Last fall, diplomats from the U.S., France and the United Nations used the most powerful weapon in their arsenal of words — “genocide” — to draw attention to conflict in the perennially “forgotten” Central African Republic (CAR). At that point, to call the violence in CAR “ethnic cleansing” was a stretch, and invoking the G-word was a blatantly political ploy. But six months later, the conflict looks a lot more like genocide. What happened, and what can be done?
In March 2013, a rebel coalition called Seleka (“alliance” in Sango, CAR’s lingua franca) overran the capital, Bangui. This motley assortment of men-in-arms from the predominantly Muslim borderlands of CAR, Chad and Sudan’s Darfur region were united only by a desire to take the executive mansion in Bangui and loot along the way. Loot they did. There has been no definitive accounting of the number killed, but the known fatalities from murders and rape by the Seleka number in the hundreds. The new president, Michel Djotodia, a civil servant turned political-military entrepreneur, was powerless to stop the violence and exploitation by Seleka fighters. Soon the rebels began running towns as their personal fiefdoms.
Anger built among CAR’s population, about 80 percent of whom are Christian and animist. The locals considered the Seleka foreigners, because of their religion and their blurry provenance (many work across borders in CAR, Chad and Sudan). Christian militias, calling themselves the anti-Balaka, started forming to protest the injustices. The name anti-Balaka has roots in local defense groups whose members have undergone spiritual initiations (and hence are impervious to balles-AK — Kalashnikov bullets). “Balaka” also means machete in the Gbaya language, spoken in western CAR. But, far from being simple peasant protectors, they also received supplies and funding from politicians Djotodia had ousted, including former President François Bozizé and some of his close associates, who are angling for a return to power.
Over the course of the fighting, the anti-Balaka began generalizing their grievances to include all Chadians and Sudanese, and even all Muslims, as the enemy. This perception has led to the targeting of semi-nomadic Peuhl pastoralists and traders who have long lived in and traveled through CAR, and the country’s shopkeepers, who are almost all Muslim. It is not entirely surprising that the conflicts today draw on a religious idiom.
Bozizé was the head of an influential church and has politicized religion in a way no other CAR leader had done before, by making it a criterion for whom to trust and award sinecures, as happened in the 1980s with ethnicity. Moreover, Bozizé’s 10-year tenure in the executive mansion owed much to support from Chad, and in return Chadian soldiers and nationals enjoyed near-total impunity on CAR soil.
The anti-Balaka launched a major offensive in December and have since strengthened their positions. The 2,000 French troops and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers arrived in the country as the anti-Balaka were ramping up operations, and they were slow to shift from a Seleka-focused agenda to an anti-Balaka one. The self-proclaimed coordinator of the anti-Balaka, a former parliamentarian and minister of youth and sports under Bozizé, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, operates from a fortified hideout in Bangui. The international peacekeepers are now fighting the anti-Balaka to protect the few Muslims still left — who are holed up at two mosques in the city.
Meanwhile, the population suffers. More than 200,000 people have been displaced from Bangui alone. The fighting has disrupted agricultural production in rural areas, and the shopkeepers have all been chased away, leaving many people struggling to secure basic necessities. CAR’s diamond-mining southwestern areas are now the sites of the worst violence outside Bangui. Prior to the conflict, most of those buying and financing diamond mines were Muslims with family roots in both Chad and Sudan. Last year, when the Seleka overran the area, they ruled it capriciously, exacerbating grievances against “foreigners” from Chad and Sudan, who were seen as benefiting from the mining sector. In Boda, for instance, the town is now divided. Muslims are trapped on one side, cut off from vital food supplies and medicines. The anti-Balaka control the roads, so the Muslims cannot leave.
The slothful response of the international community contributed to CAR's current predicament.
One element of the story of how we got here is the too little, too late character of diplomatic efforts, which have systematically missed opportunities and left peacekeepers on the ground with a workload that has increased rather than decreased. When the Seleka took the capital last year, it was clear that a strong peacekeeping force would be necessary to restore even a minimal level of security. It took nearly half a year, however, before diplomatic actors began to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. French and African Union soldiers began to arrive only at the end of 2013. But the slothful response of the international community cannot alone be blamed for the country’s current predicament. The fraying of Central African social relations, a long-running process that has rapidly accelerated in recent years, has fed the fighting as well.
As militiamen fight to eliminate the remaining Muslims in Bangui (either by killing them or forcing them to flee), religious leaders from CAR — rubbing elbows with diplomats in New York and Brussels — continue to insist their country has a long history of interreligious harmony, and that the current violence is only an aberration. It is true that the country has largely avoided headline-grabbing violence. But the impulse toward useful new collaborations and disinterest in fundamentalist ideologies (people here frequently transgress certain dictates of their religion in order to work with people of other faiths) has been only half the story of Central African social relations. The other half is a story of pervasive, deep mistrust. Since the arrival of Islam and Christianity in the area well over 100 years ago, the processes of political-economic integration that accompanied them entailed new forms of violence. In CAR, the seemingly contradictory impulses of openness and mistrust are fundamentally interwoven.
Over the past several decades, politics in the region has become more militarized. Sudan has been marked by conflict since the 1960s, and Chad’s civil war began in the 1970s. From the 1990s onward, the Democratic Republic of Congo has spawned a variety of rebel movements. At various times, fighters from all these conflicts have made use of CAR’s territories, whether to rob travelers or seek refuge. At the same time, the economic outlook for the vast majority of residents has been on a steady downturn. In this context, the two social threads — flexibility in identity and potential collaborations, and mistrust stemming from a long history of violence — have come to provide fertile ground for political-military entrepreneurship and rebellion. The current fighting in CAR, and the manifestations of hatred that drive it, is the latest, spectacular symptom of these broader trends.
In the short term, it is clear what needs to happen. Even at the usually fractious United Nations there has for some weeks now been widespread agreement that a more muscular peacekeeping mission is needed. Finally, a decision has been made to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission, but the force’s expected 10,000 soldiers will not take over from MISCA, the African-led support mission, until September. For the next five months, the French and MISCA troops (minus the 1,200-strong Chadian contingent), bolstered by 800 European Union soldiers, will remain in their beleaguered positions.
In the longer term, creating a sustainable peace will require a process that will reconcile these two stories of Central African social relations. That process should not be minimized as rebuilding trust, nor should it be passed off to religious leaders, as if the religious terms of the fighting define the problem. Rather, the challenge is to build trust for the first time, across Central African society. The immensity and difficulty of that task does not diminish its necessity.