By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
Armed clashes in the Central African Republic (CAR) intensified significantly during February–April 2017, primarily between two armed factions of a formerly unified coalition – the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), composed mainly of Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group, and the Popular Front for the Renaissance in Central Africa (FPRC), composed mainly of Muslims from the Gula and Runga ethnic communities. The resurgent violence has had a heavy toll on civilians, particularly those in the central Ouaka province. A recently published investigation revealed that at least 45 civilians have been killed and 11,000 displaced by the conflict in the past three months. One-sided violence against the civilian population is an ongoing trend in the CAR. According to the IISS Armed Conflict Database, the death toll has risen steadily to reach 600 in 2016 – a fatality count at least equal to that in 2013, when the current phase of the conflict began.
A particularly worrying development is the growing visibility of the ethnic dimension of the conflict, as more and more victims appear to be targeted on the basis of their ethnicity, primarily because they are seen as associated with the ‘enemy’. (For example, the FPRC has targeted ethnic Fulanis – civilians of the same ethnic group as members of the UPC.) The focus of the conflict has largely shifted: formerly a fight between representatives of Muslim communities united to oust former president Francois Bozize on the one hand and Christian defence militias on the other, it is now a territorially driven contestation between different groupings within the Muslim community attempting to expand their territorial reach and ‘liberate’ the country from armed groups that are not their own. This desire to cleanse the territory of the opponent and for territorial expansion is dangerous not least because it is based mainly on coercion, rather than any kind of engagement with the local population that could provide a more or less durable alternative to the security void left by the absence of a fully functioning state for some segments of society. The risk of further brutality against civilians is thus increased, since armed groups have to secure widespread compliance or eliminate anyone who could potentially undermine their bid.
Evidence from armed conflicts worldwide, however, suggests that retaining territorial control is much more difficult than gaining it. Without consistent social support and the provision of services (such as jobs, housing or healthcare), armed organisations struggle to survive. They tend to transform into different entities – for example, through engaging in the political process, disarming and gradually disengaging from political violence – or decline. While not suggesting that the groups vying for control in the CAR are likely to rapidly become an irrelevance, this observation does offer some cautious optimism to international actors (representatives of international NGOs and peacekeeping forces) that are trying to achieve stabilisation and progress on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration initiatives in the region. The provision of economic opportunities (for example, training programmes and construction projects for youth), education and humanitarian assistance to populations that are prone to being lured into militancy, while at the same time continuously reaching out to armed groups, would go some way towards achieving these broader goals.
This article is part of our content to accompany the launch of the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, which provides in-depth analysis of the key political, military and humanitarian developments and trends in all active armed conflicts, as well as data on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons. The Armed Conflict Survey launches at Arundel House on 9 May.