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Initialling of a peace deal in Khartoum brought to the discussion table CAR's rebel leaders and representatives Initialling of a peace deal in Khartoum brought to the discussion table CAR's rebel leaders and representatives  (AFP or licensors)

Central African Republic’s Khartoum Agreement: Optimism and challenges

The Government of the Central African Republic (CAR) on Wednesday 6 February signed a peace accord in the capital Bangui with the country’s 14 armed groups.

Paul Samasumo - Vatican City

The peace accord dubbed the “Khartoum agreement” is officially titled the “Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation.” The peace deal was first initialled in Khartoum, Sudan, on Tuesday, 5 February.

Over the weekend, details of the peace accord emerged brightening peace prospects in CAR notwithstanding that this is the eighth agreement since the fighting began in 2013. Analysts say what is different this time is that the deal is the result of lengthy and direct dialogue between the government in CAR and rebel groups. The talks were brokered by the African Union (AU) and supported by the United Nations (UN). Chad, Congo, Gabon, Angola, Cameroon, France, Britain, Russia and the United States are also said to have contributed, in some way, to the peace initiative.

Reporting on some of the key details of the peace agreement, AP notes that these include the dissolution of armed groups, the formation of an inclusive government and the creation of a fund for victims who have suffered in years of conflict.

Armed groups pledge to stop attacks

Crucially for CAR’s citizens will be the fact that the armed groups have agreed to refrain from any act of destruction, the occupation of public buildings, places of worship and violence against the civilian population, as well as acts of sexual or gender-based violence. The armed groups have further pledged not to use arms and violence against the defence and security forces, U.N. personnel and humanitarian workers.

Yet another critical point is that the government will set up a Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission within 90 days. This cuts short the idea of amnesty long negotiated by armed group leaders.

The hard work towards peace begins now

With rekindled hopes for an end to the bloody conflict comes a sense of realism about the hard work ahead.

AP quotes Herbert Gontran Djono Ahaba, speaking in Khartoum, on behalf of the rebels as saying, "The difficult time starts now, and that is implementing the Khartoum Agreement ... This agreement is crucial for peace," he said.  CAR’s President Faustin Archange Touadéra is said to have said to the representatives of armed groups, "Let’s go back together in Bangui to build our country together." He added, "We do not have the right to disappoint."

The African Union (AU) Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat commended the Central African Republic stakeholders for the agreement. He also commended Sudanese authorities for their role in the peace deal as well as the African Union Peace and Security Commissioner, Smaïl Chergui, and his team for their diligence in accompanying the process.

A complex and bloody conflict

The territory of the Central African Republic, though considered among the poorest countries in the world is rich in diamonds, gold and uranium. For years, armed groups have retained control over 80% of the country’s mineral-rich areas. Mining profits and collections extorted from local traders enabled armed groups to perpetuate the conflict.

Latest statistics indicate that CAR, a landlocked nation, has a population of 5.2 million. It is a population that has paid dearly as a result of the bloody war. Rebel groups often target civilians, schools and religious buildings. They have also looted health centres.

The conflict which started in 2013 is a complicated interreligious, intercommunal fighting coupled with a power struggle over control of the country’s abundant mineral wealth. Foreign governments, private military firms, foreign fighters further add to an already difficult situation. Thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The Alindao massacre

Ironically, some observers, in part, ‘credit’ the 15 November 2018 terrorist attack as giving impetus to the international community to redouble efforts that have led to the latest peace deal.

On the fateful day, one of CAR’s rebel groups known as “Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC)” led other allied groups in carrying out a deadly attack on the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the Diocese of Alindao. The rebels overran and burnt down a refugee camp situated next to the Cathedral. Between 80 to more than 100 persons are said to have died, some burnt alive, in the horrific attack. The Cathedral lost its roof, and the terrorists ransacked and stole mission property.

