Armed groups in the Central African Republic have reached a cease-fire deal aimed at putting an end to the violence that has engulfed the country since March 2013.
The 10-part agreement was signed July 23 in Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo, under the aegis of Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, the international mediator on the crisis in CAR.
The ceasefire is a step toward a resolution of the crisis, said the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, who attended the Brazzaville meeting on behalf of the Interfaith Platform, formed of Christian and Muslim leaders.
“A Christian is one who lets himself be nourished by hope and therefore, I can only hope that this is the beginning of the end,” he told World Watch Monitor.
Still, the archbishop said he remained cautious.
“One thing is the position taken by the main leaders, and another will be the position of those who are on the field,” he said. “On the ground, some may wish to defend interests that leaders may not want to. We now need to come together and create a cohesive synergy between the head and the base, so that we can speak the same language, move in the same direction and give a chance to peace in the Central African Republic.”
The landlocked African nation, just atop the Equator, has been wracked by violence since December 2012, when a coalition of Muslim-dominated rebel groups under the Seleka banner moved through the country to eventually drive out President Francois Bozize in March 2013. What followed was 10 months of Seleka violence, much of it directed at Christians, thousands of whom were killed and driven from their homes.
Seleka leader Michel Djotodia took control of a transitional government, but lost control of Seleka soldiers. In December, the UN Security Council authorized the expansion of the African and French military forces then attempting to maintain security in the CAR, and started planning for the possible conversion of those forces to a UN-managed peacekeeping operation. By January 2014, a new president had replaced Djotodia, the Seleka coalition had been disbanded, and was being pursued by violent vigilante groups known as the anti-Balaka.
Since December 2013, the anti-Balaka have waged a revenge campaign of ethnic cleansing in the west of CAR, as Seleka remnants have retreated to the northeast. Many hundreds of Mulsims, as well as non-Mulsims, have been killed, and tens of thousands have fled.
The July 23 ceasefire agreement calls on armed groups to repatriate foreign mercenaries within their ranks, and to drop the idea of partitioning the country. Partition originally was supported by Seleka’s political leaders, but abandoned after intense pressure in Brazzaville. The chief of Seleka’s military wing, however, has insisted he wants partition.
The ceasefire document also calls on combatants to go back to their barracks, “subject to mobilization of necessary resources.” There is no mention of disarmament.
Archbishop Nzapalainga said the signatories are pledging that ”from now, we will no longer attack and kill.”
“The real issue for us is the question of the culture or education for peace,” he said. “If, in a fighter’s head, he is convinced that he wants to give peace a chance, he will lay down the weapons. He will undertake another activity to earn a living. Therefore, it is important that we disarm our hearts, our minds, so that we can fit into this dynamic of peace.”
Nzapalainga said he welcomes the planned September deployment of UN peacekeeping forces which, he said, will help restore order.
“We hope that in September, a firm stance can be taken as the leaders of anti-Balaka and Seleka have signed the agreement on cessation of hostilities. There is no question for bandits to continue to pollute and destroy human lives. There is a need to neutralize them. There is a need to invite them to lay down their arms, and to rebuild their lives with different means.”
The Brazzaville agreement is the first step in a comprehensive process of national reconciliation, which provides for the holding of public consultations across the country, and the organization of a national reconciliation forum.
According to local sources, negotiations are underway for the formation of a new government to include representatives of anti-Balaka and Seleka. That idea was denounced by human rights activists who said suspected war criminals may use the agreement as a platform to gain political power.
”Individuals suspected of these crimes must not be allowed to use these peace talks to secure positions in the government that they may use to enjoy impunity,” said Netsanet Belay, director of Africa research and advocacy for Amnesty International.
In a July report, Amnesty International named members and allies of the anti-Balaka and Seleka armed groups suspected of involvement in serious human rights abuses. They include former President Bozize; Seleka leader Djotodia; anti-Balaka coordinators including Levy Yakete; and Seleka commanders including Noureddine Adam.
The report calls for investigation and prosecution if there is sufficient evidence to bring cases against the individuals.