The Central African Republic (CAR) gained its independence from France in August 1960. Since then, the country has experienced many years of, arguably, Africa’s most complex, enduring and, perhaps, devastating conflict. The years of instability in the country have been characterised by coups, civil wars and interference by international actors.
Soon after his inauguration in 1960 as the country’s first post-independence president, David Dacko consolidated his grip on power by clamping down on critics and the opposition, including dissents from his own Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa (Mouvement pour l’Evolution Sociale de l’Afrique Noire, or MESAN) party. His former ally Abel Goumba broke away from MESAN with his supporters and formed the Movement for the Democratic Evolution of Central Africa (Mouvement d’Evolution Démocratique de l’Afrique Centrale, or MEDAC). To defeat this move, Dacko amended the constitution to enable a one-party state, with excessive powers reposed in the presidency. In the country’s first democratic elections in January 1994, Dacko was re-elected president in a poll that had only him on the ballot, while his party won all the parliamentary seats.
With the support of its former colonial leader, CAR under the Dacko regime witnessed economic growth with the discovery of diamonds and establishment of a diamond-cutting factory in Bangui, the country’s capital. But this came at a great cost for civil and political rights in the country, as Dacko became even more autocratic, clamping down on press freedom and democratic institutions.
Between 31 December 1965 and 1 January 1966, Dacko’s government was toppled in a coup led by Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Dacko’s relative and head of the armed forces. During what is now referred to as the Saint Sylvester Coup, some military officers were killed. The population saw the event as a relief from Dacko’s increasingly despotic tendencies. Things, however, went from bad to worse when Bokassa suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament and took over control of the only political party in the country. In December 1972, Bokassa promulgated a new constitution, recognising himself as the emperor of the CAR Empire and declared himself president for life.
With the country under his firm grip, Bokassa’s junta proceeded to clamp down on the opposition, suppress demonstrations and execute military officers on allegations of coup plotting. In January 1979, state forces clashed with student unions in Bangui, killing about 150 students. Amid the instability that ensued, another 200 schoolchildren were reportedly killed in April 1979. Many people fled the country into exile.
Worried by the implications of Bokassa’s extreme human rights violations for its image, and spurred by pressure from the international community, France supported a coup that overthrew Bokassa in September 1979. Dacko was again brought in as president and returned the country to the path of multi-party democracy. In the first multi-party general elections in March 1981, Dacko won with a slim majority, but the process was contested by the opposition on the allegation of widespread irregularities. In the ensuing unrest and instability, Dacko suspended political activities and clamped down on the opposition. The military struck again and Dacko was deposed in September 1981.
General André-Dieudonné Kolingba took over leadership of the country and, like the previous military junta, immediately suspended the constitution and banned all political activities. Like Bakossa, he also promulgated a new constitution that allowed him to contest the presidential elections after six years of the transition period. Although his junta was not particularly known for serious human rights violations, Kolingba’s military administration suffered political alienation from within and without, except by members of Kolingba’s Yakoma ethnic group, who dominated his government. During more than a decade in power, Kolingba permitted several political processes, including a constitutional review allowing multi-party elections. He also conducted a parliamentary election that was largely boycotted by the opposition and later annulled by the country’s Supreme Court. He appointed and removed at least two prime ministers, and finally conducted a fiercely contested presidential election that he lost to Ange-Félix Patassé in October 1993.
Despite having its first successful political transition from military to civilian democratic rule, CAR faced political instability that was a serious threat to the peace of the country. In April 1996, a mutiny in the army resulted in the killing of many soldiers and more than 132 civilians. The fallout of the mutiny also saw the rise of rebel forces, mainly of disgruntled soldiers and other interest groups, which culminated in another uprising that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, including French peacekeeping soldiers in November 1996.
The African Mediation Commission, comprising Mali, Gabon and Burkina Faso, mediated a peace accord between the government and rebel forces in January 1997 in Bangui. The Bangui Agreement required the deployment of an inter-African peacekeeping mission to monitor compliance. The peace did not last long as more clashes took place between rebel forces and government soldiers and peacekeepers, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1,000 civilians and the displacement of more than 70,000.
