Sectarian Violence Flares Up Again in CAR
Sectarian strife in CAR
NEW DELHI: Fresh fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) has aggravated the humanitarian situation across the country, UN officials have warned. At a press briefing held at UN headquarters in Geneva, Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that despite the lack of media interest in the CAR crisis, the displacement of people was still being considered a “massive humanitarian emergency,” with 410,000 people displaced overall.
The flare-up in violence has also heightened the level of insecurity faced by both civilians and humanitarian workers on the ground, Laerke noted, citing a reported 19 incidents of targeted attacks against aid workers since the beginning of 2014.
Thousands of people are estimated to have been killed in CAR, and 2.2 million need humanitarian aid in a conflict which erupted when mainly Muslim Séléka rebels launched attacks in December 2012. The violence has since taken on increasingly sectarian overtones.
The crisis originated within the context of anti-government resentment as Seleka rebels ousted then President Francois Bozize in March 2013, accusing him of reneging on a peace deal that would have resulted in a unity government led by Bozize.
The violence originated in the north east, from where Seleka rebels spread, eventually seizing Bangui, resulting in Bozize fleeing to Cameroon. As all things religious, the trouble is not owing to primordial religious affinities, but a competition for power and resources. The majority of CAR’s population is Christian, as was Bozize, whereas a majority of Seleka rebel forces, including Seleka leader Michel Djotodia who served as the country’s transitional president until 10 January 2014, are Muslim.
The Seleka rebel movement originated in years of marginalisation and discrimination against the northern, predominantly Muslim, population. With the Seleka capturing power, the groups hitting back were largely Christian, leading to a sectarian character to the conflict.
The nature of CAR’s independence can be linked to ongoing instability in the region. Like other regions in Africa, nationhood was fairly arbitrary, drawn by colonial powers on a map culminating in a transfer of power after years of exploitation. In the absence of national identity, people clung to another sense of identity - religious. This, coupled with underdevelopment and a competition over resources, culminated in a power struggle along religious or sectarian lines.
A vicious cycle of reprisal has led to the perpetuation of violence. With the Seleka establishing control, Christians groups organised themselves into militias, and capitalising on the weakness of state machinery, including the army, went on a rampage killing, torturing, raping and looting, especially targeting Muslims in the country’s north west. These loosely organised forces are known as “anti-balaka” militia (“machete proof” in Sango). A December 2013 attack by the anti-balaka on Bangui led to an explosion of violence.
Since the resignation of President Djotodia in January 2014, the situation has changed significantly. Seleka forces began to withdraw from their outposts across the country, with anti-Balaka militia moving in and spearheading violent attacks against the area’s Muslims. Amnesty International states the following, “[Anti-Balaka forces] killed many hundreds of Muslim civilians, sometimes in large-scale massacres, looted Muslim homes and shops, and burned and destroyed mosques. Among their victims were women and young children; in some cases entire families were killed. Their stated goal was to rid the country of Muslims forever.”
Anti-balaka forces are now the main perpetrators of the violence, with Seleka forces retreating to the north, where they too continue to commit serious abuses in the territory under their control.
Recent months have seen the worst violence in the crisis, with a “massive ethnic cleansing” involving a forced exodus of tens of thousands of Muslim civilians to neighbouring countries. This displaced population lives mainly in makeshift camps under dire conditions. The few Muslims who remain in CAR are concentrated in the western part of the country, and are nearly all displaced and waiting for evacuation.
The situation is so grave that UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned that hatred between Christians and Muslims in CAR had reached a "terrifying level," and the UN warned that the “seeds of a genocide are being sown.”