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The young are key to avoiding old mistakes in Central African Republic

‘Despite being vulnerable to recruitment, their views and experiences are missing from previous peace negotiations.’

Two men dressed in fatigues stand near the camera talking.
Fighters from the Union for Peace in Central African Republic rebel group, one of a number of armed movements in the country that have recruited among youth. (Philip Kleinfeld/TNH)

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When the government of Central African Republic signed a peace deal with the leaders of 14 armed groups in 2019, there was hope the country might turn a corner after years of conflict that have forced one in four people from their homes. But the agreement contained at least one major flaw: It failed to include the voices of CAR's youth.

Fast forward two years, and the deal is severely strained. Armed group leaders who signed it have formed a new rebel movement – the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) – which recruited heavily from young people as it swept through the country earlier this year.

Responding to the crisis, CAR’s government – which has won back territory from the CPC in recent months – has announced plans for a new national dialogue process. Its success will be predicated on foregrounding the views of young people, and addressing their vulnerability to rebel recruitment.

As both a Central African and a peacebuilder, I have seen first-hand the risks facing CAR’s youth while working with young people and conducting research over the past two years in the northwestern regions of Paoua and Bossangoa – two areas badly affected by armed group violence in the country. 

Despite being vulnerable to recruitment, the views and experiences of these young people have been missing from previous dialogues and peace negotiations that have focused on rebel leaders, rather than rural communities.

The lack of understanding about why combatants – particularly from younger age groups – join armed groups, and the incentives they need to lay down their weapons, meant many were drawn back into rebel ranks when the CPC emerged.

Repeating the same mistakes has had devastating consequences: More than 700,000 people are now internally displaced in CAR – half of them children – and 2.3 million are acutely food insecure.

Protection and revenge

Widespread conflict broke out in CAR in 2013. Belligerents included the anti-Balaka, a militia often seen as associated with Christian communites, and the Séléka, a mainly Muslim alliance of northern rebels who had ousted former president François Bozizé.

In listening to young people associated with these armed groups – and various others – there is a clear disconnect between their personal motivations for joining, and national-level political dynamics and peace processes. 

Rather than joining for political or religious reasons, young people from Bossangoa and Paoua overwhelmingly seek protection, or revenge for the killing of family or community members. 

“Some people that I didn’t know came and took my husband and killed him,” one young woman told us during our research. “I had children and I did not know what to do. Through anger, I decided to join the RJ-Belanga [rebel] group to avenge my husband.”

Disconnect between national-level peace processes and the realities of conflict at a local level poses a real challenge to disarmament efforts, and broader prospects for building sustainable peace.

While a new round of national disarmament has been underway since the 2019 agreement, the initiative was developed to tackle formal, hierarchical armed groups – not the fluid, informal groups that we often see at a community level. 

“Through anger, I decided to join the RJ-Belanga [rebel] group to avenge my husband.”

Nor are the majority of young people involved with armed groups even given automatic weapons, a key criteria for demobilisation. The result is a disarmament process that benefits commanders, while young people fall through the cracks. 

When youth do leave armed groups, they do so without assistance from international organisations or local authorities. This leaves many vulnerable to future recruitment by other armed groups or criminal gangs.

To break the cycle, it is vital that future disarmament, demobilisation, and rehabilitation initiatives adapt to the realities of informal and often unarmed combatants, and resist becoming a profit mechanism for rebel leaders. 

A new dialogue

Any new high-level political process must also be complemented with initiatives to identify and engage with key leaders at subnational and community levels – including young people. 

This means creating space for conversations within communities around what’s driving local violence and youth recruitment, and ensuring that issues arising from these discussions are fed into national dialogues. 

As part of the new dialogue, national consultations have taken place in recent weeks between government officials and religious groups, civil society leaders, unions, NGOs, and some youth representatives.

This is a step in the right direction towards a more inclusive peace in CAR. But with consultations only held in the capital, Bangui, the experiences of those living in rural areas are unlikely to have been heard.

The CPC movement may well prove to be a transient player in CAR’s long-running crisis: Rebel groups in the country often forge alliances before breaking apart.

But the current crisis has underlined the fragility of recent peace efforts and highlighted the risk of young people being drawn back into violence. Unless they are involved in future initiatives, conflict will continue.

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