Effective institutions are the bedrock upon which stable societies rest.  They are fundamental systems and structures that give each society its unique shape, form, and functionality, and include judicial systems, police forces, and civil society.  These institutions provide a level of predictability and stability that allow governments to function and their citizens to engage in productive activity.  John Locke mused that the foundation of democracy was predicated upon the protection of life, liberty, and property.  Historically, countries that have prospered, regardless of their form of government, have established dependable, effective institutions responsible for law enforcement, peace keeping, and jurisprudence.  In the absence of these institutions and the order they provide, society falls apart.  The ongoing tragedy in the Central African Republic (CAR) provides a stark illustration of the consequences of wholesale institutional failure.  In seeking to rebuild fragile or failed states, the international community should focus first and foremost on creating stable, resilient institutions rather than promoting the kind of quick, cosmetic changes offered by premature elections.

The case of CAR provides a telling example of the consequences of complete institutional breakdown.  CAR is a country with a tumultuous past, with all but one of its former leaders since independence in 1960 coming to power through a coup d’état.  The most recent coup, in March 2013, deposed an interim president, Michel Djotodia, who wielded little authority and commanded little respect; in truth, he exercised almost no power outside of the capital of Bangui.  His loose coalition of fighters (known as “Seleka” or coalition in Sango), themselves mostly Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, followed their own local commanders and flaunted their independence through their brutality and rapacity.  His ministers were shuffled with alarming regularity and most government offices remained closed.  To procure an entry visa required sending one’s passport to an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, where the government official in charge of the process had fled after the December 5th coup attempt in Bangui.  Over the course of the past year, the few institutions that functioned in CAR have completely disintegrated.  The recently appointed transitional president, Catherine Samba Panza, faces a host of challenges, but none more daunting and pressing than re-establishing the foundational institutions that assure security and law and order.

The glaring absence of the state in society has abetted the descent of the country into internecine violence.  It can be witnessed in the lack of centralized authority, law and order, and provision of basic government services.  Schools have been closed for over a year, health services are provided exclusively by NGOs, and security is present only where limited French and African Union troops can enforce it.  Ordinarily, institutions in fragile states are conspicuous because they are compromised or highly corrupt.  In the extreme case of failed states, they are almost wholly absent altogether.  This is clearly the case in CAR.  In fact, the lone institutions that remain standing, the respective religious communities, have struggled to promote peace even as they have been blamed for fanning the flames of conflict.  Religious leaders are trying to promote a nascent peace-building process, but in order for this to take root, the state must first provide some semblance of rule of law.

The complete and rapid collapse of the state in CAR can be traced directly to its lack of institutions.  Though CAR would never have been considered a model state before the recent crisis, the absence of a reliable police force, judiciary, or civil service meant that government failure translated into societal collapse.  There was no tradition of or fidelity to rules, laws, or established procedures.  When authority was deposed, communities fell victim to scapegoating and the much-publicized religious violence between Christian and Muslim communities escalated.  The reprisal killings persisted because there was no faith in conflict mitigation or official justice.  Absent these mechanisms, communities that had coexisted mostly peacefully for decades descended into unspeakable brutality.  Parents were killed in front of their children.  Body parts were paraded around IDP camps.  Whole families were dismembered and burned by roving mobs.  Without the unifying effect of institutions to stitch different groups together, the societal fabric unraveled.

The attempt to aid the suffering communities of CAR has also met great difficulty because of the lack of security institutions and the resultant instability.  In many of the most populous IDP camps, the World Food Program and various NGOs attempted to distribute food, only to be forced to flee by violent elements at each site.  Even the presence of foreign troops was often unable to provide the requisite security to allow for distributions.  The breakdown of law and order that prevented the delivery of aid was the same factor that motivated the reprisal killings and vigilante justice—a lack of faith in the state to ensure basic order or to adjudicate cases of wrongdoing. 

The appointment of a new interim president—one with genuine leadership credentials—is certainly a step in the right direction, but CAR must begin to repair its institutions if it is to have any hope of long-term viability as a state.  Reconstituting institutions, like the national police force and the judiciary, will help reinforce lasting change.  It will create confidence in governance, consistency, and permanence that may convince people that they can rely on the state as an effective arbiter of conflict.  An independent election commission is also essential, and must be established well before elections themselves take place.  It is imperative that all of these institutions are loyal to the state rather than any one administration or party in power.  Institutional strength is grounded in durability and predictability, from administration to administration; but it is precisely these facets that have been lacking in CAR.

The timing of the next elections in CAR remains contentious.  The French, in particular, have been advocating for elections in September 2014, rather than the March 2015 deadline set by the 2012 Libreville Accords.  But the debate misses the broader point that elections absent institutional reforms are meaningless—and potentially dangerous.  If elections occur before the country is prepared, they could cause further strife and renewed violence among competing factions.  Furthermore, they risk being co-opted by the strongest interest groups involved, be they foreign or domestic.  The way forward is fundamental institutional reform, not cosmetic changes brought about by virtue of elections.  While important for ensuring that democracy continues, elections by no means ensure the conditions for democracy to flourish.  Independent and impartial courts accomplish this.  Accountable systems of law enforcement assure this.  And transparent government ministries support this.  Elections are only as good as the institutions that support them.  They are a result of good democracy rather than a panacea for troubled regimes.  Going forward, the international community should throw its weight behind building institutions rather than promoting elections or other quick fixes.  We who would see lasting change in the Central African Republic would do well to seek to repair the country’s fractured institutions before touting elections as the cure to end all ills.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980.

Zakaria, Fareed. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs November/December 76 (1997): 22-44.