Solaye Snider, Blog Writer

United Nations (UN) officials recently declared that the Central African Republic (CAR) has reached a “critical stage” in its political transition to peace and stability. Violence and civil unrest continues and over 2.7 million people remain in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The next step in the planned transition is a national forum on reconciliation set to take place this week in the country’s capital, Bangui, followed by national elections later this year.

The CAR has faced instability and violence since its independence from France in 1960, although the humanitarian crisis has intensified since March 2013 when the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance captured Bangui to seize political power, sparking revenge attacks from the largely Christian, Anti-Balaka militia. In Bangui, Anti-Balaka militia violence reduced the Muslim population by 99 percent over a mere two months in early 2014 through murder or associated displacement, classified by many as a process of genocide. According to the International Criminal Court, both rebel groups have committed serious crimes against humanity, “including murder, rape, forced displacement, persecution and the use of child soldiers”. The recent surge in violence has resulted in 50 000 more internally displaced persons being registered this year, joining the quarter of the country’s population already registered as internally displaced, and the 455 000 refugees sheltering in neighbouring countries.

To help quell the ongoing violence, the UN has deployed a peacekeeping operation known as MINUSCA, who are focused on national reconciliation processes. To pave the way for the Bangui Forum, “grassroots popular consultations” have been led by the CAR interim government since January in communities across the nation as well as among CAR refugees in neighbouring countries. Completed in March, the objective of the consultations was to choose community representatives to attend the forum and give the general public a chance to share their fears, hopes, and ideas about how to overcome the current crisis.

However, continued instability and resistance to reconciliation casts doubts on the UN’s hopes for a “successful conclusion of the transition” and has provoked debate over whether national security is a by-product of the democratic process, or a pre-requisite to it. Some fear that holding elections amidst ongoing violence, injustice, and impunity will only increase the risk of further humanitarian crimes, and believe that disarmament should be enforced before an election is imposed.

Significant challenges remain in registering the enormous population of displaced persons both within the CAR and abroad, as well as funding the electoral process. Ex-Seleka fighters have forcibly stopped the National Election Authority (ANE) from setting up offices in areas they control and once even briefly abducted officials trying to share information about the election process. Rebels have also tried to prevent the popular consultations in several regions.

Despite these delays and obstacles, acting interim president Catherine Samba-Panza is hopeful that the victim-focused reconciliation attempts will differ from previous processes that were centered on politico-military actors. While the outcomes of the Bangui Forum and elections are still unknown, both the humanitarian crisis and the debate around the most effective long term strategy for finally achieving peace, stability, and sustainable development in the region continue