The Central African Republic: Conflict Overview
The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by violence since it gained independence from France in 1960. Between 1996 and 2003 there were, at least, five major battles to seize the capital Bangui. It is an ongoing civil war between the Seleka, representing the rebel coalition, and the government forces that appeared in 2012, namely after the rebels accused the leading government of President Fracois Bozize, at that moment, of failing to foster the implementation and assurance of the peace agreements signed in 2007 and 2011. What is noteworthy, is that the entities involved in the conflict were previously involved in the Central African Republic Bush War.
The most recent round of violence resumed in December 2012 when the Seleka launched a number of attacks. The rebel coalition captured major towns in the central and eastern region of the country by the end of 2012. The coalition encompassed two major groups such as the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention for Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), as well as the Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country (CPSK), all based in north-eastern CAR. Furthermore, other groups based in northern CAR, such as the Democratic Front of the Central Africa People (FDPC) and the Chadian group Popular Front for Recovery (FPR), stated their interest in alleging to the Seleka coalition.
The capital city was populated by 122,000 Muslims before the conflict began in March 2012, when the Seleka rebels intended a coup and ousted the government lead by the President Francois Bozize. The new authority was associated and marked by widespread human rights abuses. The Christian militia, also known as the anti-Balaka, organized to fight against the Seleka rule, thus carrying out attacks against civilian Muslims in the capital city of Bangui, as well as in the western parts of the country. Furthermore, even outside of Bangui, anti-Balaka militias continued their attacks on Muslims and as well as on other who oppose them.
A peace deal was finally reached in 2013, but the rebels accused President Francois Bozize of failing to be tolerant. In March, the rebels overthrow him and five months later the rebel leader Michel Djotodia was sworn in as president. His government promised to restore the order and pave the way to elections, but he was accused of human rights violation.
The catalyst is seen to be the religious intolerance, where the confrontation between the Muslim group Seleka and the mainly Christian group anti-Balaka is committing serious human rights violations. This conflict, which started as mainly a political one, is progressively taking a religious character as there are increasing reports of retaliation killings by the Christian and Muslim populations respectively.
As stated above, the confrontation began in 2012 when Seleka and other groups dissatisfied with then-President Francois Bozize, launched a major military offensive. Although the troops were stopped close to Bangui, they seized the power in March 2013 and their leader, Michel Djotodia, became president of the CAR. Several members of the alleged Seleka group, that was theoretically dissolved afterward, joined the Central African Armed Forces by decree and it continued operating de facto, expanding its control over the country. The anti-Balaka group started to fight Seleka forces in June 2013 and attacked Muslim civilians. Seleka responded by killing non-Muslims, particularly those of Gbaya ethnicity, thus constituting international crimes under the Rome Statue.
In support for the government of Bozize, to hold back a potential rebel advance towards Bangui, states such as Chad, Gabon, Cameroon, Angola, South Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo sent troops as part of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Despite those efforts, Bangui was seized by the rebel forces on 24 March 2013, under the leadership of Michel Djotodia, who proclaimed himself as president of the CAR, soon after the ex-president Francois Bozize fled the country. In the same year, at a regional summit held in N`Djame, Djotodia was recognized as the transitional head of the government. The state’s Prime Minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, intended a request towards the United Nation Security Council for a peacekeeping force, followed up by the condemnation of the former President Bozize, who was accused of crimes against humanity and incitement of genocide.
The situation further aggravated, 200,000 persons were internally displaced, as well as registering a high rate of human right abuses, including the use of child soldiers, rape torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. The international society, through the French President Francois Hollande and the African Union, called upon the UN Security Council to increase the procedures and efforts in stabilizing the country, after renewed fights broke up in August, between the parties involved in the conflict. Despite those initiatives, the conflict escalated, the leading governments of Djotodia was increasingly dividing, thus, leading, in the end, to his resignation in January 2014, being replaced by Catherine Samba-Panza. Even with this change, the conflict was perpetuated and continued, Amnesty International reporting several massacres that were committed by the anti-Balakas against Muslim civilians, forcing a large number of them to flee the country in 2014.
Abuses in CAR weren’t able to be halted and stopped by The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), the country still being governed by a culture of impunity that allows atrocities to prevail. In this episode of religious hatred, thousands of civilians have lost their lives; villages have been burned to the ground and half-a-million civilians have been forced to leave their homes in order to escape atrocities, fostered by such religious intolerance.
The sources of the conflict
The conflict is a long-term one and is characterized by sporadic acts of violence against a backdrop of state disintegration, deep inter-ethnic cleavages, and a survival economy.
Since gaining its independence, the decades that followed up were characterized by violence and instability. The Seleka had affected the countries security infrastructure and further fostered ethnic tensions. The armed groups are further fragmenting and increasingly criminalized. Therefore, we can state that inter-communal tensions have fostered the perpetuation of tensions and have hampered efforts to promote the state’s national unity creating mutations in its social fabric.
What is noteworthy is the fact that the state it is located at the crossroads between two regions and two peoples: in the north, the Sahel with its pastoralist communities and majority Muslim merchants, and in the south, Central Africa, with its communities of the savanna, initially animist but now predominantly Christian.
