The freshly-painted banners are lying on grass banks drying out in the sun: mobile phones are bleeping with sms texts announcing ‘the Bangui Forum – flame of hope.’ Bangui’s diminutive M’Poko airport is rammed with visitors coming to the forum which will run from 4-11 May. But what’s it really all about?
When journalists write about the Central African Republic (CAR) they usually talk about ‘Inter-religious’ violence between Muslims and Christians, reprisal killings on a mass scale and rebel leaders committing atrocities against innocent civilians. All of which, on the surface, is true; but CAR is embroiled in a complex political crisis that’s been smouldering ever since the French departed in December 1958.
Ubangi-Chari became the independent Central African Republic on 13 August 1960, but since independence there has been just one elected President – Ange-Félix Patassé (1993-2003). The other 7, including the current incumbent, Catherine Samba-Panza (CARs first female head of state) have either overthrown their predecessor, or else been installed by the political elite, with the direct complicity of the ‘international community’.
I mention this because it highlights one reason why CARs political history has been wracked with violence, score-setting and nepotism of the highest level. The regime of Seleka under the presidency of Michel D’Jotodia, who terrorized the Central African population – including many Muslims – was another example of political violence due to chronic bad governance and no national sense of rights nor justice.
Seleka’s bete noire, the anti-Balaka was never a physical movement, more a coming-together of small local ‘self-defence’ groups who rose against the bloody excesses of Seleka and launched reprisal attacks en masse against Central African Muslims. The ensuing Muslim – Christian violence was a manifestation of a national crisis of trust: communities closed in on themselves as Central Africans lost their trust in each other: after generations of cohabitation neighbours of different ethnicities and religions began living in fear of each other.
The Muslim community of Cinq Kilo who represent the majority of Muslims still living in Bangui, tell me they suffered years of discrimination before Seleka took over the country on 24 March 2013: they still feel discriminated against – such as when applying for passports and being asked by officials to prove they are Central African. Many residents still feel unable to leave the confines of cinq kilo because they’re frightened of being attacked. Beyond cinq kilo almost all Bangui’s mosques were destroyed between 2013 – 2014 and there are virtually no civic spaces where Muslims and Christians can come together and sit and talk whilst feeling safe.
The arrival of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has made a difference in terms of security: I’ve met some excellent contingents of casque bleu (blue helmets) notably in the towns of Bria in northern CAR and Carnot in the West. Central Africans in other parts of the country, though, say they don’t understand the UN misison because no-one has explained it to them, and there were recent violent protests against MINUSCA in Kaga-bandoro in North central CAR. The UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping operations, Hervé Ladsous, has just announced the arrival of combat helicopters and drones in CAR to assist in peacekeeping.
Meanwhile the UN and the French Government need to explain to the international community and especially the Central African people, why senior UN official, Anders Kompass, has been suspended after exposing detailed allegations of sexual abuse of Central Achildren by French Sangaris troops still on mission in CAR.
Peacekeeping is not peacebuilding; MINUSCA’s mandate has just been officially extended until April 2016, and it’s clear they will be here for at least the next few years – but more than anything else, the Central African Republic needs a national vision of peacebuilding.
All of which makes the Bangui National Forum, being organised between the CAR Transitional Government and MINUSCA, so important – but viciously competing interests are threatening to derail it. The forum has 585 seats allocated to different national participants and a small number of internationals. Many different CAR communities, including civil society actors, national NGOs, members of the Muslim community, armed non-state actors (i.e. rebel groups like the Seleka and anti-Balaka) have complained they are under-represented; some have threatened to boycott the forum.
The CAR Government seems completely out of its depth with the forum: there is no tengible Government vision to propell the forum forward, no follow-up mechanism on the table, and therefore no tangible sense of what the dialogue could lead to. The Government is alleged to have fabricated at least part of its pre-forum public consultation report, and different participants are already blaming each other for mismanagement of agendas and fund. Several key people have told me the best thing is ‘Lower your expectations.’
Lets be honest, the forum organising committees, under the coordination of Mme Marguerite Samba-Maliavo (the Minister of Health) do not have an easy job. The easiest thing to do is to write off the Bangui Forum before it even starts. It is flawed, messy, maybe corrupt and certainly reflects viciously competing national interests – like certain politicians who do not want elections because they are profitting very nicely from this ‘temporary’ unelected Transitional Government. But nonetheless this is the beginning of a national conversation about disarmament, justice and most of all, building peace.
CAR has seen national dialogue come and go, most recently the 2008 Libreville Peace Accords, that failed because they were not implemented by the government of Francois Bozizé, and paved the way for Seleka to march on Bangui. I feel sceptical about the Bangui Forum too, but will attend as an independent (and unpaid) observer and will write about what I see and hear, as my own personal testimony.
Central Africans deserve for this forum to work.