The Central African Republic (CAR) has had a long and turbulent history of violent conflict and political instability. Since the most recent crisis erupted in 2013 huge efforts have been made to pull the country back from the brink of armed conflict. But this is still a fragmented country, with armed groups controlling huge areas of land and a deeply rooted sense of insecurity and mistrust. Nationwide disarmament, demobilisation, resinsertion and repatriation (DDRR) is planned for the country, however the population is also in desperate need of initiatives that rebuild trust. To do this we need to understand why people continue to fight.
The importance of talking to armed groups
Conciliation Resources has long argued that sustained contact with armed groups can be a critical part of any peace process, and our most recent research has shown the importance of community engagement
. In Central African Republic, we’ve been supporting Local Peace Cells (LPCs)
to gather the perspectives of 70 commanders and rank and file representatives from armed groups previously part of the Séléka coalition, Anti-balaka (local protection militias established in response to the Seleka coalition), and members of self-defence groups in predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods. The findings shed light on what motivates individuals to remain in armed groups, as well as the factors that might convince them to leave. These insights can help tailor local and national initiatives for peace and reconciliation.
“I am safe if I stay”
Across all those interviewed, the main motivation to remain in their group was a need for security and a continuing fear of attack. Most said that if their security was assured, then they would leave. Yet most did not believe that there was a process that has sufficient authority, trust and legitimacy to assure mutual security for them to commit to disarmament.
Self-defence group member [Muslim community protection]
As long as the Balaka don’t put down their weapons I will keep mine by my side.
This prevailing sense of insecurity poses a significant challenge to the success of the DDRR process. In addition, many also fear they would no longer be welcome in their communities if they were able to leave their group:
If I quit the group, it poses a risk to my life. I’ll be an enemy of the group and an enemy of the population who fear armed groups.
This stalemate presents an opportunity for community-level peacebuilders – and their work could be a vital accompaniment to the DDRR process. LPCs have an important role to play in leading community-level reconciliation processes and supporting the return of former fighters. Conciliation Resources supports 12 LPCs – volunteer-led community groups that identify and resolve conflicts in their communities. Through this work they have built the trust and knowledge to become vital links between communities and armed groups.
Many members of armed groups have a genuine desire to return to a normal life; the majority consulted cited a lack of alternatives rather than a belief in any political ambitions or ideology of the group as their reason to remain.
At the moment some of my friends and I are doing brickwork and hauling coal whilst we wait for DDRR. When I quit [the group] I think they’ll follow me and we will continue our small enterprise.
There was also a keen interest to see DDRR begin – inclusion in the process was the second biggest incentive to leave armed groups. However, at the same time, many were skeptical - DDRR has failed in the past and reinforced people’s mistrust in the state. From the interviews it was clear that there is a real need to consider how the DDRR process is communicated to manage expectations.
The Central African Republic, with the support of the international community, is currently embarking on an ambitious National Recovery and Peacebuilding Plan: to disarm and reintegrate armed actors, facilitate reconciliation and social cohesion, improve governance, reform the security sector, and promote economic recovery. Progress in these areas is vital, and more likely if accompanied by support for initiatives at the grassroots which mediate tensions, prevent outbreaks of conflict, and seek to build confidence and relations eroded by years of violence.