Central African Republic: A reporter's perspective

Al Jazeera correspondent Barnaby Phillips talks with users of social media site Reddit in an "Ask Me Anything" Q&A

Rwandan African Union peacekeepers detain a suspected Anti-Balaka armed fighter following looting in the Muslim market of the PK13 district of Bangui on Jan. 22, 2014.
Jerome Delay/AP

Q: Can you explain what exactly is going on in the Central African Republic? What caused the conflict?

Barnaby Phillips: The Central African Republic has been badly governed for decades, with weak and corrupt governments. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse in March 2013 when the Seleka militia ousted President Francis Bozize. Their leaders came from the marginalized northeast, many were Muslims, and they brought mercenaries from Sudan and Chad.

Once in 'power' the Seleka proved to be murderous and ill-disciplined, provoking a strong reaction from the majority (perhaps 80 percent) Christian population. This cycle of violence has continued, and created its own momentum. Sorry — that's a crude summary but you might want to read this which goes in more detail into this issues.

Q: So, what are some of the biggest obstacles right now to having some level of cooperation between the sects in restoring peace?

Phillips: Hi. What I found very frightening/depressing in the CAR was the level of sectarian hatred between Christians and Muslims. Restoring confidence between communities won't be easy. But the first, and most important stage, is dealing with security. There's a complete breakdown of law and order, and people are committing terrible crimes with impunity. So more peacekeepers (African and European), who are prepared to be tough, is an essential start.

Q: What is the most important thing we all should know about the conflicts in Africa?

Phillips: Maybe the most important thing is that we should not make generalizations about them, or about Africa, a continent of 54 countries, (and most are peaceful).

Barnaby Phillips
Courtesy of Barnaby Phillips

Q: Are there any Christian and/or Muslim leaders standing up for peace and reconciliation? Or is the situation too dangerous on the ground for such stances? Does the situation remind you of Rwanda at all? Chad?

Phillips: I mentioned the brave Catholic priest in the town of Boali. You may also have read about the archbishop of Bangui, who has been working closely with a leading Imam to bring about reconciliation ... (there's been articles about them in the New York Times and several other newspapers). So some people are trying to do good things. There's a big difference with Rwanda, the 1994 genocide was organized by a strong state that had a fiendish master plan. There's no strong state in CAR, so I don't think we'll see 'industrial' (sorry for that ugly word) killing. But what we're seeing instead is many smaller massacres and murders, carried out by both the Seleka and the anti-Balaka.

Q: How much of the violence is really divided along religious lines (as opposed to sectarian violence that happen to hold differing religions)? Has French intervention made any difference outside Bangui? For that matter, how much difference has it actually prevented in that city?

Phillips: I think the religious aspect has become progressively more important over time, unfortunately. It has an internal dynamic. People are frightened and looking for protection in a situation of lawlessness, so they look for group identities. As I write here re: the French, you have to remember there are only 1,600 in the CAR, and it's a vast country.

They've brought some stability to the northern town of Bossangoa, but otherwise I'm afraid their contribution outside Bangui has been minimal. In fairness to the French, they are lobbying for more European troops precisely for this reason. It seems that the EU will send an extra 500, but only by the end of February. Too few, and too late, I fear.

Q: Do you think that more should be done by the U.S. government and Europe in solving these serious political problems? Or do you think it is impractical to solve these issues from the outside?

Phillips: I am very skeptical of the idea that Europeans or Americans can charge into Africa and solve problems. God knows, they've created enough in the past. However, I also think that there are specific situations where Western military strength can play a positive role in the short-term.

I think most Sierra Leoneans, for example, welcomed the British intervention of 2000 that routed the RUF. I also think that a strong intervention in Rwanda in 1994 could have stopped, or, at least, slowed down the genocide. And today, I do believe that more peacekeepers, from any part of the world, (including the rest of Africa) would be welcome in CAR. However, that's only a temporary solution. Somehow, this shattered country has to pull itself together, and the only lasting answers rest with the people of CAR.

To read the full "AMA" interview on Reddit, click here.

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