The Imam and the Archbishop: Central African Republic



The Imam and the Archbishop: Central African Republic

Ian Linden

13 Feb 2014

Anyone picking the two most unenviable positions in religious leadership today might hit on President of the Islamic Council of the Central African Republic (CAR) and Catholic Archbishop of its capital, Bangui. I found myself chairing the two men bearing these titles in a Chatham House session a few days ago.

Omar Kabine Layama is a slender, soft-spoken man, a foil to the powerful presence and strong baritone voice of Dieudonne Nzapalainga. But they had the unspoken rapport of two violinists playing together: "the Archbishop presents first", the Imam to me quietly before we started, "I'll speak second", the Archbishop to Imam quietly during questions. Each had a carefully prepared, well-honed message, coming in one cue, perfectly in synch with their translator.

They were hot-foot from President Hollande at the Elysee Palace – "a good meeting" - heading for Germany, having visited a number of other European countries. This suggested some explanation of how well they worked as a team that included at home the Council of Churches. But you could also detect a quiet chemistry at work, a bond forged by shared experiences in dangerous situations. Their message came in two parts: what was the nature of the conflict and what were the practical measures that had to be implemented if it were to be ended.

The CAR was suffering neither from the beginnings of genocide nor from a religious war. The situation was far more complex. It involved mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, the implosion of the country's fragile governance to a point of anarchy, promoted by different militias, and the laughable – were it not tragic - inadequacy of the international intervention: 1,600 French troops and 5,000 African Union (AU) forces. The poor Burundians had to do peace-keeping on foot - they had no vehicles. Just this for a country of 240,000 square miles and porous borders. The only way to communicate with the AU forces was by mobile phone which was their own only way of communicating. Not surprisingly the two religious leaders were calling for "casques bleus", a properly equipped UN force to supplement, as, at the same time, was the interim President, Catherine Samba Panza. Disarmament of the militias was essential but how?

Imam Layama proposed a number of initiatives: a school for peace where Muslims and Christians studied together, the creation of an interfaith hospital and a powerful national radio station all stick in my mind. Throughout Africa there are parallel medical and educational systems, government, Christian-based and Muslim-based. It doesn't make sense and often results in a dispersion of resources. The CAR radio stations had a maximum outreach of about sixty kilometres.

I was reminded of the absence of an operational radio station in pre-1994 Rwanda. So Radio Libre des Mille Collines could spread its poisonous racist propaganda unchallenged on the air waves. The Imam also spoke of the need for interfaith projects in agriculture and a range of enterprises. The call for a properly armed African intervention force also brought back memories from two decades ago when discussions were taking place about creating stockpiles of materiel for this purpose at strategic locations in Africa. What had become of them?

But the overwhelming insight was that local religious leadership was a tragically neglected feature of international interventions, whether in situations where the state had simply disintegrated, or in viable but failing states, or in well functioning democracies encountering destabilisation. In this instance the two religious leaders not only modelled the interfaith relations that could heal the Central African Republic, but represented a critically important element for any reconciliation to occur. For some time they had been the only - servant not war lord - leaders in the country, touring the country, "putting out the fire" , as they called it. Conflict transformation and innovative interfaith relations were not distant, unconnected cousins of stabilisation but its daughters who worked hand in hand.

Evidence that the importance of such second tier mediation is truly valued by concerned governments is sparse. The peace-makers may be blessed, they may even be called the sons of God, but they do not often get funding from the apparently overflowing coffers available for other kinds of intervention. Perhaps one day the Burundians will be able to make peace on more than bicycles, and even Dieudonne Nzapalainga and Omar Kabine Layama will receive funds commensurate with the importance of their vision, courage and commitment.