Saturday, October 25, 2014

You are here

The Central African Conflict is about Far More than Religion

CAR violence has been painted in largely religious terms, obscuring deeper dynamics. But these more complex aspects must be recognised if resolution efforts are to be effective.
Share |
Refugees from the CAR in Cameroon. Photograph by EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie.

For the past several months, the United Nations, France, and other international groups have been warning the world that the Central African Republic (CAR) is facing widespread religious violence that could take on genocidal proportions. Thousands have been killed, Muslims have been fleeing the capital Bangui in droves, and there has been no shortage of stories about brutal close-range communal violence.

However, as starkly sectarian as some of the fighting has been, the conflict is far more complex than just some kind of deep-rooted Christian-Muslim enmity bubbling to the surface. After all, although the country has been notoriously unstable since gaining independence from France in 1960, communal violence of this nature and severity is unprecedented. In fact, there has previously been little or no history of specifically religious conflict in the CAR.

The conflict has deeper and different roots and it is only by understanding these that the appropriate measures can be taken to stem the conflict and ensure it does not reignite a few months or years down the line.

From Bozizé to Samba-Panza

In March 2013, then-president François Bozizé was ousted by Séléka rebels, a loose coalition from the north of the country. Michel Djotodia, their self-appointed leader, took over as transitional president.

Djotodia was the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian CAR − Muslims account for approximately 15% of the population − and the Séléka mostly comprises of Muslims from the north, though bolstered by some Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries.

Under Djotodia, the Séléka engaged in looting, rape, and murder of civilians. In response, various communities formed self-protection brigades. These so-called anti-balaka forces are believed to be mostly Christian, but their origins and leadership are largely unknown − some speculate that former president Bozizé and his supporters control more than half the forces.

The anti-balaka clashed with the Séléka on many bloody occasions, and amidst a rapidly deteriorating security situation in which nearly a million were displaced and thousands were killed, Djotodia was eventually forced to resign by regional leaders in January 2014. Catherine Samba-Panza, formerly mayor of Bangui, was selected to be the new transitional president two weeks later.

Since then, the anti-balaka have been accused of continuing to attack former Séléka rebels and completely unrelated Muslim civilians, seeking revenge for the atrocities committed during Djotodia's brief rule. Some of the anti-balaka militias have been particularly brazen in their attacks; in one instance, for example, they beat and stabbed a suspected ex-Séléka rebel to death in front of journalists directly after a press conference in which the newly-inaugurated Samba-Panza had called for an end to the violence.

Patronage politics

Because of the way fault lines have formed over the past year or so, with Muslims and Christians seemingly on opposite sides of an escalating conflict, many have depicted this conflict as sectarian in nature. This reading seems unlikely to be the whole story, however, given that the CAR has no significant history of sectarian conflict or deep-seated religious enmity. Indeed, many Central African political and religious leaders have repeatedly asserted that it is insecurity and a fight for power that is driving the conflict rather than religious divisions.

Furthermore, by looking over the past 30 years in the CAR, we can see there has been a trend towards the politicisation of ethnicity, not religion. For example, former president André Kolingba (1981–93) explicitly rewarded his ethnic group, the Yakoma from southern CAR, with patronage and support. His successor, Ange-Félix Patassé (1993–2003) in turn dismissed the Yakoma and rewarded his own supporters from the northwest, mostly Sara-Kaba, with government positions and patronage. And Bozizé, who deposed Patassé and also came from the northwest, gave clear preferential treatment to the Gbaya.

Kolingba, Patassé, and Bozizé all favoured different groups and politicised identity, but awarded privilege based on ethnic not religious terms. After all, all three were Christian.

This is not to say that there hasn't been religious tension in the country. In 2012, for instance, the US State Department noted that some repression of Muslims was taking place. However it also concluded that such actions were not organised or sustained at any mass level.

