Fear and Hope in the CAR's Peace Process
03 Mar 2015
During the crisis in the CAR, international jihadi groups volunteered to take revenge on Christian militias, but faith leaders in the country are working to prevent radicalisation, writes James Smith.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has been ruled by corrupt leaders since its independence from France in 1960, most of whom seized power by force. Despite great riches of oil, diamonds, gold, uranium and forests, all measurements of poverty place CAR among the poorest countries. The most recent crisis in the country, estimated to have killed at least five thousand civilians over the past two years, was in many ways a continuation of a legacy of misrule and unrest.
Central African citizens understandably feel neglected and none more so than those who live in the north and east border regions with Chad and Sudan. Much of the CAR's Muslim population (approximately 14 per cent) live there, over 400 miles from the capital, which is situated in the south on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among the various armed groups formed over the past decade, four came together toward the end of 2012 and called themselves Séléka, which means alliance in Sango, a traditional national language of the CAR. On 14 March 2013, as Séléka swept into the capital, their leader Michel Djotodia declared himself head of state. "It is our turn to rule" many rebels seethed as they stole cars, looted houses and shops, destroyed churches and raped women. The rebels expressed economic and social grievances rather than any religious motivation for their coup and violence.
Feeling unprotected by the CAR army, Antibalaka militias organised themselves with weapons of knives, machetes, guns and grenades. Revenge actions reached a frenzy on 5 December 2013 as they burned mosques and attacked Muslims – who fled by the tens of thousands to Cameroon, Chad and Senegal. Ultimately, Michel Djotodia was forced to stand down on 10 January 2014 amid the mounting atrocities and international pressure. It was too late however, to avoid attracting the attention of a far more serious threat.
International Islamists expressed readiness to take revenge on Christians.
Although Islamist groups had been present in northern CAR for years, often infiltrating from Mali and northern Nigeria, and it sits within a band of cultural Islamic exchange stretching from Khartoum in the east to Dakar in the west, radical Islam does not run deep in the country. At least not yet; but the current crisis is exactly the environment in which extremist ideologies flourish. Following the widely disseminated reports of executions in the streets and the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, understandable anger and hatred was stirred internationally, often far beyond the borders of the CAR.
Images of the atrocities in Bangui went global in December 2013. In response Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and Chechen Islamists contacted Muslim leaders of the CAR, including the chief imam Omar Kabine Layama, expressing their readiness to take revenge on the Christians. Some Séléka leaders welcomed the offer for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, though there is no evidence that it was acted upon. However, Imam Layama, who is the president of the Central African Republic Islamic Community, went on a counter-offensive. Speaking to "defend Islam and true Muslims", he declared on international Arabic media that "we do not need jihadi weapons here to destroy our country".
While sporadic killings continue and the situation remains tense, the CAR has been brought back from the brink of a bloody war in which the prime targets have been civilians. The crisis is kept in check by a combination of three factors:
- First, is the presence of international peacekeepers. African Union peacekeepers who responded early to the atrocities, replaced their green berets for blue caps in September 2014 when they joined the UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).
- Second, is the hope that the transitional government would guide the country forward to change. The transitional government was put in place in January 2014 and led by President Catherine Samba-Panza, the former mayor of Bangui.
- Third, is the tireless encouragement from religious leaders for the green, though fragile, shoots of reconciliation.
However this crisis is only contained, not resolved, and the situation remains high risk. History shows that massacres are warning signs that even more grave danger could be around the corner if underlying structures, grievances and ideologies within society do not change.
Aside from healing their troubled hearts, the restless, wounded and poverty stricken people of the CAR need to see a government that serves them.
The restless, wounded and poverty stricken CAR needs an accountable government.
Acceptance of a reconciliation process and the development of an environment where citizens feel secure are both necessary for the return of those displaced by the violence. They also need livelihoods to return to. Trading in the market that used to be concentrated in the largely Muslim PK 5 neighbourhood in Bangui has migrated to other parts of the city, further diminishing economic opportunities and establishing another impediment for Muslims to return to the capital.
Yet if Muslims displaced from Bangui do not return before elections are held later this year, they will feel even more excluded than before the conflict, deepening the existing grievances.
With resentment high, one untimely incident could spark a re-escalation of intractable conflict drawing in regional groups and potentially establishing another radical Islamic node in sub-Saharan Africa.
Should violence return to the level seen at the end of 2013, and the conflict shift from being economic and power-driven to ideological, the window of opportunity that currently exists to support the CAR on its road to peace and development may close.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.