The state suffered a fundamental change in what concerns its political landscape, after the Seleka grab power in March 2013. For the first time since independence, a force represented by the Muslim population of the north and east of the country gained the power. The continuous clashes between Seleka and anti-Balaka forces generated strong inter-communal tensions that were exacerbated by the instrumentalization of religion, societal fractures and collective fears, reviving traumatic memories of the pre-colonial slave trade era.
The tensions culminated in the killing and displacement of Muslims from the west and are still very high in the center of the country, which is the front line between the armed groups. The conflict between anti-Balaka and “former” Seleka is thus now aggravated by a conflict between armed communities. Furthermore, in areas with frequent inter-communal clashes, the link between armed groups and communities is strong, the former Seleka combatants being seen as the protectors of Muslims, while anti-Balaka fighters are seen as the defenders of Christian communities. By contrast, communities in other parts of the country are keeping their distance from armed groups.
The present state of the conflict
The perpetual state of conflict from the country had affected more than a million children. The children are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. The situation is further aggravated as it appears from the UNICEF report, as almost half of the children under the age of five are malnourished. The violence`s had a devastating impact on the lives of the children and of the society, uprooting 400.000 people within the country and forcing half a million to seek refuge in other places such as in neighboring countries. Furthermore, what aggravates this state is the fact that aid deliveries had been hindered.
Recent fights broke out in the capital city of Bangui three months ago, regarded as being the worst violence in the capital last year, triggered by the murder of a Muslin individual that resulted in such reprisal attacks on a largely Christian neighborhood. At least 100 people died according to Human Rights Watch since September 25, 2015. The majority of them were civilians, women and elderly people.
The most recent violence in the capital city, as mentioned above, started on September 25, with the killing of a 17-year-old Muslim, Amid Mahamat. As a response, the Muslim self-defense groups from Kilometre 5 enclave started to conduct attacks on the Christian population as well as on other neighborhood north of the enclave. Moreover, the anti-Balaka units were assisted by soldiers from the national army, who responded back and set up barricades that in the end prevented the UN peacekeepers from accessing the areas.
Around 6.000 people have been killed and over a quarter of the population has been displaced since the beginning of the violence in 2013. Efforts have been made in mediating by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), that in the end resulted in the Brazzaville Ceasefire Agreement signed in July 2014. Moreover, parties on all sides of the conflict have violated the accord.
In May 2015, the transnational government has held a national forum in order to discuss the upcoming elections from the 27th of December, as well as the judicial reform, decentralization, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Although it seems that the path leading from those initiatives is the right direction, the prospects for a successful political transition do not seem to be in favor, as the collapse of law and order is perpetuated by the weak government, as well as the continuity of violence.
According to reports by UNICEF, the crimes committed by both entities are cataloged as being war crimes and crimes against humanity. Involvement by other parties such as the foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan, as well as the intra-Seleka fighting had further escalated the tensions. As a result of the large scale of the crisis and the challenges that the international forces that were previously authorized by the Security Council were facing, in April 2013, the UN Security Council established a peacekeeping force with a mandate that included ten thousand troops with the priority of protective the civilians, under the name “The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA)”. It is feared that the further escalation of the conflict and deterioration the security environment will increase violence and further destabilize the region, thus, posing challenges in ending the conflicts in the neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
The roadmap to end the crisis, which included the elections before the end of 2015, presents a short-term answer. To avoid pursuing a strategy that would merely postpone addressing critical challenges until after the polls, CAR`s transitional authorities and international partners should address them now by implementing a comprehensive disarmament policy, and reaffirming that Muslims belong within the nation. If this does not happen, the election risk becoming a zero-sum game.
The current approach to disarmament, which was formalized by the agreement signed at the Bangui Forum last May, underestimates both the extent to which the conflict is now communal and the criminalization and fragmentation of armed groups. In western CAR, following the withdrawal of former Seleka fighters and the flight of the region’s Muslim communities, the militarily and politically unorganized local armed groups known as the anti-Balaka, have begun preying on local communities. The Seleka coalition, in turn, has splintered into several movements over leadership rivalries, financial squabbles and disagreements about strategies to adopt toward the transitional authorities and international forces. The fragmentation and criminalization of CAR’s armed groups make negotiations much more difficult.
Furthermore, in those circumstances, the rushed organization of elections risks exacerbating and perpetuating existing inter-communal tensions, therefore undoing the country’s reconstruction efforts and postponing indefinitely the resolution of the disarmament of militias and communities. Therefore, it is needed to find ways and means of maintaining a capacity to restrain armed groups thru a re-evaluation of the planned withdrawal schedule of the French Sangaris forces and the reducing of armed groups’ financing abilities. Moreover, it is essential to avoid an electoral process that creates tensions. In order for this to happen, the transitional authorities should reaffirm Muslims’ equal rights, register them to vote, demonstrate the government’s concern for populations in the northeast, and diversify recruitment in the public service. Attention for other issues that are essential was not prioritized in the country’s international partners and transitional authorities conflict resolution strategy, focusing too much on the electoral process.