Reducing Community Violence in the Central African Republic – The Case of Bria
Robert Muggah and Jean de Dieu Ntanga Ntita 
Many of Africa's armed conflicts constitute wicked problems. Across parts of the continent, organized violence is fusing political, criminal and extremist motives, explicitly targeting civilians and involving multiple armed groups. In many cases, regional players are involved — profiting from disorder even as they sue for peace. Complicating matters, national and subnational governments suffer from chronic weaknesses, with limited control over their borders and territories. Due to the many security dilemmas arising from competing groups and the corrosive effects of predatory violence, these conflicts are exceedingly difficult to resolve.
Central African Republic (CAR), one of the world's poorest and most fragile countries, has been convulsed by successive armed conflicts since independence in 1960. Waves of armed conflict have weakened the country and eviscerated the economy. The most recent violent insurrection between 2012 and 2014 pitted a coalition of heavily armed groups (the Séléka, which means “alliance” in Sanga, a local language) in the north and east against the government and local self-defense groups (the anti-Balaka, which some experts claim refers to so-called “anti-AK47 bullets”) in the south and west of the country. Despite a series of internationally brokered peace agreements in 2014, 2015 and 2017 and the deployment of over 14,700 peacekeepers, the country is divided. There is a real chance of a long-term military stalemate with devastating humanitarian consequences.
In CAR, as in other war-ravaged countries, cities are often key sites of violent contestation and confrontation. As Africa urbanizes, these tendencies are increasing. Government forces and armed groups frequently compete over the control of urban centers — including their commercial networks but also for hearts and minds. Civilians also routinely seek protection and sanctuary in cities, disrupting agricultural production in surrounding areas. Cities — and their peripheries — are also critical entry-points for intervention to promote stability and security, a fact that many humanitarian and development organizations have been relatively slow to grasp. Given the traditional focus on rural areas, there is comparatively limited understanding of the dynamics of conflict affected cities, much less the effectiveness of strategies to prevent and reduce urban organized violence.
International efforts to stabilize CAR are squarely focused on protecting civilians, dismantling the country’s many organized armed groups and restoring state authority. Not without good reason — armed groups are aggressively franchising, evidence that their extortion and smuggling businesses offer decent returns. Notwithstanding its efforts to enforce a peace process and a clear mandate to disarm, demobilize and demobilize the ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka coalitions, UN-led efforts are incremental. Yet a series of locally-mediated peace deals and decentralized violence reduction programs have made progress. To better understand these efforts, this article describes the experience of UN-facilitated interventions in a single city — Bria. Given its history, location and role in the country, the case of Bria is especial emblematic.
Local peace agreements and community violence reduction (CVR) measures can potentially help contain and reduce violence in modern contemporary armed conflicts. They are not a substitute for an inclusive political agreement, but rather a stability measure to create and maintain momentum. Nor is CVR designed to replace longer-term development efforts. The reality is that more traditional peace agreements, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and area-based development strategies, while critical, are often insufficiently nimble to adjust to fast-changing realities on the ground. Their failure can also lead to international and domestic reticence to engage. While one must be cautious to extrapolate generalizable lessons from a single case, there are nevertheless useful insights from Bria that can potentially inform peace support operations globally.
UN Peacekeepers on patrol in the Central African Republic.
Photo courtesy of Robert Muggah.
Bria, the capital of Haute Kotto district, is at the literal center of CAR’s complex and overlapping armed conflicts. The city, with a population of roughly 86,000 (compared to 35,000 when the last census was administered in 2003), has suffered from repeated waves of armed conflict. It was spared large-scale violence during the civil war of 2012-2014 since it was rapidly taken by the ex-Séléka factions. The most explosive occurred in November 2016 when fighting broke out between armed groups killing 92 people and displacing roughly 12,000 residents. Subsequent outbreaks of reprisal violence led by the anti-Balaka, including against Fulani residents and so-called Arabs, in February 2017, resulted in another 50 deaths and the displacement of another 75,000 people — many of them crowded next to the UN base. Today, roughly 1,100 UN peacekeepers and civilians in Bria are present, seeking to maintain stability.
