Accountability and consolidating peace: civil society engagement in the Central African Republic

According to an African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ The growing involvement of civil society in managing natural resources in the Central African Republic seems to indicate that the country is prepared to go far.

by MEDDEFCP

Ten years ago, Central Africa civil society was not highly organised on forestry and environmental issues. As noted by Bruce Deguene, WWF-CAR Forest Programme Officer, fewer than five NGOs ‘played their full part’. Today, there are more than 30 nationally, which gather on a national platform. The Sustainable Management of Natural and Environmental Resources, an umbrella organisation set up in 2011, participates in all decision-making processes in the forest sector.

This transformation is quite remarkable for one of the poorest countries in the world, and one that has faced violence and conflict for many years. So a question comes to mind: what is the reason for this shift? The answer is a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU), which the Central African Republic negotiated and ratified in 2012. This Agreement is part of the EU action plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT). Although not yet operational, the trade agreement negotiations and efforts made to meet its requirements have strongly contributed to strengthening civil society’s watchdog role.

VPA processes must be based on consensus among the government, the private sector, civil society and other affected parties. In the Central African Republic, civil society’s involvement goes far beyond simple consultation. As Deguene underlines, ‘it's not consultation for show, it's consultation that has an impact on the management of natural resources.’ Indeed, Central African civil society is an integral part of the decision-making process. The NGOs present in the country coordinate to identify priorities. Together, they are able to exert more pressure on the administration.

‘In the past, things were done between the public and private sectors, it was bilateral’ explains Deguene. When the VPA process began in 2009, ‘colleges’ were formed: one for public administration, one for the private sector and one for civil society. Several years later, the engagement of civil society is now firmly rooted in the country’s way of doing things. ‘Today the discussion is necessarily tripartite,’ he adds. 

'Civil society strengthens the capacity of public authorities and raises awareness on important issues related to forest governance.'

- Yves Delor Moussa, consultant at the Central African Association of Environmental Assessment Professionals

For example, the commission that awards forest concessions permitting the harvest or management of resources from a forest area includes an independent civil society observer. For Deguene, ‘it is the presence of civil society that gives the credibility and transparency of the commission’s work.’

This kind of increased transparency and structures for Government accountability have not been limited to the forest sector. Deguene explains that ‘the VPA has contributed to the duty of accountability, not only in the context of forest management, but also in other key areas of the country's economy, commodities, agriculture and mines.’ For example, a member of civil society sits on the national committee of the country’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. And in the ongoing revival of the palm oil sector, civil society independent observation missions are being planned.

by R. Bayogo, Timberland

The fact that civil society was consulted during the development of the Republic's constitution - the supreme law of the State - shows that it has earned ‘a place and respect,’ notes Guy Julien Ndakouzou, Assistant Coordinator of the Centre for Environmental Information and Sustainable Development (CIEDD). 

The constitution provides for the establishment of an Authority on good governance, responsible for reviewing all State contracts related to natural resources, including diamonds and timber. This Authority - proposed by civil society - makes these contracts public and subject to increased public scrutiny. Also further to the requests of civil society, the constitution’s preamble takes into account the rights of indigenous peoples. ‘Thanks to the VPA, civil society has become a key interlocutor of the administration,’ says Ndakouzou.

In the Central African Republic, there is now ‘an open and enlightened partnership between public authorities and civil society by the implementation of an independent mandated observation led jointly by civil society and administrative organisations,’ says Norma Yengbo Guitinzia, Gender Focal Point at CIEDD.

'A climate of trust and respect has been established between the Government and civil society.'

- Yvon Ndango-Gnalikawo, Programme Officer at the Delegation of the EU to Central African Republic for almost nine years

This climate has not always existed. In 2015, following the release of the ‘Blood timber’ report by the NGO Global Witness, the Minister of Forestry invited representatives of civil society to a meeting to discuss the resolution of this crisis. This invitation was unprecedented. As a result, both parties submitted a joint response to the allegations. This event marked a significant shift in the transformation of relations between civil society and the Government.  

Bienvenu Florentin Kemanda Yogo, an expert in community forests within the NGO House of the Pygmies Child and Woman, says he is ‘amazed by this progress.’ ‘Through the VPA process, civil society has made significant progress and now participates in decision making.’ 

Ndango-Gnalikawo also bears witness to these changes: ‘In the beginning, a handful of organisations were acting disparately. But over the past five years, NGOs have been coordinating and have been very active on the ground.’ This is how in 2018, six of the nine projects supported by international funds that affect the implementation of the VPA are led by members of the civil society platform. He adds that the FLEGT process has helped them to ‘have more clarity.’

For Yengbo Guitinzia, the maturity of civil society makes it a ‘village elder who is consulted to find solutions to the problems that one encounters because he has experience and sees the danger in advance by warning the authorities and the people.’ She adds that the VPA process ‘remains the cornerstone of present and future intergenerational development, sustainable management and good governance of our forests and their preservation.’

For Deguene, the institutional changes and strengthening of civil society are indirect gains from the VPA, which are ‘more important than expected.’ As Ndango-Gnalikawo remarks, there is indeed a lot of hope in the Central African Republic, but ‘more resources and support are needed.’