Image: Two young men in Kaga Bandoro, a northern, rebel-held town in the Central African Republic. Credit: Jack Losh (The men in the photo are not featured in the story.)
Living near the town of Bossangoa, northwestern CAR, Christophe had been a member of the anti-balaka during the height of the conflict in 2013. Since then, he had returned to civilian life, spending his days farming and raising a family.
The native home of former President Bozizé, with the upsurge of insecurity, Bossangoa once again found itself at the epicentre of the violence. The Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) formed after the Constitutional Court rejected Bozizé’s candidacy in the presidential election of December 2020 based on an international arrest warrant and UN sanctions, which he faced due to alleged complicity in war-crimes. The CPC brought together six major armed groups and threatened to attack the capital Bangui in early January 2021, before being pushed back by Government forces.
In December 2020, a wave of CPC fighters swept the town of Bossangoa which quickly emerged as CPC’s operational centre. This confronted young people in the town and surrounding villages with a difficult choice: should they join the armed coalition or stay behind?
Christophe was well aware of the societal expectations that weighed on him in his community, where young men are expected to defend their ethnic group. Not wanting to publicly lose face, Christophe decided to accompany his peers to Bossangoa, where some of them wanted to join the CPC. However, he remained doubtful and decided not to join.
“I cannot advocate for non-violence and join the armed group. I cannot leave my business and spoil the new identity I built thanks to the project.”
In 2019, Christophe had become part of a group of youth who received peacebuilding training and support from Conciliation Resources, and its partners War Child UK and Association pour l’Action Humanitariare en Centrafrique (AAHC) in Bossangoa.
Christophe and his peers, in close collaboration with local authorities, started to promote dialogue between two conflicting ethnic groups and develop their own community peacebuilding plans. As part of this work, Christophe also benefited from support to found his own business, improving his ability to care for his family.
The experience of Patrice* during the CPC crisis in 2020 was similar. Like Christophe, Patrice had become an active and respected peacebuilder in his community, receiving peacebuilding training and developing a community peacebuilding action plan with support from Conciliation Resources and its partners. When the CPC mobilised in December 2020, many of his peers joined the group. Due to his past association with the anti-balaka, they expected Patrice to do the same.
However, Patrice could not bring himself to join. He did not want to stain his reputation as a peacebuilder and the positive perception local authorities had developed of him:
“I resisted because of all the community dialogues and peacebuilding work I carried out with my colleagues on non-violence. The Prefect and other authorities know me very well after the advocacy sessions. I cannot deceive them and I prefer to run away from the town than to join the CPC.”
So instead, Patrice joined his parents in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, which had been established during the presence of the CPC in Bossangoa between December 2020 and February 2021. During his time in the camp, Patrice kept regular contact with Conciliation Resources and local authorities:
“They encouraged me to resist. This is how instead of being idle, I proposed to my friends to start some discussions under the theme ‘Youth – the future of Bossangoa, let’s resist armed groups.' My friends found the discussions very interesting and useful and that is how we continued the next day and so on.”
Francis and his peers kept up the discussions as people started to slowly return to their homes.
Since then, Patrice and his friends have created their own association –Association des Jeunes Emancipés en Centrafrique. They use income generating activities, cultural dances and group discussions as a way to educate other youth on leaving armed groups and resisting violence.
The prefect of Ouham prefecture recognised the young people’s commitment to peace and non-violence:
“Conciliation Resources has been here with our youth when everyone thinks that Bossangoa’s youth cannot deliver anything positive. Thanks to the organisations’ work, young people are my partners today. They have been there to galvanise me in my work in IDP camps during the difficult situation caused by the CPC."
The resistance of youth in Bossangoa to joining the CPC shows how important it is to promote non-violent alternatives to prevent the recruitment of young people into armed groups. In the case of Patrice and Christophe, the peacebuilding opportunities, the relationships with local authorities and the business opportunities offered by Conciliation Resources, War Child UK and AAHC made the CPC a much less attractive option and ultimately prevented them from returning to violence.
Patrice’s vision for the future is clear:
“I cannot give in to rebellion again, I must continue my studies”.
*Names have been changed.
Funding for Conciliation Resources’ work with young people in Bossangoa was provided by the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund and the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). It was implemented in partnership with War Child UK and AAHC.