Bria, like most cities, is a victim of its geography. For one, it is a key artery for commerce and sits at the intersection of several key trading routes for CAR as a whole. A wide range of goods and services are shipped through Bria since it serves a key transport corridor from Sudan and Chad to the north, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda to the south, and the Republic of the Congo (RoC) and Cameroon to the west. While near constant population churn has and does nurture vibrant commercial links, it can also translate into transactional exchanges that limit the formation of bridging and associative social capital. Given the heavy involvement of foreigners in the local economy, including Chadians, Mauritanians, Sudanese, Malians, Lebanese and others, there is relatively weak social cohesion across ethnic lines.
More fundamentally, Bria is one of the principle diamond and gold mining centers of CAR, rivaled only by Ndassima, Boda and Sam Ouandja. The city is dotted with dozens of trading houses advertising their wares, and smuggling is known to be routine. Small alluvial diamond pits are common across CAR and are often overseen by a combination of local commercial agents and armed groups. Muslim traders have long dominated the retail market, a source of some grievance among the majority Christian population. While these pits serve as employment generators for Christians and Muslims alike, they are also fundamentally linked to local and regional war economies reaching Antwerp, Delhi and Dubai and sustaining the ex-Séléka affiliates, in particular.
Predictably, there are multiple religious and ethnic fault-lines inflaming tensions in Bria, and across CAR more generally. The city is currently spatially divided between western and northern neighborhoods dominated by the so-called anti-Balaka self defense militias and the better organized ex-Séléka armed groups who control the center and east of the city. The anti-Balaka, all of them Christians and animists, are composed of two factions led by Bokassa and Thephile Ndoumba. Bokassa established his headquarters in the city’s IDP camp in front of the UN base. Meanwhile, Theophile Ndoumba continues to reside in Bornou, a Muslim majority neighborhood in the eastern area of Bria.
The ex-Séléka factions in Bria include several armed groups, all of whom have a presence in other parts of the country. Among the most influential is the Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) — itself divided between two factions — and the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC) dissidents elements. Their membership is principally from Chad and Sudan, though also include Goula, Rounga, Sara and Youlou ethnic groups from CAR. Meanwhile, the Rassemblement Patriotique pour le Renouveau de Centrafrique (RPRC) and the Mouvement des Libérateurs Centrafricains pour la Justice (MLCJ), are also active. Another group operating in Bria is the Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) in the east of the city which essentially represents the minority Fulani. The sheer number of groups operating in the city ensures an unstable and violent disequilibrium.
Notwithstanding ethnic and religious fault-lines, political and economic factors are most frequently identified by the leadership of ex-Séléka armed groups as the drivers of conflict in Bria and other cities across the country. While clearly benefiting from the diamond and gold smuggling and dominating the commercial sector, the predominantly Muslim populations in the north and east of CAR were largely excluded from Government service. Since independence key government and civil service posts have been reserved for the Christian majority, with power concentrated in the capital, Bangui. The insurrection in 2012-2014 which led to a temporary coalition of Sékéla fighters to take the capital and replace president Francois Bozizé was thus politically motivated. Meanwhile, geo-political factors — from the interventionist postures of Chadian and Sudanese authorities to intervention from France, the US and most recently the Russians – are alternately stabilizing and destabilizing. All of these dynamics are keenly appreciated by the leadership of the country’s 14 recognized armed groups.
UN Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.
Photo courtesy of Robert Muggah.
A UN Approach to Stability
Almost a dozen peacekeeping missions were deployed to CAR since the 1990s, more than any other country on earth. For example, in 1998, the UN Security Council authorized MINURCA to keep the peace in the wake of a succession of coup attempts. The mission was replaced by a peace-building operation, BONUCA, in 2000. Seven years later, the UN established a regional mission — MINURCAT — to protect civilians in both CAR and Chad. Soon after, in 2010, yet another integrated peace-building office was established, BINUCA. When civil war restarted in 2012, two separate missions were launched by the African Union and France — FOMAC and MISCA. MINUSCA, set-up in 2014, subsumed BINUCA and MISCA. Since there is virtually no government infrastructure or services outside the capital, the latest mission has its work cut out for it.
