August 5, 2015
The Central African Republic (CAR) is a former French colony located in the heart of Africa. With a per capita income of approximately $400 a year, the nation’s economy is smaller than that of Guam—an island with only a thirtieth of CAR’s population. Since gaining its independence in 1960, power has been transferred between several “strong-men”, nearly always through violence. The most recent fighting started in 2004 when militias challenged the rule of President François Bozizé, who himself took power through a military coup. Several attempts at peace were made, with promises of power sharing and political legitimacy for the rebels. Internationally backed talks ultimately failed, and an alliance of rebel groups called the Séléka (unity) captured the country’s capital and usurped power.
In the wake of this latest revolution, the country’s already weakened security apparatus collapsed. Government soldiers and police officers deserted their posts for fear of being targeted by the new Séléka government. The victorious rebel militias redirected their arms against communities across the countryside. The former Séléka leader-turned-President Michel Djotodia was helpless to stop the violence, unable to disarm even the Séléka militias. By November of 2013, the United Nations warned of an impending genocide in the country, and both international and regional peace keepers were dispatched to the stem the spiraling violence.
Further complicating the crisis is a growing sectarian dimension to the violence. The Central African Republic is largely Christian, but also boasts a 15% Muslim population. Although these communities have lived harmoniously since the country’s independence, the Séléka rebellion consists largely of disillusioned Muslims from the country’s north. They toppled the Bozizé government to install Michel Djotodia—the country’s first Muslim President. In the wake of the post-revolution violence, the Christian dominated South spawned the Anti-Balaka, Christian based militias aimed at countering the Séléka. These polarizing groups carried out attacks escalating in brutality, turning the initial crisis into a tit-for-tat conflict that has caused the displacement of entire communities. At the height of the violence, in May of 2014, just 900 of the original 138,000 Muslims remained in the capital Bangui.
However, the worst of this current crisis appears to be over. The former mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, who has no clan affiliations, was elected to replace Djotodia in 2014. Also last year, a cease fire was signed between the Christian and Muslim militias. An updated agreement in 2015 also called for disbarment of the militias on both sides and reintegration of their fighters into society. Furthermore, elections are due to take place at the end year to create a permanent government that is able to pull the country back from the brink.
The new government will have an enormous task before them. Around 6,000 people have been killed in this conflict and nearly one million people remain displaced today. The nation’s healthcare system is in shambles, with 42% of its facilities having been damaged, half of them looted, and nearly all of them experiencing shortages in medicine. The fighting has also impacted harvests and livestock, threatening the food security of the entire population. A poll of the residents of the country shows that they feel left out of the peace process and have very little faith in what many are calling a “ghost government”. Their feelings are perhaps justified, as the ambitious plan for disarmament has yet to take shape. Voices from both sides also continue to call for partition of the entire country into Muslim and Christian regions, and several militias have refused to recognize the cease fire agreement altogether. The worst might be over, but the young republic has much to overcome if it is to prevent a relapse of violence.
Author – William Xu, Legal Fellow, American Red Cross