Since gaining independence in 1960, CAR has experienced decades of violence and instability, including six coups. Since the 2003 coup carried out by François Bozizé, much of CAR, especially the northern areas, has been controlled by rebels. In 2004, the government launched a war against the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR). Despite efforts to achieve peace and disarmament, instability and attacks persisted. As the war came to a close, an insurgency led by the Seleka (or “alliance” in Sango)—a coalition of armed, primarily Muslim groups— launched an offensive against the CAR government in December 2012. Seleka quickly took the north and center of the country before seizing the capital city of Bangui and staging a coup in March 2013. Michel Djotodia, the rebel leader, became president and attempted to dissolve the Seleka forces, but not all of the fighters complied.
In response to brutality by Seleka forces, “anti-balaka” (meaning “invincible” in Sango) coalitions of Christian fighters formed to carry out reprisal violence against Seleka fighters, adding an element of religious animosity to the violence. In September 2013, anti-balaka forces began committing widespread revenge attacks against mostly Muslim civilians, displacing tens of thousands of people to Seleka-controlled northern areas. Despite having officially disbanded, many ex-Seleka members launched counterattacks, plunging CAR into a chaotic state of violence and a humanitarian crisis. Since the outbreak of renewed conflict in 2013, thousands of people have been killed and the number of refugees has reached 750,000, the majority of whom have fled to neighboring Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while an additional 500,000 have been internally displaced.
Despite optimism after the election of President Faustin Archange Touadera in the spring of 2016, the crisis only intensified. A de facto territorial partition led to a pause in Muslim-Christian fighting, but fighting between factions of the ex-Seleka grew. Though the government maintained control of Bangui, most armed groups boycotted President Touadera’s attempts to calm the region through disarmament, leaving the government powerless outside the capital. Lawlessness in the rest of the country allowed armed groups to thrive and fighting increased in the central, western, and eastern provinces. The conflict has also wreaked havoc on the economy, crippling the private sector and leaving nearly 75 percent of the country’s population in poverty.
In 2017, fighting intensified, forcing aid agencies to pull out and prompting MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission, to boost its troop numbers. A peace agreement signed in June 2017 between the government and thirteen of the fourteen main armed factions had little effect, and ex-Seleka and anti-balaka militias, along with hundreds of other localized groups, operate openly and control much of CAR’s territory.
In July 2018, MINUSCA and government security forces launched an operation to disarm a militia group in Bangui’s PK5 neighborhood, a predominantly Muslim enclave in the majority-Christian city. After rumors spread that the peacekeepers intended to disarm all Muslims, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by armed Christian groups, heavy clashes broke out, and violence spread outside of PK5 as both ex-Seleka and anti-balaka militias carried out reprisal attacks. Ex-Seleka leaders then met in northern CAR and threatened to attack the capital, prompting MINUSCA to enhance security around the city. From 2018 to 2020, sporadic clashes occurred between the government and increasingly fragmented armed groups, and militants continued targeting civilians, particularly at places of worship. In February 2019, the government and fourteen armed groups signed a peace agreement, but most of its tenets have not been implemented. Reports by human rights groups and UN agencies suggest that violence committed by both ex-Seleka forces and anti-balaka groups amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Due to the scale of the crisis, the UN Security Council established a peacekeeping force in April 2014 that incorporated African Union and French forces that had previously deployed to CAR. MINUSCA was established with a mandate to protect civilians and disarm militia groups, and it currently has more than eighteen thousand peacekeepers operating in CAR. MINUSCA faces significant challenges in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians and dismantle armed groups, primarily due to a lack of infrastructure and reluctance to use military force. Numerous attacks have also been carried out against UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers; 176 peacekeepers have been killed since the start of the mission.
The United States has long supported economic growth, the rule of law, and political stability in CAR, and it remains concerned about the high levels of violence and worsening humanitarian crisis. Further deterioration of the security environment will increase sectarian violence and spillover will continue to destabilize the region, posing challenges to ending the conflicts in neighboring Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
In late 2020, former President François Bozizé returned to the Central African Republic but was disqualified from running in the national election on account of his international arrest warrant. In opposition to the elections, six armed groups, including the ex-Seleka and anti-balaka, banded together to form the Patriots for Change (CPC), a united coalition to resist the government. Nonetheless, elections went forward as planned on December 27, and government and rebel groups clashed throughout the country. As a result, many polling places could not open, but Touadera claimed victory with 53 percent of the vote. However, the opposition contested the result, and the CPC attacked the capital on January 13, 2021.
Though the rebels advanced quickly toward Bangui, government forces managed to repel them with support from MINUSCA. Assistance from Rwandan soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries then turned the tide decisively in the government’s favor. Taking a more aggressive approach than the UN forces, these fighters have helped the government retake much of the western part of the country. Since 2021, government-aligned forces have made slow progress, but rebels remain in control of many northern and eastern areas. Wagner Group reportedly maintains around one thousand mercenaries in the country supporting government forces in exchange for access to gold and diamond mines, though its future is uncertain following the group’s failed mutiny in Russia. The UN says Wagner intimidates locals and has committed human rights violations.
In early 2023, CPC rebels launched a new wave of attacks with improved weaponry against the government, raising fears of a return to intense fighting. Meanwhile, some progress has been made in implementing the 2019 peace deal; in June 2023, the UN announced that two armed groups and three militant factions from a long-held rebel area disbanded. However, the challenges of disarmament and reintegration remain. Furthermore, a July 2023 referendum denounced as a farce by the opposition removed presidential term limits, clearing the way for President Touadera, in power since 2016, to run as many times as he wants.
CAR still faces a humanitarian crisis as well; in addition to the over one million displaced by violence, an estimated 5.6 percent of the population died in 2022, a rate twice as high as any other country. In June 2023, 3.4 million people needed assistance, worsened by flooding that affected more than 100,000 people. Over five thousand cases of gender-based violence were reported in the first quarter of 2023, and the UN has expelled some peacekeepers over allegations of sexual violence. The conflict in Sudan has caused an influx of over 14,000 refugees to northeastern CAR, an area of the country largely outside of government control. Finally, the UN says aid workers have regularly faced violence, complicating efforts to provide services.