The Central African Republic Conflict: Sectarian Violence and Ethnic Cleansing

(Originally published 31 March, 2014)

Violence is nothing new in the Central African Republic (CAR). It is a country that is inherently unstable and has been since its independence in 1960 from France. What concerns me however and should concern onlookers is the evolution of the violence, the nature and purpose of the violence and the imprint it will leave on the country for future generations.

As of yet it would be difficult to argue for the case that it is genocidal slaughter a clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide. However do not let this dampen the fact that what is occurring in CAR remains harrowing.

It is a socio-economic conflict as well as a sectarian religious conflict. The Muslim territories are being sliced into pieces by the anti-balaka and redistributed amongst the Christian population the latter of which are exploiting the civil war and the veiled ‘non-state’. It is a deliberate policy of not only massacre, but also by destruction and degradation committed by the anti-balaka units. The intent of such a purpose is to sever the bond between citizens, land and destroying their cultural heritage.

It can no longer be seen as a by-product of war, that the land has been emptied of Muslims, entire villages have been slaughtered, and both women and children are being killed and raped in the violent vacuum. Community memories are scarred and entire regions are emptied of the target minority.

In CAR 15% of Muslims have been systematically displaced and killed through a vile combination of slaughter, pillage and sexual violence. One and a half million are displaced and face the threat of starvation and malnutrition. The Christians endured during a short-lived, but violent regime led by the rebel coalition Seleka.

The ethnic cleansing is under way and the anti-balaka are seizing an opportunity. It was not hard to encourage many of the young men who compose anti-balaka to join; idleness, unemployment, lack of opportunities or education and the continued poverty ensure that many were willing to find a new purpose in life. This is constituted by violence through which wealth and land is obtained by plunder, rape and murder, wrested from the corpses of dead Muslims and moderate Christians.

Boda and the capital Bangui are the Central African Republic’s parallel to Sarejevo, a once-wealthy town of diamond, gold and coffee traders, irrevocably marred by ethnic cleansing. The Muslims are surrounded, as they were nearly two decades ago in Sarajevo, by a no-man’s land of rubble buildings, beyond which the Christian militia wait sharpening and cleaning their weapons. Under the watchful eye of French peacekeepers, the Christians are trying to starve out the Muslims. A repeat of Srebrenica would be a humiliation for the peacekeeping forces.

What of the international community? The reality is that the Ukraine crisis will take centre stage in mainstream media as will the brutal conflict in Syria and Boko Haram’s bloody insurgency in Nigeria. The Central African Republic plead to a desensitized public. What the general public sees is a predictable pattern; an invariably large body count, refugee camps, an almost incomprehensible ‘alien’ world to some even. The causes, the political, social and psychological factors that play a part in creating the madness are not given enough analysis. I don’t doubt that I used to be one of those people.

As Fergal Keane rightly quotes ‘the powerful images leave us momentarily horrified but largely ignorant…compassion without understanding‘. This is not a straight-forward a-typical African ‘tribal war’, nor is a straight-forward conflict typical of CAR’s bloody history. It has evolved into something more sinister.

What is important is that there is action on the ground, a reaction to the slaughter within the country as it self-implodes. Many peace-keepers have already been killed by extremists. Unquestionably restoring order was underestimated by those involved as the EU is now expanding the forces to 9,000 men to assist the 6,000 AU soldiers and 2,000 French soldiers.

Similarly the peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic appear to have been ineffective thus far, critics pointing out maintaining control of the capital, Bangui, does not necessarily a guarantee for control of the country (Mogadishu in Somalia, a prime example in 1993).


Members of the Anti-Balaka militia

Nevertheless an important question is how many would be dead if the French forces had not been deployed? Many Muslims have said that if the French had not been there they would all be dead. The fact of the matter is that the militia, like the Interahamwe in Rwanda, are cowards in face of military strength. They only target the defenceless and flee when peacekeepers come to inspect the massacre or atrocity and mere presence of soldiers with the orders to suppress violent elements is enough in areas to cow the militia. The question is how long can the French soldiers and peacekeepers remain in CAR and can they establish long lasting rather than superficial stability?

There is some progress namely that the peacekeepers are becoming increasingly hard-line  towards the militia, the AU forces also known as MISCA now openly targeting militia units after the twenty-first death of one of their peacekeepers. “Henceforth, MISCA considers anti-balakas as terrorists and enemy combatants, and they shall be treated accordingly,” the statement said.

Already Seleka fighters who fled the capital Bangui have regrouped in the northeast and begun attacks on civilians, and in the current circumstances it is unlikely they will lay down their weapons with the FACA (Armed Forces of Central African Republic) lynching ‘rebels’ and hardly seem to be convincing the international community that they are controlling the anti-balaka mutilating and immolating Muslims on a weekly basis. (contains graphic content)

Inter-communal violence and ethnic cleansing can leave a harrowing legacy for a population and a difficult task for government to deal with in trying to repair the damage inflicted upon communities. Alongside this long-term development funding has been neglected in CAR contributing to the country’s inability to build resilience against recurrent crises and civil conflict.

This makes CAR a volatile tinderbox as ethnic/quasi-religious violence has merged with poverty and underdevelopment which has produced militias like the ‘anti-balaka’ and ‘Seleka’ who with their rapacious acts are furthering widening the chasm between communities. These sorts of divisions can be whipped up by politicians and leaders to gain political support, target scapegoats, and alleviate political pressure in future conflict.

Will order be restored? Perhaps the violence will cease in time, the damage however could be irreparable for the communities currently at each other throats. What’s left of the country will not bode well for the future, the likelihood of violence in countries split by civil war more likely to reemerge than allowing the ascendancy of peace and stability.

Matthew Williams