The latest peacekeeping mission is by far the largest, involving the deployment of over 14,700 military, police and civilian personnel. MINUSCA has a robust mandate to protect civilians and dismantle armed groups, but it has been wary of resorting to military power precisely to avoid making a bad situation even worse. As in so many other modern wars, the UN is also a target: since MINUSCA was launched, 73 blue helmets have died trying to enforce peace. The country has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous humanitarian operations in the world: more aid workers are targeted in CAR than Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Syria.
A patchwork of peace agreements have rarely held longer than a few years. A high point came in 2015, when a new deal was struck between the government and ten armed groups. Backed by international partners, the Bangui National Forum generated commitments to dispose of their arms, renounce fighting and free all child soldiers. It also recommended changes in the nationality code, the expansion of government presence in under-serviced areas, and security sector and judicial reforms. But that optimism quickly dissipated. Some armed groups were unwilling to make concessions, and there was no way to credibly enforce the deal among the rest of them. Yet another peace deal signed in 2017 with 13 rebel groups was met with understandable skepticism.
UN Peacekeeping patrol in the Central African Republic.
Photo courtesy of Robert Muggah.
A recurring challenge facing peace efforts in CAR is the sheer number of armed groups and the difficulties of discriminating them from civilians. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, almost half of the world’s ongoing wars are waged by between two and nine armed groups and a quarter involve ten or more. CAR is an archetypal case: roughly 70 percent of the territory is controlled by armed factions. The government recognizes only those that participate in the 2015 summit, but experts believe that splinter groups could number in the hundreds. This is because groups associated with the anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka are franchising their operations, evidence that their extortion and smuggling businesses offer decent returns. Illegal taxation of cattle herders and truck drivers alone are estimated to generate almost $7 million a year for ex-Séléka groups. UN officials privately concede that the diamond and gold smuggling business likely runs in the tens of millions of dollars annually.
Another complicating factor is the way today’s armed conflicts are regionalizing. Organized chaos in CAR has resulted in the expulsion of at least 582,000 civilians seeking refuge in nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Cameroon and South Sudan, countries riven by their own brutal internal conflicts. The humanitarian consequences are dire. Alongside refugees, another 687,000 people were internally displaced, many of them crowding into cities and leaving land fallow, exacerbating chronic food insecurity. Despite an abundance of mineral and oil resources—mostly still untapped—at least 76 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, the highest rate on the planet.
While facing dim prospects, there are some glimmers of hope. The 2015 peace agreement, while difficult to sustain, is nevertheless still holding. Despite facing setbacks, MINUSCA in collaboration with the government have also arrested several high-level commanders of the armed groups showing that impunity will not be tolerated. Meanwhile, the country's incipient armed forces, the Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA), are also finally starting to take action in various parts of the country, albeit in fits and starts. They are still wholly unprepared to ensure a minimum level of law and order without UN support. At the center of the UN's mission are dismantle an estimated caseload of 7,000 combatants. While DDR has yet to genuinely lift off — so far roughly 439 fighters have entered a DDR pilot program launched in the second half of 2017 — it is set to expand dramatically in the west of the country in late 2018. While real doubts remain, there is guarded optimism that the political conditions may finally be ready for DDR.
Enter Community Violence Reduction
Meanwhile, the UN and its partners have quietly supported local initiatives that are finally bearing fruit. Specifically, a series of local peace agreements facilitated by the UN appear to be paying off. CAR is torn by multiple disputes straddling religion, ethnicity, territory and socio-economic class. These various grievances have for years been represented by the ex-Séléka insurgents, who hold vast swathes of territory in the mainly Muslim-dominated north and east, and the anti-Balaka self-defense and para-military groups, who claim to protect Christians living in the west and south. Other violent fault-lines involve disputes between locals and “foreigners,” especially pastoralists and traders from Chad and Sudan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, national peace processes have been largely unable to reconcile these multi-layered problems.
Far from the international spotlight, bottom-up community-mediated peace deals have made some real progress. These are typically hatched by traditional and religious leaders, women’s organizations, municipal authorities and an assortment of international and community-based associations. Since at least 2012, decentralized peace-making efforts have helped resolve inter-communal violence by responding to very specific religious and ethnic dynamics fueling tensions on the ground. They range from local nonaggression pacts between armed groups to specific deals to promote reconciliation. While far from perfect, they are worthy attempts to keep the peace where there limited state presence and when so many regional and national efforts have failed.
