CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the least-developed countries in the world. Legacies of bad governance have bred cycles of predatory rule, and contributed to the country’s 62% poverty rate. Despite CAR’s abundance of lucrative natural resources, decades of corruption and a series of coup d'états have fueled the growth of illicit trade networks that hampered economic development. In March 2013, a loose coalition of armed Muslim militias, known as Seleka, seized the capital and killed a number of Christian civilians. Christian militias, known as the anti-Balaka, then formed and began reprisal attacks, killing many Muslims and forcing many others to flee. While CAR has seen its fair share of violence over the years, this was the first time that large numbers of civilians were targeted on the basis of religious identity.
Since 2012, over 5,000 people have been killed and more than a million displaced. A transitional government has been unable to establish security. In January 2014, human rights organizations warned of a possible genocide against the Muslim minority, and international advisers feared that the violence in CAR could trigger regional instability. The UN Security Council then authorized a peacekeeping force of 12,000 troops to restore order and bolster the efforts of the African Union.
In July 2014, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) invited Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier to co-lead a conflict transformation workshop for local Central African leaders, sponsored by the Economic Community of Central African States and the CAR Ministry of Reconciliation. Participants were a mix of journalists, human rights workers, leaders of women and youth networks, local government officials, religious leaders, trade unionists, and Parliamentarians committed to working across faith groups to forge a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The training focused on practical mediation and dialogue skills to curb the violence, strengthen communities’ resilience, and prevent conflict from escalating. Participants showed great courage in their commitment to work across faith groups to mitigate violence in the absence of formal security structures. Central Africans share one language and do have a national identity. The facilitators worked with the participants to identify the core values that define what it means to be Central African, regardless of religion, and strategized ways to promote these pro-social values in the current crisis.
Continuing the partnership with USIP, Olivia Dreier made two more trips during early 2015 to offer courses in conflict transformation and dialogue facilitation for the social science faculty at the University of Bangui, the country’s only university, as well as to help the Preparatory Commission of the transitional government design a participatory national dialogue process. By the end of the third course, they had decided to create a research institute on peacebuilding, as a potential resource during their country’s political transition and post-conflict social healing.
What was planned as an only 3-day workshop to the Preparatory Commission for national dialogue soon expanded into a 7-day series. The country has never had a functioning democracy, and three previous attempts at national dialogue were seen as elite-driven grabs for power. The Commission was determined that this time should be different. Much of the workshop focused on planning for the then-upcoming Bangui National Forum held in May 2015, which engaged more than 600 participants representing the government, civil society, political parties, the media, the diaspora and faith-based organizations from around the country, including refugees who are still in camps in neighboring countries.
The make-up of the Commission was truly diverse with representatives of armed groups, major political parties, religious leaders, and civil society. Establishing trust, honest exchange over differences, and acknowledging the tension between diverse political interests and common aspirations for the future of the country became an integral part of the workshop. Much of the discussion focused on how to make this national dialogue process one that would encourage broad citizen interest and engagement in the “refounding” of the country, and put the country on a path towards reconciliation and social healing after the horrific violence of the past two years.
Participants at a July 2014 workshop in Bangui