Patassé’s administration was characterised by the frequent appointment and removal of prime ministers and other senior officials. In 1999, Patassé was elected for a second six-year term in a process marred by pre- and post-election violence that led to the deaths of many people. His dismissal of the country’s chief of army staff General François Bozizé in October 2001, on allegations of plotting to topple his administration, led to a round of clashes between government forces and those loyal to Bozizé. Many people were killed on both sides, forcing Bozizé to flee to the neighbouring Chad with soldiers loyal to him.
In October 2002, another round of violent fighting erupted when government forces, with the support of Libyan soldiers, clashed with rebels loyal to Bozizé. Rebel soldiers captured some cities in the country and were only repelled when the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (EMCCA) deployed peacekeeping forces to the country to restore stability. In March 2003, Bozizé and his forces overran the country and overthrew Patassé. In the ensuing conflict, an estimated 500 people were killed and 35,000 were displaced.
Bozizé assumed leadership of the country and immediately suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament. To consolidate his grip on power, he sought military help from Chad, where he operated while in exile. The Chadian government deployed soldiers to CAR, while EMCCA peacekeepers withdrew from the country. In some parts of the country, rebel forces like the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (Union des Forces Democratiques pour le Rassemblement, or UFDR) took control amid intense fighting. The CAR Bush War, as it was popularly called, lasted from 2003 to 2007, within which time Bozizé was inaugurated as civilian president in June 2005 after winning an election.
In April 2007, a negotiated peace agreement between the government and the UFDR and other rebel forces brought the Bush War to an end. The agreement provided for many programmes, including an amnesty for members of UFDR and its ally forces, the integration of some of their fighters into the national army, and registration of the UFDR as a political party. Despite the official cessation of hostilities, guerrilla warfare and ethnic clashes continued in remote areas, with high casualty rates.
Bozizé was inaugurated for a second term in March 2011, triggering another round of intense fighting with rebel forces across the country that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,000 people and the displacement of 165,000. By early 2013, the country was in a full-blown civil war. Peacekeepers were deployed from South Africa and other parts of the continent.
The emergence of the Séléka rebel coalition, which comprised the UFDR and other rebel forces, added another dimension to the conflict due to the Séléka Islamist ideology and its brutality. By December 2012, Séléka rebel forces were in Bangui, and by March 2013, Bozizé was overthrown amid heavy fighting and a high casualty rate that included the South African peacekeepers. The Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia suspended the constitution and declared himself president. In April 2013, Djotodia was named president by his self-appointed transitional council, and inaugurated in August of the same year. Bozizé fled into exile, while fighting continued in the country.
With the Séléka rebels in power, fighting assumed a more religious dimension and saw the rise of a rival Christian militia group known as the anti-Balaka forces. Killings continued along ethnic and religious lines, including the deaths of about 27 Muslims in a remote village under the control of the anti-Balaka forces in December 2013. By the end of 2013 alone, more than 2,500 people had been killed in the conflict.
Less than 12 months after assuming office, mounting pressure from the African Union, the EMCCA and the international community compelled Djotodia to resign in January 2014. The mayor of Bangui Catherine Samba-Panza was elected to lead an interim transitional government. In February 2014, more than 75 people were killed during a violent clash by Islamist and Christian groups in a mining town in western CAR, and the following month, another 11 civilians were killed in a grenade attack while they attended a funeral. By the end of 2014, an estimated 3,600 people had been killed. The situation continued unabated until the Séléka rebels and anti-Balaka forces signed a Ceasefire Agreement that was negotiated by the president of the Republic of Congo Brazzaville. Like other agreements before it, it failed to bring lasting peace to the country.
