Since the March 24 coup by the Seleka, a loose coalition of Muslim rebels, the Central African Republic has been in free fall. There are about 400,000 internally displaced people, 64,000 refugees, and burned villages, largely in the western part of the country. Banditry, the rise of self-defense militias and clashes between Christian and Muslim communities are now part of daily life for this mineral-rich country in the heart of Africa. The expanding insecurity makes the delivery of humanitarian assistance difficult, and the United Nations has even warned of the risk of genocide.
Michel Djotodia, the leader of the Seleka, hails from the northeast and was the leader of the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR), one of the armed groups that have challenged the central government since 2007. He is now president of the transition.
The Seleka’s main objective in its move was ousting then-President Francois Bozize. The CAR’s former ruler participated in several attempted coups and finally took power in 2003, also by force. Bozize was re-elected twice, in 2005 and 2011; his second re-election was marred by vote-rigging allegations.
Since this year's coup occurred, what was supposed to be a three-year process toward a new political order has turned into anarchy. Today Seleka rebels are looting the capital city, Bangui. Djotodia officially dissolved them in September, but even before this formal act, the Seleka was a tenuous coalition. Since then the various armed groups have become autonomous; the chain of command, if it really existed, has disappeared. Seleka fighters roam independently, and some commanders have become warlords. The armed groups are now roving bandits and have triggered local self-defense forces and anti-Muslim reactions because of their exactions against the population, notably in the western part of the country, Bozize’s former fiefdom. In exile, shuttling back and forth between Africa and Europe, Bozize is wanted by the CAR’s attorney general and has stated that he intends to come back by force.
This rapid decline in security has been accompanied by the complete collapse of state institutions and the rise of religious tensions. After those institutions had been eroding for decades, the coup sealed their fate: State security services vanished into thin air, civil servants fled and basic services stopped. For the CAR, it was the coup de trop — the final push.
In the five months after the March coup, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and France, a former colonial power and the only Western country with troops stationed in the CAR, adopted a wait-and-see approach. France was focused on Mali; ECCAS figured the coup was merely business as usual. They urged the new rulers to respect the principles of a national-unity government and previously negotiated political accords, but they did not try to address the security situation, leaving it to CAR transitional authorities — the interim governing authority led by Djotodia.
The outcome of this approach is now clear: The Seleka have become brigands, the country has no central administration, clashes between youths and Seleka fighters occur daily in Bangui, relations between Christians and Muslims have turned violent and the transitional authorities are completely powerless. Recent violence in the western CAR between Seleka fighters and self-defense militias and between Christians and Muslims is, however, a wake-up call. As a result, the long-standing peaceful religious coexistence in a country where Muslims represent between 10 and 20 percent of the population is in jeopardy. The United Nations, ECCAS, the African Union (AU), France and the United States now realize that they cannot afford a new failed state on the continent. But they have yet to articulate an effective response to the highest priority, the swift restoration of law and order.