In Khartoum on February 5, 2019, Sudanese mediators succeeded in convincing the parties to the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) to agree a peace accord as the first step toward ending the ongoing civil war. The final agreement will be signed in the CAR capital, Bangui; however, doubts surround the potential of this accord to serve as a base for a comprehensive settlement, particularly in light of a number of key pending issues that are excluded from the agreement.

Since independence, the CAR has experienced multiple cycles of violence. The present conflict erupted in 2013, when rebels from the Séléka alliance ousted president François Bozizé and formed a transitional government led by Michel Djotodia – the first Muslim president to rule the country. This prompted the formation of an opposition group composed primarily of Christians known as the “anti-balaka.” The civil war has therefore taken on a religious dimension which has been accentuated and exploited to escalate the conflict, further frustrating progress in reaching a settlement, which has already been undermined by the intervention of several external parties with contrasting interests and agendas.

A number of peace agreements have failed to hold, either faltering from the start or falling at the final hurdle. They have led to the Khartoum agreement, initialed between President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and the leaders of 14 armed groups, in the presence of various senior foreign diplomats.

The accord was sponsored by the United Nations, the African Union and neighboring countries. What, therefore, does this agreement entail? What motivated it? What are the challenges facing its implementation? And how might the conflict develop from here on?


The content of the Khartoum Agreement

The Khartoum Agreement was based on a road map initiated by the African Union in July 2018 to achieve peace and reconciliation in the CAR. The agreement includes terms for power sharing, transitional justice and security. The government committed to include armed groups in power, and to distribute positions of authority among the parties and between central and local government without discrimination. The accord also called for the formation of a truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation commission that would begin work within 90 days of the signing of the agreement. It affords the president the "discretionary right to issue pardons," and provides for the establishment of "special mixed units" of militia members and security forces under an initial two-year transition period, following two months’ training.

Meanwhile, the militias agreed to respect the territorial integrity of the country, renounce violence, withdraw from areas under their control and cooperate with efforts of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of fighters into the national armed forces.


Motives for signing the deal

After five years of fighting, the parties to the conflict came to the realization that a decisive victory for either side was unlikely and that ongoing conflict would only serve to drain their capabilities further. They therefore bowed to international and regional pressure calling for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

At the same time, the government faced a humanitarian catastrophe it was increasingly unable to contain owing to its inability to meet the basic needs of the population. 2.5 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance; 1.4 million suffer from food shortages; 617,000 are internally displaced; and 538,000 have sought refuge in Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The security situation in the CAR has further deteriorated due to the lack of control exercised by the security forces outside the capital, combined with the spread of light weapons and continued aggression against civilians, aid workers and peacekeeping forces.

For their part, the rebels realized that the balance of power was not in their favor given the support provided to the government by Russia, including the deployment of Russian troops in the country. They also faced declining access to arms and funding following the closure of borders with neighboring countries such as Chad, which had provided the most significant conduit of support for the Séléka militia before it chose to ally itself with the Touadera government.

The rebels also feared being referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face allegations of human rights violations stretching back to 2003, as well as the consequences of the appointment of a new attorney general to the court in May 2018, the nomination of local and foreign judges to the ICC, the extradition of Alfred Yekatom – the former leader of the anti-balaka militia – to face the Court, and the imposition of financial sanctions against its other leaders.


Opportunities and challenges facing the deal

Views differ as to whether the Khartoum deal can lead to a comprehensive settlement in Central Africa. Some have expressed optimism based on the fact that the agreement is driven by the African Union’s approach to the conflict, which seems acceptable to all the regional and global actors involved. More importantly, the deal was brokered by Sudan and Chad, the two neighboring countries that are best placed to understand the dimensions of the conflict and have been most involved in it. Moreover, all the militias – without exception – have been involved in the negotiations. This is unprecedented, and means that no group is likely to consider breaking the deal.

However, significant challenges remain that may impede the implementation of the deal. Some aspects of the new agreement conflict with the previous agreement signed in June 2018, which provided for a general amnesty for all militia leaders. The Khartoum Agreement instead mandates the formation of a multi-lateral commission to consider the issue on case-by-case basis.

This will be rejected by the militias, as arrest warrants have been issued against many of their prominent members – most notably former president François Bozizé and Séléka’s leader, Michel Djotodia. Moreover, the agreement does not address problematic structural issues such as power-sharing bases, wealth distribution, mechanisms for disarming militias and the resettlement of IDPs and refugees. This may explain the ongoing clashes between militia groups, the continued religious hatred in the country and the refusal of some groups to sign the final deal in Bangui.

Furthermore, it now appears unlikely that the deal will enjoy sufficient international support in light of conflicting foreign agendas. France – of which the country is a former colony – and the EU have reservations concerning the role of Russia, arguing that the presence of Russian mercenaries will not help address the security situation and that Sudan’s mediation is nothing but a cover for a Russian agenda. While France attempts to convince African nations of this, Moscow has launched a diplomatic campaign against the French role in Central Africa, maintaining that French support for the Christian militias has aggravated the conflict.


The future of the conflict

There are two potential scenarios for the development of the conflict: the continuation of all-out civil war; or the establishment of a peaceful settlement. Of these, the former seems more likely for the following reasons:

  1. 14 of the country’s 16 governorates are now under the control of rebel groups who have developed their own revenue sources to finance their war effort – primarily the imposition of taxes and protection fees on companies operating in the mining sector. Also, foreign militias outside the control of the state are also present, such as the Lord's Resistance Army, which is designated a terrorist group.
  2. Cuts to the budget of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA – owing to the US decision to drop contributions to UN peacekeeping operations – and the departure of most of the relief agencies operating in the country.
  3. The involvement of some key actors in illegal activities that may obstruct a peaceful settlement – such as the departure of Congolese UN  peacekeepers in June 2018 following allegations of sexual abuse and other misconduct.
  4. The ongoing looting of the country’s natural resources such as diamonds, gold and uranium, particularly by European companies operating in the mining sector. Even the decisions of the General Court of the European Union to freeze the assets of these companies has failed to bring an end to their illegal activities.

If the conflict does continue, the list of losers in this war will probably be a long one. They will include not only the people of the CAR but also neighboring countries that will bear the costs of border closures and displaced refugees.

For the foreseeable future, the country will remain a battlefield for the proxy war between former colonial power France and a resurgent Russia with aspirations for a stronger international presence. This situation will endure as long as sectarian and ethnic alliances are given primacy over allegiance to the state, and while a general lack of motivation to reach a peaceful settlement in Central Africa prevails among the conflicting parties and the international community.

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