Grandstand. On March 24, 2013, an alliance of rebel groups known as Séléka took Control of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. It had by then already taken control of most of the country’s provinces and overthrown President François Bozizé.
The Seleka (a word that means “covenant” in Sango, the main language of the country) said he wanted to liberate the country and bring peace, security and development to the people. It has not happened. In a few days, its fighters have unleashed waves of violence on those they considered supporters of François Bozizé, killing civilians in Bangui and throughout the country. They destroyed many neighborhoods and villages, pillaged wherever they could and raped women and young girls.
The Central African Republic was unstable before the arrival of the Seleka, due in particular to thelegacy of Mr. Bozizé in terms of corruption, nepotism and negligence. The Seleka, however, upset a country already in great difficulty.
Militias, known asanti balaka, began to organize counter-attacks against the Seleka. These groups composed of Christians and animists regularly targeted Muslim civilians, whom they associated with the Seleka. The humanitarian situation deteriorated rapidly and hundreds of thousands of people fled the country, while others were internally displaced. Many of those who fled were Muslims and sought refuge in neighboring countries or in dozens of enclaves scattered across western Central African Republic. The Séléka has fractured and new armed groups are appeared.
Justice instead of amnesty
The destruction caused by the Seleka gave rise to inclusive negotiations on a future solution. The 2015 national consultations, held within the framework of the Bangui National Forum, brought together more than 800 representatives of community organizations, non-governmental organizations, political parties and armed groups from across the country.
A theme emerged during the discussions: justice rather than amnesty. Forum participants made it clear that no amnesty would be tolerated for those responsible for international crimes and their accomplices. They recognized that the absence of justice in the Central African Republic since 2003 was one of the main causes of the successive crises.
Ten years after the Seleka took power, the Central African Republic is still unstable and facing a new security and humanitarian crisis. In 2020, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), bringing together former Séléka and anti-balaka members led by François Bozizé, offensive Bangui. Government forces, aided by Russian fighters and Rwandan soldiers, repelled the attack but failed to stabilize the country. The CPC withdrew to its bases and to neighboring countries, without however ceasing its attacks. A UN peacekeeping mission, set up at the end of 2014,strive to maintain some semblance of peace.
The violence continues unabated. The recourse to the forces of the Wagner group, linked to Russia and responsible forabuse against civilians, including murder, unlawful detention and torture, bears similarities to the dark days of March 2013.
Creation of the Special Criminal Court
Progress has nevertheless been made in the judicial sphere. Many thought them unimaginable. In 2014, following a referral by the Central African government, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation – her second (the first concerned serious crimes committed in 2002 and 2003) – into the crimes allegedly committed since 2012. Since 2018, the Court has brought three leaders anti balaka And an executive of the Seleka.
In August 2022, in a landmark decision, the Court issued a arrest warrant against Nouredinne Adam, the presumed number two of the Seleka. The Court accuses him of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including acts of torture. Cooperation is essential to obtain his arrest. The ICC recently announced the closure of its investigation.
To deal with other serious cases, a novel approach has been adopted, with the creation of the Special Criminal Court (CPS), a new court located in Bangui to try, with international staff and support, war crimes and crimes against humanity alongside the ICC. SPC has concluded a important lawsuit and, although it has its own challenges However, it remains an effective tool to hold groups responsible for serious crimes to account, given that the ICC will not initiate new prosecutions.
A crisis that remains acute
In ten years, the Central African Republic has embarked on the path of authoritarianism. President Touadéra and his party are pushing for a constitutional revision that would allow him to run for a third term. Government officials and their supporters have threatened and harassed political opponents, journalists and civil society actors who contest the revision.
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The President of the Constitutional Court, who ruled this revision illegal, was dismissed of his functions. To keep the promises of the Bangui Forum, the democratic space – where respect for freedom of expression and association is guaranteed – must be restored. And the government must ensure that its commitment to justice is matched by political will to arrest suspected criminals currently in positions of responsibility.
The crisis in the Central African Republic remains acute. Many Seleka leaders ignore justice: some are ministers, others continue to carry out attacks. Impunity has led to the creation of other armed groups and fueled violence against civilians. Government repression and abuses by Russian mercenaries are aggravating the crisis. It will be partly possible to end the cycles of violence by tackling impunity. The next ten years will be difficult, but the next generation of leaders should heed the calls made by the Bangui Forum.
Lewis Mudge is director for Central Africa at Human Rights Watch.