Central African Republic: the Forgotten Conflict
As featured in Edition 38, available here.
BY ROSE BUXTON (3rd year - PAIS - Bath, UK)
In January, over one thousand trucks carrying food and medical supplies to a long-overlooked African country found themselves stuck outside the border, as militants attacked the country’s capital Bangui. Food prices skyrocketed, and its main water distributor was close to being unable to purify drinking water for Bangui’s one million inhabitants. This was just the most recent escalation in a conflict that has torn the Central African Republic (CAR) apart and forced almost a third of its population from their homes.
Violence as we know it first began in 2013, but it has much deeper roots. CAR secured independence from France in 1960, but suffered numerous autocratic rulers. Its first democratically elected leader was overthrown in 2003 in a coup led by François Bozizé, a high-ranking military official. In 2012, Bozizé was overthrown by the Seleka, a Muslim coalition of armed groups. Though the Seleka had foreign mercenaries in its ranks, many had significant local grievances. CAR contains many distinct communities; its south is more Christian, while the north has a mostly Muslim population and a history of political exclusion and economic hardship.
Under President Bozizé, two key sources of northern income had been imperilled through the centralising of the diamond industry and clamping down on smugglers. As such, many joined the Seleka out of frustration at poor economic conditions and perceived marginalisation. The group demanded the implementation of past government recommendations made to improve the country’s elections, the release of political prisoners, and financial compensation for rebels. The Seleka’s coup marked the first time in CAR’s history that the country’s Muslim population had held power.
In 2014, the UN warned that there was a high risk of genocide in the country, as the Seleka installed a president and began violent looting, raping, and murdering in southern CAR, and their leadership seemed to lose control. In response to the Seleka takeover, coalitions of Christian fighters, known as the anti-Balaka, emerged and began their revenge attacks against Muslims. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes.
Today, the conflict continues to rage. The Seleka coalition disbanded and split into new factions that continued to rampage throughout the country and fight over the control of vital resources. Part of their membership joined the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), an alliance of formerly at odds rebel groups that has confounded analysts. The 2020 election saw renewed violence, with the CPC leading the blockade of Bangui and attacks on surrounding towns. To add to the confusion, Bozizé is considered to have been a founding member of the CPC in an attempt to retake power.
The number of different militias makes it difficult for peace accords to stick. CAR has had numerous peace agreements, and the current one is extremely fragile. Divided parties complicate negotiations, and many groups have little interest in coming to the table. In some cases, their control of mines or strategic trading and herding routes is a disincentive to peace, as it would mean lost income. Similarly, signatories of peace accords have continued to carry out atrocities, meaning many Central Africans view them as a shield for militia violence.
Elections have a long history of spurring attacks if voting seems exclusionary. Much of CAR is without roads, and what network it does have is poorly maintained. Without roads, people cannot get to polling stations to cast their vote. Additionally, threats of violence kept many others away, despite the presence of peacekeepers.
The international reaction has been muted, and has largely focused on military support. The UN maintains a peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) along with Rwandan stabilisation forces. There is no doubt that the presence of these troops is necessary, as the fragility of government control in CAR means that military pressure is vital for negotiations and to prevent a civil war. However, this is not a permanent solution. Further militarisation does not cool intercommunal tensions. Russia provides military advisors to CAR’S government, but mercenaries linked to the country have been widely accused of complicity in atrocities. Current elected President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s support is largely from MINUSCA, fuelling disillusionment in rural impoverished communities.
Above all, CAR needs reconciliation. Though this might be considered a simplistic buzzword, there is no hope of a permanent peace without genuine breaks from past exclusionary politics and inclusion of both Muslims and Christians in government. Civilians desperately need their concerns heard by authorities to address the disenfranchisement at the root of this violence. Regional partners must step forward to mediate dialogues. This conflict needs investment and economic development to solidify a peace. International observers can no longer justify looking away from this forgotten conflict.
IMAGE: Flickr/ United Nations Photo