What is the Seleka?
29 Jan 2015
The 2013 coup that sparked the current crisis in the CAR was carried out by a coalition of militias called the Séléka. Their origins and development are explored by Emily Mellgard.
Since January 2013, the Central African Republic (CAR) has spiralled deeper and deeper into violence. One of the parties to the violence has been a loose coalition of militia groups called 'Séléka.' The Séléka formed in the CAR's north and east regions. Séléka translates from Sango, one of the main regional languages, as 'alliance.'
The Séléka was initially formed in December 2012 with an agreement between several rebel groups that had previously fought against the government in Bangui. These groups included: the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), the Patriotic Convention for the Salvation of Kodro, Union of Republican Forces, and the Alliance for the Rebirth and Rebuilding. Their grievances included decades of political and economic persecution and marginalisation, impunity of violence, and broken promises from years of skirmishes and peace deals.
There was a significant presence of non-Central Africans within the Séléka, causing many people to reject the group as foreign actors without local roots. However, the coalition had deep, legitimate local grievances with the government. Simultaneously however, there were criminal and foreign aspects of the coalition, including fighters from the CAR, mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, and elements from the Chadian military, allegedly involved to secure their interests in the country.
The coalition had deep, legitimate local grievances with the government.
The Central African government has never had firm control over the country. Few politicians lived among or even visited their constituents in the north and east, preferring to reside in Bangui. The police force was almost nonexistent, allowing insecurity to grow rife in many regions and impunity was common, providing numerous reasons to resent the government. Those who joined Séléka therefore came from a variety of backgrounds for a variety of reasons.
The Séléka numbered approximately 6,000 fighters when it marched on the capital, it is impossible to say which of the numerous grievances and motivations were dominant. Economically poor and politically marginalised, people in the north make their living in a variety of ways including artisanal diamond mining and trading, forestry, wildlife conservation and poaching, and smuggling along ancient Sahelian trade routes. While in power from 2003 to 2013, President Bozizé attempted to centralise control of diamond extraction and trade, cutting out of the market many northern diamond traders. Bozizé also attempted to gain greater control over the smuggling and trade routes throughout the country, threatening the little access to trade and revenue many in the north had remaining to them.
According to reports from human rights groups, many of the original commanders of the Séléka coalition were "Big Men" of the northern economy who fought to grow their control of the country's resources and to keep Bangui out of their existing networks. Some of François Bozizé's ministers even claimed that the Séléka takeover of the country was "a 'coup' by the diamond merchants."
However, the demands of the Séléka were the implementation of recommendations from the Inclusive Political Dialogue (IPD) (held in 2008 to create conditions for peaceful elections in 2010, which were carried out in 2011 and fraught with difficulties) financial compensation for the rebels, the release of political prisoners, and the opening of investigations into past crimes including the disappearance of former CPJP leader Charles Massi.
Their demands unmet, the Séléka marched on and captured Bangui in March 2013; Bozizé fled. Though the north-east where Séléka formed is predominantly Muslim, there is little to no culture of Islamism in the country and the coalition did not attempt to impose sharia. Instead Séléka leaders looted the state treasury and institutions, while members stole cars and motorbikes (which are scarce in the impoverished country). They also seized control of the diamond trade through intimidation and violence, as well as trade routes into Cameroon and the Gulf of Guinea. The Séléka also recruited in the capital and surrounding areas and preyed on civilians and communities as chaos descended.
While the faces of the government had therefore changed, its predatory nature had not. According to a human rights report, "cars owned by NGOs, the UN and private companies were stolen and sold in neighbouring countries on such a scale that the Séléka coup seemed more like a car theft operation than the result of political struggle." The Séléka advance over Central African territory was "strategic;" they focused on gaining control of the natural resources and revenue streams of the country.
After seizing control of the capital and installing one of the Séléka leaders, Michel Djotodia, in the presidential villa, many Séléka elements proceeded to rampage and loot through the southeast regions of the CAR. Having only ever had nominal control over the coalition, Djotodia was unable to rein in the excesses of the fighters, and after failing to integrate the militias into the national military – which was itself in tatters – Djotodia dissolved the Séléka in September 2013.
Left to their own devices the 'ex-Séléka' fighters continued to act with impunity. They concentrated on 'soft targets,' raiding and burning villages and crops, frequently killing those who did not flee into the bush. The African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) stationed in the country lacked the capacity or will to successfully intervene. Often, if they visited a village it was after the violence had ended. Those few instigators of violence captured were often freed through jailbreaks.
This anarchy eventually gave rise to village protection militias in the south called the 'Antibalaka' (see our backgrounder ' What is the Antibalaka?' for more information). These militias banded together to protect their own villages, then the roads and surrounding villages, and eventually began offensive attacks against the ex-Séléka and those known or perceived to have supported them.
The ex-Séléka fighters concentrated on soft targets.
Between December 2013 and January 2014, the Antibalaka, aided by elements of Bozizé's personal guard and remnants of the national army, gained the military upper hand, and on 5 December evicted the Séléka from Bangui. Djotodia was eventually forced from power in January 2014 under the combined pressure of regional and international powers. The tables effectively turned, ex-Séléka fighters largely withdrew to bases in the north leaving the Antibalaka militias free reign to exact indiscriminant revenge against Central African Muslim communities and ex-Séléka militias.
Some of the Séléka fighters who regrouped in the north and began calling for the north to secede from the CAR, but that demand was dropped during the peace talks in Brazzaville in July 2014. Elements of the Séléka continue to control much of the north and east of the country, but there is no official recognition for their efforts to govern there. Until peace is restored to the country, the status of the Séléka will remain ambiguous and therefore unstable.
Read our backgrounder ' What is the Antibalaka?' for information on the origins and development of that group.
This commentary was first published on 29 January 2015.
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