Alongside local peace agreements are CVR measures that have been implemented across the country, especially those parts with the state has little purchase. The UN, together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNOPS, has also rolled-out dozens of CVR projects across the country, including in Bria. Community-led, owned and enforced, the goal is to keep young at-risk youth with so-called “conflict carrying capacity” from re-joining criminal gangs and other armed groups or from preventing them to do so. Rather than providing them with money in exchange for their firearms, the UN and its partners have ramped up income-generation schemes in the most volatile communities. The concentration of support to people outside armed groups and affected communities sends a message in a country where it is typically violence entrepreneurs who are rewarded.
In Bria, local peace agreements and CVR efforts have also helped keep a bad situation from getting much worse. Specific projects have focused principally on anti-Balaka affiliates (54 percent), at-risk youth (33 percent), FPRC associated elements (7 percent), RPRC associated elements (4 percent), and UPC and MLCJ affiliates. Several key specific hotspots were selected for CVR efforts. The most important involved the IDP camp (focused on 674 beneficiaries). There, anti-Balaka mixed with locals and were heavily involved in predatory activities targeting civilians, targeting humanitarian workers and restricting access to key transit routes, including the roads from Bria to Bambari that deliver basic goods and services to the city.
Meanwhile, the other two hotspots identified in Bria included Pende (103 beneficiaries) and Bornou neighborhoods (223 beneficiaries). In the former, the goal was to support farming and animal husbandry projects, critical to stimulating the local economy, addressing food insecurity and encouraging people to return and invest in the area. In the latter, the goal was to ensure the free-flow of commercial activity, especially the movement of trucks coming from Sudan that supplied critical products during the dry season. In each of these cases, persistent insecurity was identified as a key impediment to civilian protection and the wider activities of the UN mission.
CVR projects launched since 2015 are characterized by three basic clusters of activities. First, they promote skills training, typically for between two to three months. Second, based on a market assessment, the Bria team identified 12 areas of work that would generate meaningful income generation opportunities. Third, CVR measures promote social cohesion and community resilience. Activities include community mobilization projects and reconciliation activities involving local leaders. The restoration and construction of public goods – from schools and clinics to community collective and bridges, are all designed to highlight the tangible dividends of peace. In this way, the UN is helping reknit the social fabric — and ultimately the social efficacy — of war weary communities. By involving the local mayor's office in the CVR effort, the UN also hopes to enhance the legitimacy and credibility of state authorities.
Participants in CVR Work Project.
Photo courtesy of Robert Muggah.
At the heart of these CVR schemes are representative local committees. The committees are purposefully designed to mirror the community and consist of district-level and municipal authorities in Bria, business people, sultans and pastors, local associations, and also representatives of the beneficiary groups. Their remit is to provide direction to specific projects, vet candidates to ensure they meet the eligibility criteria, and penalize non-compliance. The committee plays also a pivotal role in mediation processes on issues specifically connected to CVR. Working in a voluntary capacity, these committees meet at least once a month and vet CVR interventions. More than 16,000 people have already benefited from the program since its inception across the country, including roughly 1,000 in Bria proper. And with a cash injection expected from the European Union, Canadian and US Governments, and the World Bank, the number of beneficiaries could expand dramatically nationwide in 2019.
While still early days, there are preliminary signs that CVR is contributing to reductions tensions since they were started in 2017. Overall rates of violent crime in Bria have declined, particularly in those areas where projects are undertaken. The CVR interventions started in November 2017, involving a combination of community sensitization and mobilization. Specialized workshops focused on locally defined priorities – including political, ethnic and sexual violence. Income-generation activities started earlier, in July 2017, reaching some 51 by August 2018. According to UN and local police officials, the prevalence of criminal violence has declined dramatically between November 2017 and June 2018. In July 2018, killing declined even more along with an unprecedented absence of arson. By contrast, kidnappings increased, virtually all of them by anti-Balaka and FPRC forces that have not been involved in CVR.
