- As the political dialogue to search for peace and stability started in Bangui yesterday, analysts warn that this may be the last chance to avoid further violence and chaos in the Central African Republic.
According to a report released today by the Brussels think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG), "since the coup d'état that brought President François Bozizé to power on 15 March 2003, the risk of renewed wider violence in the Central African Republic has never been greater than today." It therefore urged parties to the current peace dialogue to find solutions to the fragile situation.
The opening of an inclusive political dialogue on 8 December – initially planned for June 2008 – has continued to be negotiated inch by inch, "but both the regime and the main opposition forces see armed conflict as the ultimate way out of the crisis and are making preparations to return to it," according to the ICG analysis.
So far, however, all sides to the many conflicts in the country have shown goodwill by entering the dialogue. The Bangui regime has given amnesty to two rebel leaders operating in the north and ex-President Ange-Félix Patassé, who was toppled by General Bozizé in 2003 and has since lived in exile in Togo. The rebel leaders and Mr Patassé thus have taken the chance to go to Bangui for peace talks.
While the ICG report warns about the high risks should the peace talks fail, it also sees great opportunities should they succeed. "Genuine democratisation and state reform" now seemed possible if all sides could overcome the temptation to return to arms and manage their differences in a consensual way.
"But the political dialogue needs to be refocused around organisation of elections in 2010 and negotiation of a credible transitional justice mechanism," it says. "To avoid another round of violent regime change, the government should also complete reform of the security sector, including equitable integration of former rebels into the security services."
President Bozizé is said to more than ever have been taken hostage by "his close entourage of extremists and refuses to make concessions essential for true democracy." With the goal of ensuring his re-election in 2010, he is distorting the general amnesty he agreed upon with the rebel movements during the peace talks into a weapon of exclusion, at the same time as he grants impunity to his own forces that are guilty of serious abuses and tries to halt the proceedings of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which he himself originally requested in 2004.
With the exception of former Prime Minister Martin Ziguélé - whose authority over the most important opposition party, the Central African People's Liberation Movement (MLPC), has waned due to an upheaval in its stronghold - and the unwavering but shadowy presence of former President Patassé, Mr Bozizé's main adversaries want to transform the concept of political dialogue that was agreed in December 2006 into a mechanism to produce quick regime change.
The preferred vehicle of the powerful rebel leaders would be a national conference, an ad hoc constitutional assembly competent to remove the head of state. At the very least, they count on being able to control a transitional government and to prepare the 2010 elections to their advantage. Successful talks are therefore not given.
"The international community bears a share of responsibility for the fragility of the situation," the ICG analysis holds. "With its readiness to give up on national reconciliation in return for simple disarmament, it has de facto encouraged new insurrections by granting concessions to rebel leaders without asking anything from them except that they return to legality," it adds.
The UN mission to the country risks becoming merely a symbolic presence due to budget restrictions and difficulty finding troop contributing countries. Also the French forces are likewise being cut back. Against this troubled background, the UN Security Council is scheduled to decide in December 2008 about the takeover of the European force deployed in Chad and the north-east of the Central African Republic.
Even without new conflict, the humanitarian crisis is worsening. Despite the fact that almost one million civilians have been affected by the violence in the north, humanitarian assistance is not guaranteed: almost a quarter of the modest US$ 116 million earmarked for the purpose has not yet been provided.
"The Central African Republic is at risk of yet again disappearing from the international radar screen," warns James Yellin, the ICG's Central Africa Project Director. "If that happens, all the investment of recent years will have been in vain," he adds.
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