under scrutiny after a whistleblower disclosed the alleged sexual abuse of children by French soldiers in Bangui. France started withdrawing some of its 2,000 troops this year.
Agbénonci said the UN would do everything possible to have the elections held in August as planned. He said the UN integrated electoral assistance team had started electoral mapping this week.
“Our objective is to try to make sure we stick to the deadline but we also know that when there is a need to be a bit flexible – common sense will guide people,” he said, adding that a lack of finances was also a problem.
A referendum on a new constitution should be held before the elections, said Agbénonci, adding that this would serve as a rehearsal for the parliamentary and presidential ballots.
To underline the enormous challenge of rebooting the national identity after a traumatic two years, he described a chance encounter with two presidential candidates in Bangui. He told them he had just been to Ndélé and Bria in the north and east.
“Do you know what they told me?” he said. “‘You know, I’ve never been there.’ These are people who want to rule their country – and it’s their right – but they don’t know the real country and the constraints people are facing.”