No child soldiers: The next steps in Central African Republic

At least 12,000 children have returned from armed groups in CAR. Now what?

Last September, Central African Republic became the 167th country to ratify the UN child soldier treaty, known by its acronym, OPAC. The government thus committed to outlawing the use of child soldiers. Yet, verified cases of child recruitment quadrupled in 2017 compared to 2016, according to the UN’s latest Children and Armed Conflict report, with 196 boys and 103 girls affected. The numbers are likely far greater; with 80 percent of the country controlled by armed groups, confirming child recruitment is an onerous task.

More difficult still is ensuring that the 12,000 children who are known to have returned home since 2014 integrate back into society and resist joining up again – as well as ensuring that new children aren’t recruited.

The ratification of OPAC was a positive step, and one year on there are signs that the government is trying to tackle the issue. The Ministry of Justice is finalising a dedicated national law to criminalise recruitment of under-18s by both government and non-government actors, and the UN report shows that 1,816 children were formally released from armed groups last year.

In June, the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique, part of the former Séléka coalition of armed groups, signed a UN plan in which they committed to ending child recruitment.

“Despite this milestone, the situation in CAR remains extremely worrying,” UN Special Representative for Children and Conflict Virginia Gamba said. “Intercommunal violence and confrontations between armed groups have dramatic consequences for the civilian population and, more so, children.”

Dieudonné Kougbet knows that first-hand. Forced to flee to a refugee camp five years ago as violence erupted in Bangui, the capital of CAR, he has been back in the city’s PK5 neighbourhood for 10 months. A retired secondary school teacher, Dieudonné is part of a network of community volunteers who work in the largely Muslim district to protect children from recruitment by armed groups.

PK5 is among the most volatile areas in the city. Armed figures patrol its many roadblocks and extortion is widespread; exploitation of children by those who control the streets is a daily reality.

In 2012, militia overthrew president François Bozizé and the power grab sparked deadly violence among the mainly Muslim Séléka armed groups and the predominantly Christian anti-balaka militias, as well as others. The ensuing civil war has killed thousands and displaced more than 700,000.

In PK5, at least 66 neighbourhood children are known to be associated with Muslim and Christian armed groups, Dieudonné said – some were released but have since re-joined. As conflict in CAR has become more fractured, with more and more groups vying for control, Dieudonné says engaging those armed groups is increasingly difficult.

Some children are forced to fight, and many are exploited as domestic and sexual slaves. A large proportion of the 14,000 children known to have been “recruited” by armed groups in CAR over the past six years were kidnapped, but many joined because they wanted to protect themselves and their communities. This is especially so with the poorly equipped and organised anti-balaka groups, which emerged as local militias to protect specific neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, the failure of government negotiations with armed groups has meant demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration support programmes for adult fighters are yet to start. So children remain in communities that are still armed and afraid or struggling for either power or survival.

In this atmosphere, what can help Dieudonné and others to ‘help the children’? Wider awareness of the long-term ramifications of child recruitment is a start. “We are planning a large awareness raising campaign but there is a lack of resources, especially for visibility because some of our members cannot move around easily,” Dieudonné said.

He and his colleagues were the first to receive materials put together in a collaboration among local groups in CAR, the government, the UN, and our organisation. These are designed to guide volunteers in promoting dialogue around the negative effects of recruitment on children and their communities. Other materials focus on helping organisations and communities understand the legal framework around child recruitment and learn to advocate with armed groups for the release of children.

Dieudonné and his colleagues know they have a lot of work to do. And they know they can’t do it alone. “We will start in small groups with the leaders and local authorities for each neighbourhood, who can then invite the warlords,” he explained.

The signing of OPAC by the CAR government opened the door to a better future for tens of thousands of the country’s children. But only with the help of communities, of Dieudonné and other local volunteers, will that future begin.