CAR and the End of Reason

In case you missed it, another peace deal was agreed for Central African Republic recently. Not to be cynical, but you can be forgiven if you mistakenly thought reference was being made to the peace deal last year… or the year before that. It’s practically an annual event in the country these days. Which tells us just what a sad state of affairs conflict resolution and peace building are in. What is even more disheartening is that the international community continues the same approach to conflict resolution in CAR over and over… and somehow expects a different result. On the other hand, perhaps the international community is being held hostage to its own success – success of 20 years ago, but success nonetheless.

Twenty years ago, a conflict resolution framework emerged which was founded in Bosnia, and replicated across a number of other conflicts, including the Rwanda, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo and Indonesia. It consists of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration support for combatants, the promise of a new constitution, an international monitoring mission and/or peacekeepers, elections and support for reconstruction. It was so successful because it was built on a theory of conflict that responded to separatist movements. It found a way to bridge the gap between minority and majority communities within a country, and in the case of Kosovo, settle the conflict through legal separation rather than military means.

Peace building stemming from these frameworks focused on the local level – building trust within communities, helping community leaders resolve local disputes through non-violent means. These initiatives made sense in these contexts. But just because they were successful doesn’t mean that they are a panacea for peace building the world over.

Which is why we are witnessing near chaos in places like CAR. The situation in CAR is not one of a small separatist movement against the wider community. It is a complex conflict that is simultaneously ethnic, religious and localized (and increasingly consisting not just of warring parties but criminal groups). The international community is repeatedly attempting to implement a conflict resolution framework that fails to address the root causes of the conflict, providing only ‘short term’ solutions, in the words of Crisis Group (http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/central-african-republic/230-central-african-republic-the-roots-of-violence.aspx?utm_source=sm&utm_medium=fb&utm_campaign=car-report). To put it bluntly, it is a conflict resolution framework that restricts itself to putting an end to overt violence, but fails to ensure that once the violence has ceased, the opposing parties will work towards overcoming the root causes of the conflict – generally socio-economic in nature – and not just address the triggers of the actual violence.

The same goes for peace building – community-based initiatives are all fine and well when it is clear who is against whom, and it is possible to build trust not only between but within communities. But in a complex context such as that which reigns in CAR, building trust is a long shot. In a recent article on peace building in CAR, Mercy Corps highlights its work attempting to build trust between Christian and Muslim communities in the capital Bangui (https://www.devex.com/news/addressing-conflict-early-in-a-complex-crisis-86816) – a heroic effort but in a situation where structural and institutional grievances have never been addressed, there is little that small-scale initiatives that focus on conflict resolution at the local level can hope to achieve. The recent resurgence in violence in Bangui is evidence of just that (http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/27/us-centralafrica-violence-idUSKCN0RR0U120150927).

So we really must ask ourselves, as practitioners and observers of conflict management and peace building, what the international community can hope to achieve in CAR (and South Sudan and – as of yesterday – Syria) with an approach to conflict resolution and peace building that cannot accommodate complex conflict environments or provide space to address root structural and institutional causes of conflict. These conflicts are not standing armies against rebels. They are factions against factions, or factions against terrorist organizations, that have little interest in elections or constitutions (seriously – who actually thinks the new Contact Group for Syria will make any headway when Islamic State is part of the equation?). Whoever has power holds it. Peace building as we have known and understood it for the past 20 years is cosmetic at best in these situations.

So we as conflict management practitioners have to start thinking differently – and understand that what has have done before and succeeded in does not make sense in today’s conflict environments. The longer we attempt to fit square pegs (established approaches to conflict resolution) into round holes (today’s conflicts) the more harm that is done – protracting conflicts rather than devising new approaches to solve them. It’s been awhile, but it’s time to put our thinking caps on.

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