DAKAR/BANGUI— The rebel coalition that has seized one-third of the Central African Republic (CAR) during its month-long rebellion has agreed to a temporary, one-week ceasefire. The agreement was reached during peace talks with the government that are underway in Gabon. Residents of CAR's capital, Bangui, say they want peace at any cost.
President Francois Bozize is offering to form a unity government with the rebel coalition that has come dangerously close to the capital and headed into talks Wednesday calling for his resignation.
As the last day of planned talks opened in Libreville, Gabon, on Friday, it was unclear whether rebels would accept Bozize's offer.
Residents of Bangui say the government and the rebels must work out their differences.
Yearning for peace
Street vendor Armand Gira says they have dialogue after dialogue, but all they want is peace and development. He says they are against this crisis, emphasizing they are all Central Africans and they can't just kill each other. He adds that Bozize has three years left on his mandate, and asks why not just leave him in place and wait for elections in 2016? He says these negotiations "have to work," just as a father and son should always be able to find a way to get along.
Fighters from three main rebel groups calling themselves the Seleka coalition launched the current rebellion on December 10th. They are now within 85 kilometers of the capital, Bangui. Government troops have been outmatched in the fighting. A multi-national African force now stands between the rebels and the capital.
Residents say they are living in what midwife Chantale Dango called a "big question mark."
Dango says the rebels are divided. Some want dialogue, others don't. She says the people are looking to those in Libreville to support them, to help them. She says if talks go well, then they will be happy and healthy and at peace. But if they don't, she says they will be back in the bush.
A history of revolt
Rebels in the north have repeatedly risen up against President Bozize since 2005. That was the year Bozize won his first election, having seized power in a military coup two years earlier.
Some rebels are disgruntled ex-supporters of Bozize, others backed the president he ousted, Ange Felix Patasse, and still others are products of widespread poverty and insecurity in the north.
Deep-seated distrust could undermine chances of a negotiated solution this time around.
The Seleka coalition says the government defaulted on peace accords signed in 2007 and 2008, specifically a program to pay and disarm rebels.
Civil servant Serge Tonabana says the rebels have no right to demand that Bozize resign. He says the rebels say the Libreville accords of 2008 were not respected, so what would be ideal at negotiations would be to look again at these accords and ask the government to demonstrate its goodwill to live up to them. He says Bozize's resignation would mean they have to hold new elections, which would be expensive and make the country look bad.
Costs of conflict
The capital, Bangui, remains under a daily curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Residents say the mere threat of rebel attacks has hurt business, increased criminality and made daily life difficult.
A local street sweeper, Marie-Josephine, says the people want peace. She says she hopes the various leaders will accept to talk in Libreville because life is too hard. She says two of her children have already fled across the river and she doesn't feel safe.
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world. It has been plagued by conflict, coup plots and mutinies since independence from France in 1960.
Residents said they have had enough of violent changes of power.
Businessman Jerome Zouwa says that every time there is a change in the country, its people have to start over from scratch. He says rebels loot, steal and break everything and that takes time to rebuild. He says they cannot ever wish for change to come that way, adding that he has never seen a positive change of power in the country. It is "always negative, always destruction."
Residents say they are desperately hoping for a different outcome this time around.