Baoro — The room was packed. Everyone wanted to speak: unsurprising after years of conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and seen the Central African Republic riven by ethnic and religious cleansing.
After a lifetime of being ignored, the ordinary people of CAR are finally having their say, taking advantage of a unique opportunity to speak truth to power.
In the town of Baoro, 400 kilometres from the capital Bangui in northeastern Nana Mabéré prefecture, power took the form of Minister of Communications Victor Wake. Loud applause and ululations punctuated each intervention.
Many spoke of the horrors the town suffered under the control of the rebel Seleka alliance that toppled president Francois Bozizé in March 2013 and remained in power for 10 months.
“There was violence here and brutal attacks by the ex-Seleka which cost the lives of 163 people, including 30 women and 10 children.,” said a man who identified himself as secretary of the town’s self-defence units.
“They burned houses, including my own. We counted 1,586 burned houses. But nothing has been done for the victims here,” the man added.
Another speaker recalled: “When the [rebels] came they threatened me and I hid in the bush. I drank dirty water and fell sick and was evacuated to a hospital in Bangui for two months.”
“I finished my studies 19 years ago, but was never hired into the civil service in all this time. I worked my field and raised my animals. The Selekas came and torched my field and stole all my animals. Many houses were burned here but the owners have got no help at all. It’s sad. That’s what we want you to tell the president.”
Since late January, meetings like this, called grassroots popular consultations, have been taking place in all of CAR’s 16 prefectures as well in neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Chad, and the two Congos – where some 190,000 CAR citizens live as refugees.
The consultations are a prelude to the Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation, due to be held from 27 April to 4 May, which aims to shore up a new peace deal and determine the eligibility criteria for elections slated for later this year.
“Mr. Minister, unemployment is rampant here in Baoro. Young people are just hanging around town with nothing to do. Bring the NGOs here to give them work,” said a woman who took the floor.
“Then there is security. The gendarmes and police don’t have the resources to do their job; they don’t even have a motorbike. Think about giving the security forces at least a vehicle,” she added.
The Bangui Forum will bring together peoples’ representatives chosen during the popular consultations, leaders of armed groups, transitional authorities and political parties, as well as prominent members of civil society.
CAR’s constant political unrest can be directly linked to a failure of governance, a failure to deliver basic services and security to most of the population, especially the farthest-flung and most marginalized areas that are prone to armed opposition.
Wake explained that the object of the consultations was to “let the people speak, encourage everyone to unburden themselves, to let loose their fears and hopes, to identify the challenges to overcome and hear their ideas about how to emerge from crisis for once and for all.”
The people of Baoro did not waste their rare opportunity to tell it like it is, and provided a grim snapshot of the ills and dire needs that plague most of the country.