Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic

Africa Renewal - - Africa Watch -

Coali­tion of the un­will­ing

Events started spi­ralling out of con­trol af­ter a coup last March led by a loose coali­tion of armed groups call­ing them­selves “Seleka” – mean­ing “al­liance” in the Sango lan­guage. Founded in 2012 by rebel lead­ers from the mostly Mus­lim north, Seleka’s main griev­ance was the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to im­prove peo­ple’s lives, es­pe­cially those from the out­ly­ing ar­eas in the north. The rebels were able to re­cruit fight­ers from the mainly Mus­lim neigh­bor­ing coun­tries of Chad and Su­dan.

A power-shar­ing agree­ment signed in Li­bre­ville, Gabon, in Jan­uary 2013 be­tween the Seleka, then Pres­i­dent François Boz­izé and the lo­cal po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion ended on 24 March when the Seleka, frus­trated by Boz­izé’s re­fusal to ef­fec­tively share power, took con­trol of the gov­ern­ment. This ended the first episode of what was to be­come a rocky po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion. “From the be­gin­ning, it was ob­vi­ous that many of the ac­tors of the tran­si­tion were un­will­ing to be part of it. It was more of a coali­tion of the un­will­ing,” an an­a­lyst in Ban­gui re­marked.

Once in power, the Seleka pro­ceeded to loot pri­vate prop­er­ties, ran­sack pub­lic of­fices and ran­domly kill those who re­sisted their rule. “At first we thought this would last for a week or two,” Julien Bela, a jour­nal­ist, re­calls. “But it soon be­came clear that they would not stop loot­ing, rap­ing and killing.” A De­cem­ber 2013 re­port by the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group (ICG), an or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to help pre­vent and re­solve con­flicts, noted that the coali­tion was mainly oc­cu­pied with car­ry­ing out “a coun­try­wide, crim­i­nal oper­a­tion that has no other mo­tive than per­sonal gain.”

In Au­gust, Michel Djo­to­dia, the coali­tion and coun­try’s new leader, of­fi­cially dis­banded the Seleka in an at­tempt to re­store order. He even set up in­sti­tu­tions for the tran­si­tion, in­clud­ing a par­lia­ment and an elec­toral com­mis­sion. But as the po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion stalled, and with the reg­u­lar army on the run, the po­lice, the pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion and the jus­tice sys­tem no longer or barely func­tion­ing, CAR be­came a “phan­tom state,” ac­cord­ing to the ICG, where for­mal in­sti­tu­tions were empty shells and in­se­cu­rity a daily threat.

Seleka com­bat­ants, mainly Mus­lims, con­tin­ued to loot and kill, par­tic­u­larly the Chris­tian ma­jor­ity. “They would ar­rive in a vil­lage and pub­licly kill all the men, tar­get­ing the Chris­tians in par­tic­u­lar, as if to make a point,” a jour­nal­ist with Ra­dio Cen­trafrique, the pub­lic broad­caster, re­called. By the end of last year, in re­sponse to these tar­geted and sys­tem­atic abuses, self-de­fence mili­tia groups, known as the anti-Balaka, emerged, first from the ru­ral ar­eas and then the cities.

A reli­gious di­vide emerges

Much like the Seleka Al­liance, an­tiBalaka groups are a loose coali­tion of min­i­mally struc­tured en­ti­ties with­out a clear po­lit­i­cal agenda be­yond fight­ing a com­mon en­emy. Anti-Balaka fight­ers wield ma­chetes and some­times firearms. Sim­i­lar to Mai Mai mili­tia of the east­ern part of neigh­bour­ing Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo, anti-Balaka fight­ers wear amulets that they be­lieve pro­vide them with pro­tec­tion against bul­lets. Ini­tially, they re­acted in des­per­a­tion, in de­fence of Chris­tians and other non-Mus­lims. Their avowed en­e­mies were com­bat­ants of the Seleka coali­tion.

On 5 De­cem­ber, the anti-Balaka launched an all-out as­sault on Ban­gui, killing not only Seleka fight­ers, but also a num­ber Mus­lims sus­pected of sid­ing with the Seleka. The fight­ing left at least 1,000 dead in just three weeks, the Red Cross re­ported soon af­ter. The ap­par­ent reli­gious un­der­cur­rent of the cri­sis be­came a trou­bling re­al­ity. Mus­lims in Ban­gui were forced out of en­tire neigh­bour­hoods. The trend was to be fol­lowed in the coun­try­side.