In September 2015, five weeks of intense fighting between religious and rebel groups resulted in the deaths of more than 90 people, while an estimated 40,000 people were displaced. In February 2016, former Prime Minister Faustin-Archange Touadéra was elected substantive president in a fiercely contested election that ended after two rounds. Amid continuing conflict, humanitarian workers uncovered mass graves of 115 people, possibly killed during one of the many militia clashes in south-eastern CAR.
Bozizé’s return from exile in December 2019 coincided with the return of Séléka rebel leader and former president Djotodia. Tensions peaked again and clashes led to the deaths of 50 people in December 2020. In January 2021, immediately after Touadéra’s re-election, intense fighting compelled his administration to declare a state of emergency in the country. With the emergence of new rebel groups like Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R), violence and displacement have continued sporadically while prospects for peace and stability are bleak.
These many years of conflict have left some 3.1 million of CAR’s less than 5 million population in need of humanitarian assistance. Experts opine that this has been caused by a struggle for the country’s enormous mineral wealth of 470 different minerals, including oil, gold, diamond and copper. The country has taken several steps to address the legacies of its conflict.
Criminal Prosecutions by Domestic Courts and the International Criminal Court
Perhaps the most prominent of all the processes so far initiated to deal with the conflict in CAR is criminal prosecutions for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations. One of the first such trials was that of Kolingba, who was convicted by the National Criminal Court and sentenced to death in absentia in August 2002. He was tried for attempting to overthrow the elected government of Patassé following his defeat in the 1993 presidential elections. Convicted with him were his three sons and 21 soldiers found guilty of extrajudicial killings, torture and destruction of property.
Since the conflict in CAR was particularly violent in 2002-2003, local human rights groups in collaboration with the International Federation for Human Rights carried out investigations into human rights abuses. These investigations became the basis for the International Criminal Court (ICC) opening its own investigation into CAR in May 2007. In early 2008, the ICC issued its first warrant of arrest against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese politician and transnational rebel leader whose activities had an impact on the conflict in CAR. Although he was convicted by the ICC and spent 10 years in prison, Bemba’s conviction was overturned and he was released in 2018.
The ICC has since convicted three other individuals for gross violations in CAR. The trials of Alfred Yekatom, Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, Maxime Jeoffroy Eli Mokom Gawaka, and Nouradine Adam Mahamat are ongoing. The court has closed further investigations into the situation in CAR.
After years of continuous fighting, the country saw signs of progress towards ending the conflict in 2007, when the UFDR and other rebel forces and the government signed a negotiated peace agreement. The terms of the agreement included a demobilisation and disarmament programme for rebel fighters.
In 2008, the National Assembly passed an amnesty law that provided amnesty to rebel forces for crimes committed from March 2003. The amnesty also covered human rights violations perpetrated by forces loyal to Bozizé and Patassé. Due to CAR’s obligations under international law, however, the amnesty did not cover war crimes and crimes against humanity. Like previous peace agreements, the 2007 agreement failed when fighting resumed between the parties.
Bangui Forum for National Reconciliation
CAR undertook a national reconciliation conference known as the Bangui Forum for National Reconciliation between 4 and 11 May 2015. The forum was a result of the 2014 ceasefire agreement and brought together various interest groups, including women, youth, ethnic minorities and others, for the purpose of addressing the country’s recurrent conflicts and political instability. Specifically, participants were mandated to discuss and proffer solutions in four main areas: governance, economic and social development, peace and security, and national reconciliation. The forum had technical support from multilateral organisations like the African Union and the United Nations.
After a week of deliberations, the forum recommended official state recognition and observation of both Islamic and Christian holidays; institutional reforms in the health and education sectors; rehabilitation and reintegration of rebel fighters; the establishment a special tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity; and the establishment of a truth commission.
Special Criminal Court
Following the Bangui National Forum’s recommendations, the National Assembly passed a resolution for the establishment of the Special Criminal Court (SCC) in June 2015. Located in Bangui, the SCC has the mandate to try international human rights violations and other serious crimes committed in the country since 2003. Although the resolution was adopted in 2015, the hybrid SCC only became operational in 2018, with the support of the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. It is composed of prosecutors and judges recruited nationally and internationally.
