February 24, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Burgeoning Ethnic Conflict in the Central African Republic
This IntelBrief should be read in conjunction with TSG report of December 12, 2013:
The Central African Republic: Africa's Next Perfect Storm?
Christian militias are internally displacing hundreds of thousands of Muslims and forcing tens of thousands to flee the Central African Republic (CAR). United Nations officials have characterized the situation as de facto ethnic cleansing.
Formed to resist the nine-month seizure of power and brutal rule by mainly Muslim rebels known as the Seleka (meaning “union”) – who use balakas, or machetes, as well as automatic weapons – the Christian militias call themselves anti-balaka forces, but they too employ machetes along with guns. In its particulars, then, the conflict conjures ominous memories of the genocide and massacres in nearby Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990s. Entire neighborhoods in the capital, Bangui, have been emptied, and virtually all of the 30,000 residents of the city Yaloké, northwest of Bangui, have been forced out, decamping mainly to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Muslim shops have been looted and burned, mosques razed, and Muslim homes destroyed. A suspected Seleka rebel was publicly lynched in early February, following a speech by Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. The opposing militias have reportedly killed over 2,000 people, including 100 by Christian militias on January 18 alone, in Bossemptélé, a town in the western part of the country. The actual number of fatalities is probably likely much higher, as mass graves continue to be unearthed. Some estimates put the number of displaced CAR residents at over one million—more than a fifth of the CAR’s population. The CAR government, a 1,600-strong French peacekeeping force deployed last December, and about 5,000 African Union (AU) peacekeepers (the International Support Mission for CAR, or MISCA) deployed last July, have been unable to quell the violence.
Underlying Political Dynamics
About 15 percent of the country’s total population of 4.6 million is Muslim. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the CAR was besieged by coups and held few free and fair elections. While CAR’s Muslims and Christian majority coexisted in relative peace since independence, they have remained fairly separate and insular, with most Muslims living in the sparsely populated northeast. In recent years, competition for profitable natural resources—including diamonds, gold, timber, and ivory—has sharpened the political rivalry between Christians and Muslims in the impoverished country. Muslims’ perceived political and economic marginalization led some to form the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity in opposition to the largely Christian government of President François Bozizé, who had seized power by coup in 2003 and has proven to be corrupt, kleptocratic, and inept. The Central African Bush War ensued, ending in 2007 with Bozizé still in place. Disparate Muslim groups coalesced to form the Seleka—substantially a criminal outfit with the agenda of illicit enrichment. Nominally led by Michel Djotodia but operationally decentralized and driven by warlords, the Seleka undertook an armed rebellion that in March 2013 culminated in a coup and Djotodia’s installment as president. In January 2014, Chad and other neighboring powers prevailed on Djotodia to step down on account of his failure to stop ethnic violence. The situation remained tense, and the caretaker government lacked the political will and institutional strength to impose order. Christian militias resolved to take revenge for the Seleka’s abuses. The militias’ command structure, their leaders’ identities, and their overall personnel strength remain unclear. Some former members of the heavily Christian national army have apparently joined them.
As with most conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, international attention to the CAR problem is being channeled primarily through the UN and AU. The UN Security Council passed a resolution in early December authorizing “all necessary measures” to assist the AU forces under Chapter VII, and asking wealthier nations to support the African troops. The Security Council also voted unanimously on January 28 to impose a travel ban on and freeze the assets of people suspected of war crimes in CAR. The European Union (EU) is politically engaged and has authorized the deployment of a battalion of 500-600 soldiers to protect civilians and relieve the French force. In January, the UN, the EU, and France co-chaired a meeting at which over $500 million was raised for emergency, short-term, and stabilization assistance to the CAR. In addition, the US is providing transport aircraft to carry African troops and equipment from Burundi to CAR. On February 12, the UN initiated a series of 25 planned shipments of food aid with a flight carrying 82 tons of rice into Bangui.
No direct al-Qaeda affiliates or other jihadist groups appear to have penetrated the Seleka’s ranks or actively attempted to radicalize CAR Muslims. The conflict is sourced in economic deprivation and political favoritism rather than religion per se. But ongoing conflict along religious lines could eventually ripen some Muslims for radicalization, and the Nigerian extremist Muslim group Boko Haram is suspected of having a presence in CAR.
Regional and International Policy Outlook
Ethnic conflict in the CAR, though escalating, may be containable. Regional powers (Chad in particular) and France, the former colonial power in both the CAR and Chad, are actively engaged in forging a stable political solution to Muslim and Christian political differences. France, however, has publicly stated that a UN peacekeeping force of at least 10,000, in addition to the AU contingent, is required to pacify the country. Given the moral (or amoral) equivalence of the two indigenous sides and CAR’s chronic poor governance and institutional incapacity, an externally facilitated solution appears necessary. Major powers other than France are unlikely to deploy forces to a small, strategically inconsequential country in which they have a light diplomatic presence. Accordingly, the peacekeeping burden will likely fall substantially on the AU, and to a lesser extent on France; the diplomatic burden will remain on France (both bilaterally and through the EU), the AU, and the UN. The immediate priorities could be more generous financial and logistical assistance from capable governments; expanding and reinforcing MISCA; securing Bangui; and deploying peacekeepers more widely, focusing on areas of most intense displacement and conflict between the Seleka and the Christian militias . In the medium term, inter-communal dialogue, reconstruction projects, and the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of the Seleka would increase stability. Ultimately, new elections, security sector reform, and public finance reform should be pursued.
French and the AU will continue to pursue an incremental approach of security, stabilization, and peacekeeping. The immediate priorities could be more generous financial and logistical assistance from capable governments; expanding and reinforcing MISCA; securing Bangui; and deploying peacekeepers more widely, focusing on areas of most intense displacement and conflict between the Seleka and the Christian militias. In the medium term, inter-communal dialogue, reconstruction projects, and the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of the Seleka would increase stability. Ultimately, new elections, security sector reform, and public finance reform should be pursued.
• France’s strategy will likely continue to entail an incremental approach of security, stabilization, coalition building and peacekeeping
• Though there is little history of violence between Muslim and Christian citizens of CAR, the present tensions and violence may portend characteristics similar to regional strife in parts of the Sahel belt—less about religious divide and more related to weak governance, chronic disenfranchisement, and tribal conflict.
• Although French officials acknowledge that they under-estimated the problem, regional and international actors will remain relatively slow to act more decisively absent a step-increase in the level of bloodshed and refugees
• Short of outright genocide, the factor most apt to trigger a significant intensification of international attention is a marked increase in refugee flows to neighboring countries and corresponding humanitarian crisis.
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