A year and two days since President François Bozizé was ousted from power by the Séléka rebel alliance, the Central African Republic (CAR) has become a tortured landscape of burnt villages, lynched corpses and mass displacement.
Ever since independence from France in 1960, the CAR gone through countless cycles of conflicts, coups, and crises, but the situation today appears to have reached unprecedented levels of violence and inter-communal hatred. Thousands have been killed in the last year, one million of the country's 4.5 million population is estimated to have been displaced, and deadly attacks − often brazen and in broad daylight − are continuing despite the presence of thousands of international peacekeeping forces.
The northern-based Séléka rebel alliance was formed in September 2012, bringing together several rebel groupings. The rebel forces marched on the capital Bangui, which triggered a long series of events culminating in the situation today. The uprising was temporarily stalled as peace talks in December set out a power-sharing agreement and a ceasefire, but in early 2013, the fragile peace shattered and the rebels picked up their weapons again. In March, the Séléka managed to overthrow Bozizé and the group's leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president.
Soon after the coup, the rebel insurgency stepped up a campaign of looting and killing. Reports of attacks, burnt villages and killings carried out the Séléka became commonplace. In September 2013, Djotodia formally disbanded the group in an attempt to stop the assaults, but its members continued.
Amidst this insecurity, a rag tag group of local vigilantes, farmers, Christian defence militias, soldiers loyal to Bozizé and others formed so-called anti-balaka forces. These groups clashed with the Séléka and, especially since Djotodia resigned in January 2014, started carrying out horrific reprisal attacks on Muslim populations. Despite the presence of international peacekeepers, anti-balaka forces still continue to launch attacks in various parts of the country.
The CAR has a long history of highly fluid and complex allegiances and enmities encompassing various regional and ethnic dimensions. Under French rule, for example, the colonialists out of ignorance used the term Muslim as a tribal classification and a marker of difference between northerners and southerners, while the country's presidents since independence have largely established patronage networks to privilege their own ethnic groups over their rivals. Given these various overlapping and interweaving dynamics, the CAR's alliances and conflicts have typically shifted and metamorphosed along a number of different lines.
Today, however, it seems that the country's warring militias have become deeply and clearly polarised in terms of religion, with the violence largely being interpreted through a Muslim-Christian perspective. Many of the anti-balaka's attacks specifically seek out Muslims in an attempt to 'cleanse' the region, while in response a Séléka-led group in the north-east is reportedly trying to split the country in two.
This movement was launched shortly after Catherine Samba-Panza took over the presidency in January. Some former rebels headed back to the north-east and formed a secessionist movement, citing the anti-balaka's ruthless purging of Muslims and the historic marginalisation of the region. The group called itself the Mouvement Indépendantiste du Nord Centrafrique (MINCA) and recently declared the establishment of the independent state of North Oubangi, splitting north and south along old colonial lines.
According to some sources, Djotodia and his allies − such army generals Abakar Sabone and Noureddine Adam as well as former Séléka government spokesperson, Crépin Mboli- Goumba − are behind the partition movement. An interim president was declared a few weeks ago, but it remains unclear whether North Oubangi will prove to be sustainable.
Amidst this insecurity and deepening polarisation, the transitional government unveiled a 12-month timetable and roadmap to elections last Friday. The report was presented at International Contact Group (ICG) summit held in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, and was developed by the National Elections Authority (NEA) supported by the UN, European Union and the CAR's African Union-led peacekeeping mission (MISCA). The scheduling of elections is in line with the transitional constitution and a formal announcement with more specific details on the implementation of the roadmap is due to be made early next month.
The way in which the situation in the country has deteriorated and taken on new levels of violence and hatred in just a year is startling, and efforts to disarm and engage combatants in dialogue will need to be successful if the one-year timetable has any hope of being met. Far more importantly, however, they will need to be successful if the CAR's intense animosity is reined in before it tears the nation and its people apart.
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