Reported Crimes in Bria (November 2017-June 2018)
Source: Local statistics provided by Bria Police (2018)
There are also qualitative indications of success arising from CVR. For example, members of the local committee and surveyed beneficiaries report playing a role in mediating local disputes and keeping them from becoming flashpoints. What is more, there is also a visible resumption of commercial activities, including new businesses in and around areas where CVR has taken place. There are signs of less informal and illegal taxation of businesses, including in anti-Balaka strongholds such as the IDP camp. There is also evidence that some displaced people are returning to areas where CVR interventions are underway, reporting a higher level of confidence in the overall security environment.
Of course, CVR is not a panacea. Indeed, external factors can negatively disrupt the security environment, including tensions in neighboring cities, towns and villages. What is more, there are still signs that anti-Balaka members exert informal justice in areas of their control and severely restrict the movement of local residents. The UN and local committees have prepared codes of conduct for beneficiaries, but these are often difficult to enforce when major attacks occur in and around Bria. Indeed, there is a high degree of heterogeneity in the effectiveness of CVR, depending on the presence of armed groups. Nevertheless, many beneficiaries claim that they are less inclined to join armed groups and self-defense militia since they have seen others succeed as a result of CVR.
In resource scarce settings such as Bria with virtually no international presence outside the UN, even a modicum of social and economic assistance can generate positive impacts. The focus on demonstration projects is strategic – highlighting the tangible dividends of legitimate collaborative economic activity. The incentives provided by the CVR projects are also competitive relative to the illicit alternatives, offering a more sustainable return than a rank and file position in an armed group. Moreover, the provision of coaching and mentoring support are all signaled as critical to the effective CVR outcomes.
Local peace agreements and community violence reduction measures are not a substitute for wider development programming. They are an interim stabilization measure,designed to help strengthen local capacities – both of at risk young people and communities – to resist violence. Nor is CVR a replacement for the broader political peace process, though they can help make the returns of stability more tangible and create a more conducive environment for national political processes. In the absence of DDR, CVR is one of several promising instruments that can help restore a minimum level of order. CVR can also help reinforce and complement DDR objectives, especially if they can reduce tensions in communities where cantonment is occurring or ex-combatants are returning. CVR is potentially more flexible and adaptable to local conditions than conventional DDR approaches, as the case of Bria amply shows.
Since independence in 1960, CAR has lurched from crisis to crisis. One of the reasons for this is that predominantly Christian governments have failed to deliver even the most rudimentary services to its population, particularly Muslim-majority areas. The only way the country will deliver a lasting and comprehensive end to its many armed conflicts is through inclusive political arrangements that adequately represent CAR’s many distinct population groups. But for now, small, local improvements might be all that is possible. Fortunately, MINUSCA is already taking steps to explicitly connect local peace deals and CVR within a national CVR strategy. But the UN could do more, bulking up its field offices in order to provide political cover to local mediators and military support to deter violence entrepreneurs.
 Credit to Martin Karl Gerjot, Kenneth Gluck, Chris Odonnell, Anna Osborne, Sasha Pippenger, Marie-Joelle Zahar and Margherita Zuin for their substantive comments on earlier drafts.
 Adama Dieng, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, visited CAR from 6 to 11 Oct 2017. He did not determine there to be a genocidal situation. See
 According to MINUSCA, there were 89,791 residents of Bria in 2016.
 It is worth noting that country regional dynamics are also at play. Fighting in neighboring Bangassou also had spill-over effects in Bria. The ex-Séléka member, the FPRC AF, attacked anti-Balaka groups in defense of Muslim residents. This led to a massive outburst of violence and displacement, including the establishment of an IDP camp near the UN compound.
 As of August 2018, he appears to move between Bria and other small towns on the s0-called Irabanda axis. Boukassa’s associates are embedded in the IDP camp abutting the UN compound. They are heavily involved in local crime and periodic acts of cannibalism.
 While the UPC are for the most part focused on ensuring self-protection, they remain threatening.
 The authors conducted interviews with the leadership of all the armed groups over the course of August 4-7 2018 in Bria.
 These include micro-trade (petit commerce) of daily essential items and foods (55 percent), carpentry (5 percent), mechanic and moto taxi driving (15 percent), pig and goat breeding (12 percent) as well as soap production, photography, IT, hair salons, etc.
 There are 403 female beneficiaries, roughly 40% of the caseload.