There has been a steady stream of news from the Central African Republic (CAR) in recent months, at least if you know to look for it. Having some experience of the country, I’ve been asked a few times for my thoughts on the situation, which frankly has been dwarfed by the amount of attention paid to conflict situations such as Mali, South Sudan, and even the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The latest conflict in this little-known nation has raged since late December 2012, rocking the capital, Bangui, and the country more generally with devastating violence. From June 2009 to May 2011, I travelled to the Central African Republic four times, mostly to the western region in and around the capital, Bangui, but also to Obo, in the country’s remote east. In late 2012, I spent three weeks in Obo and Bangui, leaving just prior to the outbreak of violence. I have worked for two different NGOs with activities in CAR, one training local journalists to produce FM radio programming on local and international justice issues (including International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutions), and one supporting defection initiatives in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)-affected southeast of the country.
When I first began travelling to CAR, the country was still reeling from its most recent descent into violence. In 2002-2003, former President Ange-Félix Patassé, to fight off a coup attempt by François Bozizé (the man who would become CAR’s president until 2013), called upon his ally from neighbouring DRC, Jean-Pierre Bemba, to help shore up his forces against the challenger. Bemba, a protagonist and rebel leader in the DRC’s bloody second war, complied, crossing the river Ubangui with his troops to come to Patassé’s aid. He and Patassé would be ultimately unsuccessful and Bozizé would succeed in taking power. In the process, however, Bemba’s troops would confine, rape, pillage, and kill civilians in Bangui’s neighbourhoods and outskirts: for these atrocious crimes against humanity and war crimes, Bemba is now in custody at the ICC in The Hague. The trauma of these events was still present when I began to visit CAR, lingering in the air, underpinning the daily lives of the survivors and those who hoped that ICC proceedings against the invader from across the river would bring them some measure of closure and compensation.
CAR’s sad history goes back much further – its story since decolonization in 1960 is one of repeated coups d’état, self-interested leadership, and French military intervention. All this is to say that CAR is no stranger to the worst kind of violence, as recently as just over ten years ago. The events of 2002-2003 were not an anomaly but rather a sadly not-unexpected outcome of a situation in which control of the capital, Bangui, means access to luxury, to French goods flown in regularly on Air France planes, to a lifestyle unheard of elsewhere in the country, where profits from the country’s diamonds and uranium endowments make no visible dent. Rebel groups had held sway in the country’s inaccessible north and northeast for years prior to the 2012 conflict, with government troops and gendarmes routinely committing human rights abuses in an attempt to put down these rebellions. In the southeast, the absence of security provided an ideal refuge for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that for several years has terrorized Obo’s inhabitants, keeping them confined to a security perimeter, both actual and psychological, of no more than 25 km from the town centre at the best of times.
In other words, the March 2013 coup, which brought the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance to power; Seleka atrocities against civilians; and the recent, horrifying development in which Christian anti-balaka groups have engaged in indiscriminate reprisal killings against Muslim civilians (roughly 15% of the population), should not be analysed in isolation of the country’s history. While it is clearly important to debate whether genocide is taking place, so too should we understand the failures of governance and the absence of accountability, both nationally and internationally, that have led the Central Africans to this state of affairs. The precarious peace and tentative development brought about by the advent of the Bozizé regime – seen by the international community as a reformist regime, however foolishly optimistic that may have been – has been shattered by the recent violence. The fragile promise that I witnessed when I visited CAR from 2009 to 2011, the absence of religiously-based hatred, the genuine desire by local people for improved governance and for progress in their country, which seemed to be getting back on its feet – all this has been profoundly altered. This change has much more to do with CAR’s perverse, exploitative, Bangui-centric model of “development” than with any inability of Christians and Muslims to live together in this sparsely populated country of only five million inhabitants.