Historically, religion has been far less important than regional and ethnic antagonisms. Throughout the 2000s, and especially after Bozizé came to power in 2003, the Central African government was routinely unable to secure the north. It faced repeated challenges from rebels supporting the deposed Patassé as well as incursions by neighbouring − in particular Chadian − rebels and bandits. This north-south insecurity contributed to growing rivalry between the Yakoma and the amorphous northerners who − in the eyes of their southern compatriots − increasingly became seen as being foreigners.

This pattern of government weakness, ethnic favouritism, regional neglect, and foreign interference created a perfect foundations for the current conflict, which became coded in far simpler religious terms. And this new narrative is spreading. According to a local report from Berbérati, located in south-western CAR, there was never a problem between Muslims, who make up approximately one-third of the city’s population, and Christians until the past few months. Now, Muslims are fleeing the CAR’s third largest city in droves.

Appropriate solutions

It is important not to mischaracterise the conflict as purely religious and to ensure we fully appreciate the complex social, economic and regional dynamics underpinning the current violence because without this deeper understanding, attempts to truly resolve it run the risk of being inadequate and even inappropriate.

For example, if efforts to end the conflict focus purely on religious mediation and ignore the underlying causes, any resolution cannot hope to be durable and lasting. Mislabelling conflicts can also exacerbate and inflame tensions, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and events in Berbérati and elsewhere may reflect this dynamic.

Finally, describing the conflict as sectarian or based purely on ideological divisions between non-state actors obscures the fact that some groups or wily individuals may in fact be benefiting − whether economically, politically or otherwise − from a chaotic and ungoverned CAR.

Religious identity is important in the Central African conflict and has become an increasingly important marker to those involved. But the violence doesn't originally derive from these identities and the conflict is about far more than just religion. Any efforts at resolution or intervention must reflect that.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

For further reading around the subject see:

 

Share |

Comments

Its Pleasure to write this comment to you (Author), I was long time reader of your Articles About African Electoral systems and elections, since I am Somaliland National Electoral Staff in one of the conflict affected countries in Sub Sahara Africa with emergence democracy, My names is Saeed M Osman from Somaliland (North Somalia) currently working with NEC as Human Resource and Training Manager.
 
Let me introduce you about the Somaliland and its Election history
 
Somaliland is a self-declared de facto sovereign state that is internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia. The government of Somaliland regards itself as the successor state to the British Somaliland protectorate, which was independent on 26 June 1960 as the State of Somaliland.
 
Somaliland is bordered by Ethiopia in the south and west, Djibouti in the northwest, the Gulf of Aden in the north, and the autonomous Puntland region of Somalia to the east.
 
I saw your biography at Thinkafricapress and realized that you are working on a book project that examines the causes and consequences of electoral violence in sub-Saharan Africa, Which I think will richly contribute African Electoral knowledge stock.
 
In respond of that I would like to bring to your attention this Small Country with unique electoral and democracy experience from starting scratch to changing leadership through ballot not bullet as many our neighboring countries did.  2010 Presidential elections was a milestone since we changed the incumbent president a Opposition leader, On 1 July 2010, the Somaliland National Election Commission announced that opposition candidate Ahmed M. Mahamoud Silanyo had won the presidential election, defeating incumbent President Dahir Riyale Kahin, followed by smooth power handover ceremony with presence of International and regional delegates.
 
I would Like and appeal to include your book or future research papers something about this country and its electoral history starting from 2001 Constitution Referendum followed by successful elections in 2002 Somaliland holds first Local Council election contested six Political Parties, in 2003 First presidential election, In 2005 First parliamentary elections, in 2010 Second Presidential elections and recently 2012 second Local council elections was held.
 
If you are interesting the literature and publications of this country’s electoral history I will share with you.
 
Thank you for Interesting to contribute African Electoral knowledge, God Please you
 
 
Saeed M Osman
 
Somaliland National Electoral Commission
 
Human Resource and Training Manager
 
Hargeisa Somaliland
 
Mobile: +252-2-4439721/ +252-63-4162311
 
 
Skype: saeed.jimcaalemoh