CAR’s Church leaders and the London-based Amnesty International have called for an investigation into why the Mauritanian-led Minusca forces failed to protect civilians. Minusca contends they were badly outnumbered by the rebels in Alindao. The Mauritanians in Alindao since May 2018 have now been reinforced by a contingent of Rwandan and Burundian troops.

Nevertheless, it is generally appreciated that the United Nations’ Minusca peacekeeping force, in spite of the many challenges, has saved countless lives.

Pope Francis has long stood by the people of CAR

Pope Francis on November 18, 2018, expressed his pain, closeness and love for the victims of the Alindao massacre. His comments were made after he prayed the Sunday noon Angelus with an audience estimated at 30,000 in St. Peter Square.

On a visit to Pope Francis in 2016, CAR’s President Touadéra said in a Radio Vatican interview that he had come to thank Pope Francis, personally and on behalf of all the people of the Central African Republic for visiting his country to promote peace in 2015.

“I came to say thank you to Pope Francis for the great and courageous honour he accorded us by visiting CAR. He visited us during a tough period. The Pope gave us hope for peace. The significant and historical gesture of opening the Holy Door of Mercy in Bangui is something that we will never forget. He not only officially opened the Holy Door of Mercy; he also opened, as it were, the door to a new era in our country,” President Touadéra told the Africa Service of Radio Vatican.

Pope Francis' visit to CAR

Defying security concerns from some Western countries, Pope Francis made an unprecedented visit to CAR in November 2015.

In a gesture aimed at encouraging peace and reconciliation, the Pope even travelled in an open popemobile right into the Muslim neighbourhood of Bangui known as PK5. The Muslim community and the Imam of PK5 enthusiastically welcomed him.

Taking off his shoes at the entrance of the Koudoukou Mosque, Pope Francis told his audience in the Mosque that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”

It is not far-fetched to say that Pope Francis’ visit left a lasting impression on CAR. At the time of the Pope’s visit to CAR, a staff member then at Bangui’s Palace of Renaissance, Tychique Nzouketia Reggy Reo-Olar told Paul Samasumo of Vatican Radio’s Africa Service that notwithstanding outbursts of violence in CAR, Pope Francis’ visit had a profound effect on the people of his country

“Every politician, every Christian, every Muslim, believer in traditional religions, and mere citizens -all continue to quote Pope Francis' statements (on peace and co-existence) in their speeches,” Reo-Olar said.

The challenge of rebuilding peace in CAR

In signing the peace truce, last weekend, CAR’s President, Touadéra is following up on his 2016 election pledge to push for a settlement with rebels.

In April 2016, Touadéra told Vatican Radio that the highest priority for his administration was to work for peace and the reconciliation of the whole country. He said peace and reconciliation, in his country, needed to go hand in hand with “Disarmament, Demobilisation and the Reintegration of some of the armed groups into one national and neutral defence force.”

Another key sector that will need urgent consideration is the education sector. Education has been one of the casualties of the conflict. Many of CAR’s children are not able to attend school because of the fighting.

“The country is in dire need of more teachers, training, formation and capacity building. We need to rebuild the infrastructure that has been destroyed,” Touadéra told Radio Vatican. He was referring to the education sector,

Then there is what to do with the armed group of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)? The LRA is a terrorist militia group of Ugandan origin with its brutal leader hiding and causing havoc in parts of rural CAR. As said earlier, there are also private military firms and foreign fighters with nothing to gain from the new peace arrangement.

On his 2016 Rome visit, President Touadéra also held talks with Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva. The discussions focused on rebuilding the country's agriculture sector and making it an engine for peace and sustainable development.

A joint FAO/WFP Update for the United Nations Security Council January 2019 says some 1.9 million people are experiencing severe food deficits in CAR. According to the Update, armed conflict remained the major driver of the alarming food situation because both host communities and displaced people had lost access to their livelihoods and insecurity undermined the consistent delivery of humanitarian assistance.

There is much riding on this new peace agreement in CAR. Everyone hopes it will last and herald a new era, touch wood.

13 February 2019, 11:34