The myth of sectarian violence in CAR

Waves of killing sprees roll over the Central African Republic. No end seems in sight to the violence despite international condemnation and the presence of forces from former colonial master France, and the African Union.  Fighters of Seleka, a mainly Muslim militia, and the mainly Christian anti-balaka combatants are engaged in perpetual revenge killings.

At the moment tension is once again high in the capital Bangui after a few weeks of near normalcy. An attack on a church, which claimed some 30 lives, triggered another round of violence, anger and fear.

When I was in the Central African Republic (CAR) in February, it looked like anti-balaka was succeeding in its mission to cleanse the country of Muslims, who form about 15% of the population.  Some of the last remaining Muslims in Bangui were transported under heavy armed foreign military escort to the northern border region, either to settle in camps for internally displaced people, or cross into neighboring Chad and become refugees.

Christian militias blame the attack on the church on the last Muslims in Bangui, who are huddled together in the area known as PK5, and cordoned off by heavily armed foreign soldiers.  It is believed that former Seleka fighters are amongst the Muslim inhabitants. Whether this is true or not, it is incomprehensible why this group has not been taken to other parts of the country. PK5 is a highly explosive powder keg.

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The interim government of President Catherine Samba-Panza is not in control of the situation. Neither the government nor the international community seems to have a solution for the conflict. Foreign troops have tried to bring the violence under control but are too thinly spread over the country.  The government is trying to organise elections, an often-prescribed panacea by the international community. But ballot boxes are for the time being a pipe dream.

Religious labelling
Earlier in the year, the countryside was awash with rumours that Seleka was regrouping in the border regions. A few weeks later Seleka fighters started attacking hamlets in the northern region. The attacks rapidly grew in number and scale. Is CAR going back to where it all started, when Seleka very quickly occupied much of the country in the beginning of 2013, and chased out President Francois Bozize?

Despite the religious labelling one has to wonder whether it is really a fight between the Christians and the Muslims. In its history CAR knows of no such animosity. Seleka certainly does not consist only of Muslims who rebelled against the government of Bozize, but it also attracted mercenaries from neighboring Chad and Sudan, and ordinary criminals who wanted to create a lawless state in which they could plunder undisturbed the alluvial diamonds, poach ivory, or venture into cattle rustling.

Seleka argued that a regime change was needed because of the marginalisation of Muslims who lived mainly in the northeastern part of the country and Bangui.  They are largely cattle herders or traders. The country has a history of coups. Until last year all its past leaders had been Christians who tended to favor not religious groups, but their own ethnic community.

Andre Kolingba made sure his Yakoma people got the best government jobs and opportunities.  Ange-Felix Patasse did the same for his Sara Kaba people and Bozize for his Gbaya. Other ethnic groups, among them the Fulani who are mainly Muslims, suffered neglect. Marginalisation was not based on religion but on ethnic background.

Matters in own hands
In March last year, Seleka leader Michel Djotodia became the first Muslim President of CAR.  But he was not capable of keeping his forces under his control. Once they had toppled the previous government, his ragtag militia resorted to killing, raping, and plundering.

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The terrorised population retaliated by taking matters in their own hands, and forgot about their ethnic divides. Vigilante units already existed all over the country because of the lack of an adequate police force. They took it upon themselves to rid CAR of Seleka and Muslims. Soon the hunters became the hunted.

The international community refused to deal with Djotodia, and at the end of last year he was pressured by countries in the region to step aside for an interim government.  His fighters fled and left behind unprotected their fellow Muslim civilians.

Anti-balaka attracted many unemployed youths. CAR is a poor country and there are very few opportunities for the population of five million. After chasing Muslims out of the rural areas many young anti-balaka went to Bangui with the hope of becoming integrated into a new army. Once they reached the capital they became part of the militias of local warlords which sprang up like mushrooms.

Their main pastime
There is not enough food for this influx of young men. Hungry and armed with knives and machetes, they demand food from the population. But their main pastime is to get drunk on local brew. They turned into dangerous and unruly gangs that roam the streets. Violence often erupts, and they do not shy away from attacking fellow Christians.

I witnessed how one afternoon, close to the international airport, a group had “arrested” a young man for stealing cooking pots.  After some boisterous threats they all suddenly decided without further consideration to kick his head into a pulp. Their warlord stood by, and watched in complete silence. Anyone who dared to protest could be a next victim.

Most of these youngsters are hardly connected to Christianity. On Sundays they are not in church, and they adorn themselves with dozens of charms and amulets. They have more trust in their ancestral beliefs. That is why Christian religious leaders have little influence on them.

Anti-balaka groups in the capital Bangui seem to be more dangerous and out of control than those in the countryside. When I complimented a rural leader near the town of Bossangoa for his fighters’ good behavior, he explained that it was attributed to discipline. The local groups in the region were under the command of army officers, loyal to former President Bozize.

I was also told that the ex-President helped the local anti-balaka with funding. CAR is one of the growing numbers of countries in Africa where marginalised parts of the population rise up. It attracts foreigners who help to turn a bad situation into a lethal cocktail.

The revolt of Tuaregs in Mali for example resulted in the influx of Islamic extremists. Disgruntled youths in northern Nigeria are easily convinced to join religious fanatics.  In CAR faith is being used as a weapon in the struggle for gaining access to the national cake. These are warning signs on the wall for other leaders.