MASSACRES IN THE HEART OF AFRICA
Central African Republic still racked by conflict despite February peace deal
Armed group that signed peace pact being blamed for massacre of up to 49 civilians this week.
The massacre of up to 49 villagers in Central African Republic (CAR) this week, allegedly by members of one of the 14 armed groups which signed a peace deal with the government in February, has cast further grave doubt on the viability of the pact.
CAR’s ambassador to South Africa, Andre Nzapayeke, said on Wednesday that some of the armed groups who signed the peace agreement in Khartoum would probably be treated as terrorists if the government had the capacity to take them on. Instead, under the peace deal, their leaders are being incorporated into government and their militias integrated into the national army.
The massacres took place in several villages near the town of Paoua, not far from the Chad border in the north-west of the country, Major General Pascal Champion, head of the police component of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA, said at a press conference in Bangui on Wednesday 22 May, according to AFP.
The slaughter was the biggest single loss of life since the government and 14 militias signed the deal in Khartoum in February, aimed at restoring peace to one of Africa’s most troubled countries. Meanwhile, the Vatican announced that a 77-year-old French-Spanish nun had been brutally murdered in a village in south-western CAR.
A UN source told AFP the killings in the north-west were carried out by a group named 3R, which hosted a meeting with the villagers and then gunned them down indiscriminately. It was one of the armed rebel groups which signed the February peace accord, the eighth such attempt over the past six years.
AFP said the head of 3R, Bi Sidi Souleymane, also known as Sidiki, was appointed one of three “special military advisers” to the prime minister, in charge of setting up the combined units.
Communications Minister Ange-Maxime Kazagui, in a joint press conference with the UN, said “the government joins MINUSCA in demanding that Mr Sidiki arrest those responsible for this massacre within 72 hours, or else be held responsible for these acts”.
In Pretoria, Valerie Petitpierre, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in CAR, cited the massacre in the north-west of between 34 and 49 civilians as another sign that ordinary citizens of CAR were not yet seeing the benefits of the Khartoum peace agreement in February.
Speaking at a seminar organised by the Red Cross and the NGO Salo, Petitpierre welcomed the February peace deal as holding the potential to bring respite, relief and some security to the people plagued by violence throughout the country.
“There is hope and we all have a duty of hope to make this agreement work,” she said.
“What we observe on the ground is a reduction in conflict-related violence since February, meaning that there are less clashes… between armed groups. But there is still a high degree of violence against civilians, unfortunately.” This included very high levels of sexual violence.
“So there is a peace agreement, but for the population, for the time being, there is no real improvement in their daily lives, there are no tangible outcomes following the result of this peace agreement.
“Of course it’s early. We hope that there will be some concrete changes in the lives of the civilians, but for the time being, it’s not the case.”
People were tired of war and exhausted after all the years of violence and conflict which has ravaged the country since late 2012 when a mainly Muslim insurgency, the Seleka, began an advance on the capital Bangui which it seized in March 2013. Fifteen South African troops who had been protecting President Francois Bozize were killed in the fall of Bangui.
Petitpierre said the country’s needs remained huge. Relative to population size, CAR remained the third-worst humanitarian crisis in the world, after Yemen and Syria. About 63% of the population — about 2.9 million people — required humanitarian assistance and protection; one quarter were displaced either within the country or into neighbouring countries; 30% lacked food security; less than half had access to drinkable water and 76% were living in poverty.
Petitpierre said the Red Cross had more than 500 staff working across the country trying to respond to the needs of civilians, in the 15th-largest Red Cross operation in the world. The organisation was providing help in health, including supporting one of the main regional hospitals; in economic security, including food aid and agricultural support; in providing water and sanitation; in reuniting separated families and in providing psycho-social support to the victims of violence.
The Red Cross was also engaged in constant dialogue with armed groups and the government in Bangui to try to discourage attacks on civilians.
“But humanitarian work won’t be enough. It’s critical. But what is really needed is a political solution to the crisis. And a commitment by all to work towards this political solution to end the violence still affecting civilians. The key to a successful peace deal would be if it put the needs of the ordinary people at the centre.”
CAR’s ambassador to South Africa, Andre Nzapayeke, a former Prime Minister, acknowledged his country still had a long way to go “to reach the land of milk and honey. But if you go there now, you will feel the change, life is getting better. We are close to the end of the tunnel”.
The main challenges now remained the “DDRR” process — the disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and repatriation of the armed groups under the Khartoum peace deal — as well as the deployment of government authority into the rebel areas and the national reconciliation process.
He attributed much of his country’s violent history over the past seven years to its geographic position, surrounded by other countries in conflict and close to insurgencies such as those of Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Darfur and even Libya.
He said CAR would need the continued support of the international community for a while before it could achieve the peace and stability it needed as a foundation on which to build development.
Welile Nhlapo, South Africa’s veteran Africanist diplomat, now chair of the monitoring and peer review committee of the Kimberley Process (for rooting out blood diamonds from the legal rough diamond market) agreed with Nzapayeke that the DDRR process would be a major obstacle to overcome on the road to peace.
“Those programmes are never complete,” he said. From his own experience in trying to broker peace in other African countries such as Burundi, he knew that it was very difficult to persuade rebels to lay down their weapons. “Especially when there are resources you control. Why would you want to exchange that for a salary (in the government army)?”
CAR is rich in natural resources, mainly minerals, especially diamonds, but also timber. Nhlapo noted that he himself, as chair of the Kimberley Process in 2013, had suspended the country from the process, which certifies diamonds as having been mined in areas free of conflict. He said he had had to do that because so many diamonds in the country were being mined by rebels.
These were being smuggled across several borders, many ending up in Dubai, and financing rebel activities. Nzapayeke had noted that the under-sized government army was out-gunned by rebels because of the superior weapons they were able to buy.
Nhlapo said he was now looking for ways to help CAR to be re-admitted to the Kimberley Process so that the government could legitimately sell its rough diamonds to gain badly needed revenue for its development and to properly equip its army. These diamonds included a large stockpile which CAR had accumulated while excluded from the Kimberley Process.
He said he would make a proposal on this to be considered at the next ministerial conference of the Kimberley Process in Mumbai in June 2019.
According to AFP, the armed groups, typically claiming to defend an ethnic or religious group, control about 80% of CAR, often fighting over access to the country’s mineral wealth.
In a population of 4.5 million, thousands have lost their lives, nearly 650,000 have fled their homes and another 575,000 have left the country, according to UN figures released in December 2018, it said. DM
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