A civil war in the Central African Republic that has forced a fifth of the population to flee atrocities by rival Muslim and Christian militias could be ended after the warring sides agreed a peace deal.
Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the country’s Russian-backed president, is expected to sign a provisional pact on Tuesday with 14 rebel groups following talks in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
The breakthrough came after intense pressure from the United Nations and the African Union (AU), which backed the negotiations, amid concern that a surge in fighting last year could lead to genocide.
“This is a great day for the Central African Republic and all its people,” said Smail Chergui, the AU’s commissioner for peace and security.
Details of the provisional deal remain scant, however, although officials said rebel groups would be guaranteed amnesty for crimes against civilians and their leaders offered a share of power.
Not everyone is hopeful. Three previous deals since the civil war erupted in 2012 all collapsed, as did four other ceasefire agreements, one of which lasted just a day.
However, some observers say they are more confident because the negotiations were the first time all the parties involved had negotiated directly.
Even if peace were to last, the Central African Republic faces desperate challenges.
More than 1 million of the country’s 5 million people have been forced from their homes and nearly 60 per cent of the population needs emergency aid, according to the United Nations.
Entire Muslim communities have been driven out of districts in the country’s towns and cities by militias, made up of Christians and adherents of traditional religions, who burnt and buried women alive in public ceremonies.
Ironically, the outbreak of the war had little to do with religion. In 2013, rebel forces led by Michel Djotodia marched into the capital Bangui to oust François Bozizé, the then president.
Mr Djotodia happened to be a member of the Muslim minority, which makes up less than 10 per cent of the population, but the war was triggered by anger that successive presidents has advanced members of their own ethnic groups and marginalised others.
UN forces patrol the streets of BanguiCredit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file
But Mr Djotodia’s mostly Muslim forces, known as the Seleka, or “coalition”, ran wild during the war, plundering villages and massacring tribes loyal to Mr Bozize, who were mainly Christian. Village militias in non-Muslim areas retaliated, leading to a surge in ever bloodier reprisal attacks that swiftly took on a religious dimension.
The Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest states, has known little but bad governance since independence from France in 1960.
Its most notorious leader, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who crowned himself emperor in the 1970s in a ceremony that nearly bankrupted the country, had a reign of terror.
Most infamously, he presided over the killing of 100 primary school children, arrested after staging a protest against being forced to wear expensive school uniforms, allegedly beating several of them to death with his cane.
Mr Touadéra’s position has been strengthened in the past year after Russia, allegedly drawn by the country’s largely unexplored uranium and mineral reserves, sent weapons and soldiers to protect him.
Russia has signalled its interest in building a permanent military base in the Central African Republic, its first on the continent since the Cold War.