The court had its first hearing in April 2022. By October of the same year, the SCC had its first conviction of three leaders of the 3R rebel group for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
More arrests and investigations have been carried out. Former rebel leaders like Abdel Khalil of the Séléka are on trial. Yet, observers are concerned about the SCC’s limited staff and other technical challenges like a boycott by defense lawyers due to poor remuneration, poor quality of the process due to the capacity of litigators, and logistical issues. The mandate of the court expired in October 2023, but is subject to renewal by the government.
Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission
The Bangui National Forum’s recommendations were the basis of a National Public Consultation on transitional justice and subsequently the Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC) Act in 2020. The TJRRC was mandated to investigate human rights violations committed in the country since 1959, establish the truth about the violations, and design processes to achieve national reconciliation. The TJRRC was to establish a Special Reparations Fund for victims/survivors, design a workable process for providing reparations, and create a mechanism for memorialisation, among other tasks.
The TJRRC was formally inaugurated in July 2021, when Touadéra appointed its 11 members with a four-year mandate. In February 2023, it released a preliminary report which indicates that the commission spent nearly two years carrying out promotional and preliminary activities like awareness raising, commissioner training, and recruitment of experts and technical support staff.
In addition to the lack of trust among citizens of CAR in the capacity of the TJRRC to deliver on its mandate, there are other challenges like lack of support from the international community, which may be an indication of its lack of trust as well. Observers have also highlighted the commission’s lack of technical and financial partners, lack of operational facilities like vehicles and logistics support, lack of a physical secretariat at the time of its inauguration, and lack of administrative independence from the executive.
One of the major features of the conflict in CAR is the multiplicity of rebel groups, whose primary weapon of intimidation is sexual violence against communities in ungoverned or rebel-captured territories. During the Bush War, sexual violence was deployed as a tactic of war and a weapon of intimidation by government soldiers and rebel forces operating both within and outside the borders of the country.
Between 2003 and 2007, human rights observers documented over 305 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, often in the form of gang rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage, predominantly against young women and girls. Both the Séléka and the anti-Balaka groups have reportedly carried out serious sexual violations against women and girls in communities under their control, usually as revenge for real or perceived support for either other parties or government forces. Young women and girls are also kidnapped and kept for as long as 18 months for the sexual satisfaction of rebel fighters.
In addition, there are reports of sexual violence against young men and boys. Human Rights Watch documented an instance where a man was raped and killed in front of his wife, who was also later raped by militia fighters. Due to the social stigma attached to these experiences, most cases are never reported or spoken about. Like in most African societies, CAR is a patriarchal society, where land and property ownership by women is difficult and where conflict has worsened discriminatory social structures. Therefore, the priority for most women in the society is survival, rather than taking part in governance and decision-making processes.
Moreover, since most of the processes in the country have been peace agreements to end conflict, they were dominated by men, often to the exclusion of women. However, Touadéra appointed a woman, Marie Edith Douzima-Lawson, as the head of the TJRRC, which has four women among its 11 commissioners.
One of the most notable aspects of the conflict in CAR is the unusually high number of international actors, regional mechanisms and multilateral organisations that have had military and other interests in the country, often presented as peacekeeping missions. For example, the French government has continued to feature prominently in the affairs of the country since independence. It has maintained permanent military bases and a peacekeeping mission there.
Also, both the CAR government and rebel leaders have at various times received military assistance from countries like Libya, Chad, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, France, Russia and the United States. They have also received assistance from the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, a transnational rebel group that operates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The motivation for these actors has been explained to include interest in CAR’s mineral wealth, which has served to exacerbate conflict. Nearly all these international actors lost soldiers to the fighting.
The international community has at various times deployed peacekeeping missions and special envoys to CAR. This includes the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the Inter-African Coalition, the EMCCA, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, among others.
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