“Mus­lims and Chris­tians have lived in har­mony in this coun­try for gen­er­a­tions,” a num­ber of pub­lic of­fi­cials in Ban­gui re­marked. In pri­vate, how­ever, oth­ers dis­puted such a rosy pic­ture. A civil ser­vant pointed to one of the griev­ances long-held by the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity: “How many Chris­tian hol­i­days are na­tional hol­i­days in this coun­try? Many. How many Mus­lims hol­i­days have the same sta­tus? None.”

By early Jan­uary 2014, the CAR had be­come a bat­tle field be­tween the anti-Balaka (Chris­tian mili­tias) and the for­mer Seleka (mainly Mus­lim com­bat­ants). Around 5,000 African forces, now op­er­at­ing un­der the African-led Sup­port Mis­sion to the Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic ( MISCA), sup­ported by some

1,600 French forces as part of an oper­a­tion called San­garis, were de­ployed over the fol­low­ing weeks. They quickly helped pre­vent mass killings, but se­cu­rity re­mained elu­sive, partly in Ban­gui but more so in the coun­try­side.

Since the con­flict erupted, a mil­lion peo­ple have fled their homes to live in camps, in­clud­ing some 100,000 camped at the cap­i­tal’s air­port. Thou­sands have sought refuge across the bor­ders. Hu­man­i­tar­ian agen­cies re­ported that half of the Cen­tral African na­tion was in need of as­sis­tance. Thou­sands of for­eign­ers from neigh­bour­ing Cameroon, Chad and the Re­pub­lic of Congo have been evac­u­ated, in­clud­ing thou­sands of CAR’s Mus­lims.

Power to a woman

It is against such a dra­matic back­drop that coun­tries of the Cen­tral African re­gion, at a meet­ing on 10 Jan­uary in N’dja­mena, Chad, forced Pres­i­dent Djo­to­dia to re­sign over his fail­ure to run an ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment and rein in his un­ruly fight­ers. He was im­me­di­ately flown into ex­ile in Benin, West Africa.

Days later, the mayor of Ban­gui, Cather­ine Samba-Panza, was elected head of the tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment by mem­bers of the tran­si­tional par­lia­ment. She is the fourth woman in Africa to hold the high­est of­fice. The new Pres­i­dent ap­pointed a tech­no­cratic gov­ern­ment, promised to re­store state au­thor­ity and pledged to lead the tran­si­tion un­til elec­tions in early 2015.

Af­ter the new Pres­i­dent as­sumed of­fice, there was a lull in fight­ing; only to start again, prompt­ing many ob­servers in Ban­gui to ask whether Cather­ine Samba-Panza’s elec­tion changed any­thing on the ground. Un­der pres­sure from bol­stered anti-Balaka groups and with the po­lit­i­cal tide against Seleka fight­ers, the lat­ter re­treated to the north and to neigh­bour­ing Chad.

But in­se­cu­rity per­sisted as the an­tiBalaka mor­phed into vig­i­lante groups around the coun­try. Joined by op­por­tunis­tic crim­i­nals and some youths, they started their own reign of ter­ror, tar­get­ing any­one ap­pear­ing to be a Mus­lim.

By the end of Jan­uary, the head of the African Union peace­keep­ing force, Gen. Martin Tu­menta Chomu, an­nounced a crack­down against the law­less anti-Balaka groups. This was fol­lowed by a sim­i­lar warn­ing by Gen. Fran­cisco So­ri­ano, the com­man­der of San­garis, the French oper­a­tion. A se­ries of clashes en­sued. By early March, af­ter twelve months of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and in­se­cu­rity, there were still daily vi­o­lent in­ci­dents in Ban­gui and around the coun­try.

Be­yond the daily tragedy, there are many ques­tions from the events of the past months: Will the de­parted Seleka fight­ers who have left ma­jor towns with their weapons, de­feated but not dis­armed, re­turn? How and when will the thou­sands of Mus­lims who left their homes and their coun­try re­turn? How will com­mu­ni­ties that have been torn apart re­build their lives? How will jus­tice be car­ried out for the grave crimes com­mit­ted in plain sight?

For now, in Ban­gui, an­swers to these lin­ger­ing ques­tions seem to be for the fu­ture or at least un­til the sight of sol­diers posted in the city’s main streets, is no longer a ba­nal oc­cur­rence, and the sounds of gun­shots, heard so of­ten at day­break here, have re­ceded or dis­ap­peared.

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