Q&A: Why new peace talks on CAR really matter

As a new round of peace talks between armed groups and the government of Central African Republic is scheduled to begin this week, the UN’s top humanitarian official in CAR warns that continued violence could push the country closer to famine.

Around 2.9 million people in CAR, or 63 percent of the population, need humanitarian assistance and protection – an increase of 16 percent in 2018. Of those in need, 1.9 million require acute and immediate aid, according to OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body. Food security and protection are among the main concerns.

In Cameroon to attend a press conference on the latest situation on the ground in the Central African Republic, Najat Rochdi, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the country, told IRIN that increasing levels of violence are driving the ongoing crisis.

CAR has seen near-constant conflict since fighting broke out between the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militia and mainly Muslim Séléka rebels in 2012. While a peace agreement was reached in January 2013, rebels seized the capital that March, forcing then President François Bozizé to flee. Rival militias have been battling each other since, and much of the country is overrun with armed groups despite the 2016 election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Despite relative calm in some areas last year, which allowed more than 240,000 people to return, forced displacement continued in several regions. And the UN has said that attacks against civilians and aid workers rose in 2018.

The new peace talks, this time organised under the auspices of the African Union, are the latest attempt to broker peace. Rochdi spoke with IRIN about the most pressing humanitarian needs, her hopes for a new peace agreement, and where the talks, due to start in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on Thursday, may lead.

IRIN: The UN says the number of people displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance in CAR is at levels unseen since the height of the crisis in 2013-2014. Why is this happening now?

“For me as humanitarian coordinator, this is hope – a hope that there will be a lasting peace agreement and that everybody is going to respect it.”

Najat Rochdi: One in four is displaced, whether within the country as an internally displaced person (IDP) or outside as a refugee. And 63 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. The reason why we have this increase in terms of humanitarian needs is because of the violence, and the upsurge of violence in 2018.

We ended the year 2018 with two IDP sites [housing] more than 90,000 people that were completely torched by the armed groups. And obviously we had different hotspots which are new hotspots, including in areas where we didn’t use to have any violence before, which were really stable to the point where we started facilitating the voluntary returns. Unfortunately, we had to stop that because of this upsurge in violence… But [the humanitarian needs are] not only because of that.

The violence and insecurity in some areas prevented farmers from going to the fields, and working their fields, and therefore this impacted directly and immediately on food security.

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This is the first time ever, actually, where the Central African Republic will reach level four in IPC, which is the level just before famine.

(The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system has five worsening degrees – level five means famine. For more, read our primer.)

Thirteen percent of the population in the Central African Republic today is in level four. We have never seen that before. And as long as people cannot go back to their fields and work their fields, the [food] production is not going be there and, therefore, the needs on food will become more and more and more acute.

In a country where you just throw a seed and it grows up without anything, it is really… a tragedy.

IRIN: Armed attacks and violence seem to be rising. What do you hope the new peace talks will achieve?

Rochdi: Those peace talks have been prepared for a while, and the government has taken the lead, which is really translating a real political will to come up with a sustainable peace agreement.

For me as humanitarian coordinator, this is hope – a hope that there will be a lasting peace agreement and that everybody is going to respect it. And hopefully the return of IDPs and refugees will be at the centre of those peace talks and negotiations, because the Central African Republic needs all its daughters and its sons to feel that they are part of the country and also to be able to go back to their houses, to their lands, and to get back their properties.

IRIN: What does it look like on the ground when 63 percent of a country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance?

Rochdi: Well, it is about needs in terms of shelter, needs in terms of access to water, it is needs in terms of health support and health services, it is needs in terms of food assistance, obviously. But it is also the need for protection, the need for schools, hospitals, health centres and, above all, the need for recovery actions because humanitarian assistance alone cannot be the answer.

This is why we already started and initiated in 2018 a specific programme nationwide regarding the humanitarian development nexus where, yes, it is important to provide emergency humanitarian assistance, but immediately it is also important to have the recovery actors and development actors, including the national and local authorities to provide alternatives to the youth, to women, and to men, to help them and support them so that they can come up with income-generation activities.

IRIN: What is the biggest gap in assistance in CAR, and why isn’t it being filled?

Rochdi: The biggest gap is that we are not getting 100 percent funding. If we had 100 percent funding [in 2018] then we would have addressed all the gaps. And since we got only 50 percent, obviously we could not address all the gaps. That is the reason we have focused mainly on critical humanitarian assistance, which is actually very close to life-saving [support].

“The Central African Republic needs all its daughters and its sons to feel that they are part of the country and also to be able to go back to their houses, to their lands, and to get back their properties.”

This year it will actually be the same scenario if we do not get all the funding. When we are issuing an appeal, and when we put that we need $430 million… and if we don’t get $430 million, it means that a lot of things that we have planned are not going to be achieved. And therefore, this is adding to the vulnerability of the people who are already very vulnerable.

So the gaps are really translated in all the sectors. In the health sector, we have a lot of outbreaks for example; in terms of child mortality, in terms of maternal mortality, in terms of malnutrition. If we do not have enough funding to distribute food and also to distribute vitamins, of course there will be malnutrition. If we don’t have enough shelters, it means that protection is at stake, and it means also that IDPs are very vulnerable to attacks. If we don’t have recovery actions, it means that the people will depend 100 percent on humanitarian assistance.

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Besides humanitarian assistance, it is very important also that the basic social services are improved, and this is much more on the side of the government and development actors. It is also important that we all work together.

Obviously, above all of that, we need more security, hence the importance of the peace talks.

IRIN: What is the worst-case scenario for this year? How will the humanitarian situation change?

Rochdi: I love saying that we plan for the worst but we hope for the best. Hoping for the best is that the peace talks that are going to happen in Khartoum will lead to a sustainable peace agreement. Therefore, we will have a more conducive environment to help people come back and to have people also go and work their fields. And therefore the [food] production would be much better; hence, less need in food distribution, which will be great news for all of us.

The worst-case scenario would be that violence will continue and therefore the need for humanitarian assistance would become bigger and bigger and bigger.

My fear is that people will keep suffering. It is very difficult; there is a certain level of suffering that [people] cannot take anymore. I have to express all my admiration for the women, men, and people I have met in the field. They have amazing resilience, an amazing belief that there is a future, and I share that belief with them.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity)

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