For more than a year, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been embroiled in an increasingly factious civil war. For months, the government battled a loose coalition of predominantly Muslim rebel groups called Seleka, which succeeded in ousting former president Francois Bozize, who fled the country in March 2013. However, the conflict has only grown since. Although Seleka was officially disbanded under Michel Djotodia — a rebel leader who named himself successor to Bozize — factions of Seleka are still armed and prowling the country. News and human rights organizations have reported widely on ex-Seleka fighters participating in looting, torture, executions, rapes, beheadings, and the use of child soldiers. The U.N. Refugee Agency reported that more than 935,000 people have been internally displaced, almost a quarter of the CAR’s population. With attacks by ex-Seleka fighters mounting, local residents, many of whom are Christian, have formed their own militias in reaction. In January, Djotodia resigned and Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet was appointed acting president. Meanwhile, recent statements from the U.N. and others note the potential for the CAR’s instability and violence to degenerate into genocide.
With expertise in the politics and development in central and southern Africa, Associate Professor of Political Science Kevin Dunn provides a nuanced look at the CAR’s current conflict and possible future.
In what ways are the political problems facing the Central African Republic — internal power struggles, ethnic and religious tensions, related land disputes — influencing or compounding each other? How are they fueling human rights violations within the country’s borders? How many sides are there in this conflict?
Your question hits the nail on the head: there is a convergence of factors that make the situation in the CAR such a volatile mix. While relatively resource-rich (with diamonds and timber), CAR is one of the world’s poorest countries with a lengthy history of bad governance and fragmented society. Civil society in CAR is incredibly weak, and the state has been largely predatory in nature since its colonial creation. The roots of the current conflict are political. The interim president, Michel Djotodia, who just resigned, came to power in March of last year, ousting Francois Bozize. Djotodia had served in the previous regime that Bozize had ousted. He is what is sometimes referred to as a “recycled elite”: a disempowered political elite seeking to retain a position of power within the state. Commentators note that Djotodia is a Muslim, and Bozize was a Christian, but their motivations are political, not religious. Djotodia has been involved in a number of rebel groups bent on seizing power and was most recently part of the Seleka rebel alliance. Bozize’s rule, like his predecessors, was relatively weak, relying on external support for survival (several years ago, France protected his regime by bombing rebels advancing against the capital). The Seleka rebel alliance was a hodge-podge group with no real coherence, shored up largely by fighters from neighboring Chad and Sudan. As they advanced upon the capital last year, France made the crucial decision to announce that they would not defend Bozize. As soon as that happened, Bozize’s regime crumbled and the Seleka rebels swept into Bangui. But there was little cohesion. Djotodia, who had long desired to be president, had little control over the country and the rebel alliance fragmented further, with power essentially being localized and militarized. Local militias have become de riguer, with past perceived grievances over land and identity fueling violence. So, when you ask how many sides are there in this conflict, the honest answer is “many” — and they are local, national, regional, and international in their composition.
With violence on the upswing and a growing concern among the international community over genocide in the Central African Republic, what are some potential outcomes for the country? Probable outcomes? An ideal outcome?
Again this is not inherently an ethnic or religious conflict that has become politicized, it is a political conflict that is increasingly framed in religious and ethnic terms. Anything is “possible” but it is likely that localized violence will continue until a larger force can stop it. It remains to be seen who will replace Djotodia, but it is unlikely that they will be able to unify the fragmented and adversarial political elites, or addresses the serious economic and political marginalization that affects CAR’s ordinary citizens. One possible outcome is that an enhanced and expanded international peace-keeping force, drawn from the African Union and France, will eventually establish a modicum of control in the country (the key will be to have France, Chad and the Sudan coordinate their interests). But that will likely be a stop-gap measure that will not address the key causes of the conflict in the long-run. The “ideal” outcome is for the creation of a responsive coalition government that reflects the interests of society, practices good governance, and works for the economic development of all its citizens. But the likelihood of that happening — in CAR or anywhere else in the world — is unfortunately dim.
Other countries have issued condemnations of the violence in the CAR; sent in peacekeeping troops; evacuated their own citizens. What is the role and responsibility of the international community in a situation like this? Of individuals?
While most Americans don’t know much about CAR, it would be a mistake to consider it a marginalized back-water in the world. The roots of the conflict are certainly local — struggles among local political elites for power and everyday citizens for survival — but events in CAR are intimately connected to regional and international factors and forces. Neighboring states have long been involved in both CAR’s economic and political affairs. Both Chad and Sudan have regularly supported various governments and rebel groups in CAR. Uganda has recently sent in troops against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that had taken refuge in CAR. But equally (if not more) important is the role of France. The former colonial power, France has maintained deep connections with CAR elites. French administrations were instrumental in maintaining the dictator-cum-“emperor” Bokassa in power (and economically rewarded, often with illegal diamond transfers). Recent corruption scandals have illustrated that these intimate relations between French and African elites still continue. So, it should be recognized that France and neighboring African countries are deeply implicit in both CAR’s economic under-development and political chaos. To assume that members of the “international community” are neutral, dispassionate saviors of CAR is tragically laughable.