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Story Publication logo June 7, 2010

In the Central African Republic, Who Will Protect the People?

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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...

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There are a few big things happening in the CAR, and everyone is talking about them. From the diplomats to the NGOs to people at the bus station and in the markets, elections are on the tip of everyone's tongue. But so is another big matter: security.

Everyone seems to agree that the country needs to hold elections. Most say that to hold elections, there must be peace. To have peace, there must be security.

To have security requires a lot of things. One of them is perhaps the most famous acronym in the country: DDR.

DDR stands for disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion. That last R is flexible-- often in DDR missions, it's called "reintegration," and often, there's more than one R (the Congo mission has three Rs!), but regardless how much R-ing is going on, folks tend to shorthand the shorthand and stick to the three-letter abbreviation.

This is possibly the most crucial thing that will happen in the CAR this year. It's the process by which rebels will give up their guns, abandon their military groupings, and return to civilian life. Some of them will be integrated into the national army, but most are going home, where their best shot at earning an income is to pick up a hoe.

The process has faced delay after delay. There are bad roads. There's the rainy season. There's the government's former DDR liaison who is alleged to have run off with half a million dollars in DDR funding. But if the stars align, the groundwork for the process – the verification of a list that says who was, in fact, a rebel – might start next week.

Everyone agrees that DDR is needed, but in private conversation, there's a lingering concern: Is this the right time? The biggest rebel group in the country is the APRD, which controls much of the northwest region, up to the border with Chad. As APRD leaders tell it, the group is a necessary response to the government's inability to secure the territory from zaraguinas (road bandits) and other threats.

Of course there's a bit more to the story. In the 2005 election, the APRD supported the incumbent president, who lost. The group's current leader, Jean Jacques Demafouth, wanted to run too but, in his telling, wasn't allowed. There were rich political grievances behind the founding of the APRD – and the newly elected government of Francois Bozize knew it. So his Presidential Guard torched hundreds of villages in the northwest. The villagers fled to the bush, and the APRD whittled weapons to fight back.

Today, the APRD rules the roost in that part of the country. Since it asserted itself, road theft and attacks on villagers have plummeted. The rebels like to style themselves as a kind of homegrown protection force; to be sure, some villagers disagree. "They're as bad as the government," one told me. A combination of security risks has led hundreds of thousands to flee their homes; 330,000 are still refugees or internally displaced persons.

Today, the APRD has peace with the government and is willing to disarm; the group wants all 5,000 of its men integrated into the national army. The government can't afford that, and observers say many of the rebels aren't skilled enough to be soldiers, anyway. So when the ex-rebels give up their homemade guns, who will protect the villages?

This reporting project is made possible through the support of the Stanley Foundation.

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