Armed rebels threaten peace agreement in Central African Republic, bishop warns

Bangui, Central African Republic, Jul 15, 2019 / 02:45 pm (CNA).- Armed rebel groups are thwarting the prospects for success of the Central African Republic’s recent peace agreement, warned the president of the country’s Catholic bishops.

“The government is keeping its part of the bargain in this current peace agreement, but the armed group leaders are not really eager to implement their own part of the obligations,” Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo-Aziagbia of Bossangoa, the president of the bishops’ conference in the CAR, told CNA in an interview July 15.

In February, the government signed an agreement—the Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation—in Khartoum, Sudan, with more than a dozen rebel groups. Several other peace agreements to end the country’s prolonged conflict have fallen through in recent years.

Violence has gripped the country since late 2012, when rival Muslim factions in the Northeast merged into the group “Seleka” and “anti-balaka” groups and began fomenting sectarian violence against both Christians and Muslims.

More than half the country’s population needed humanitarian assistance in 2018, the group Human Rights Watch reported, and over 640,000 were internally displaced in 2018 according to UN figures; the total number of refugees was reported to be 574,600.

However, reports that the violence in the CAR is religious-based misses the true nature of the conflict, Bishop Nongo-Aziagbia said, as many Christians and Muslims have not joined in the fighting which is instead carried out by the rebel groups that claim to represent Christians and Muslims.

“The reality is, the Muslim population have been taken hostage by the Seleka,” the bishop said, “who present themselves as protectors and defenders of the Muslims in the country.” Meanwhile, “the anti-balaka are also abusing the rights of the non-Muslim population.”

In March, the CEO of the UN’s International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) called the CAR “the most dangerous place in the world for children,” noting that 1.5 million children were at risk of starvation.

Complicating matters is the ineffectiveness of the country’s army to deal with the armed rebels which can purchase sophisticated weaponry as needed. “That has to change,” Bishop Nongo-Aziagbia told CNA.

The recent peace agreement, the bishop acknowledged, is “nothing to write home about” according to civil society leaders, but it is still “better than nothing.” It has a “mechanism” to bring peace to the country, he said, but the rebel groups are not cooperating.

Christians are “people of faith and hope,” Bishop Nongo-Aziagbia said. “I strongly believe that with a bit of good will from each and every one of us, we will be able to work out something good” and “come out of this crisis.”

The country’s bishops issued a message in June “to the Church Family of God, to men and women of good will,” where they noted that “the people are tired of the hypocrisy that characterizes the signing of the various agreements that have taken place in the country.”

“Indeed, hardly these Agreements are signed, immediately they are violated by the same signatories,” the statement noted. 

The visit of Pope Francis to the CAR in 2015 provided a critical message on the need for unity, the bishop said, as it “really helped in making the people understand that it is their responsibility to stand for their country, fight for their country, and then come together as brothers and sisters.”

Some other challenges to establishing peace in the country are a lack of access to education and lack of investment, he told CNA. With an illiteracy rate of around 70%, “people are easily manipulated in such circumstances,” and lots of youths are recruited by armed groups as child soldiers.

“That is the future of the Central African Republic,” he said. “We have to take those youths from the grip of these armed leaders, give them something else, let them rely upon themselves, let them trust in themselves,” and “education is the key.”

There is a particular need for technical and professional education, Bishop Nongo-Aziagbia said, to help young people provide an honest living for themselves and their families. “The Church is trying our best in that regard,” he said.

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