The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has deep roots, but in its current form can be traced to the coup in March 2013 that removed President Françoise Bozizé from power. The coup was led by the Séléka from the northeast of the CAR, a predominantly Muslim region; President Bozizé is Christian, as is 71 per cent of the Central African population. (Read our backgrounder "What is the Séléka?" for more on the group.) While communities across the country were normally mixed, the north is predominantly Muslim, the south predominantly Christian.
The origins of Antibalaka militias date back to before the 2013 coup. In 2009, President Bozizé, unable to ensure security throughout the CAR, established loosely organised village self-protection groups that would combat bandits and other sources of insecurity on a local level.
These groups took on the moniker 'Antibalaka.' This is a created name in Sango, a local language, deriving from a mixture of 'anti-machete' and 'anti-AK' (referring to the AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle). The name implies power over machetes and guns. An assortment of charms, disguises, and trophies (often called "gris-gris") worn by the fighters are meant to provide immunity to the weapons of the enemy, a product of animist beliefs and practices that remain embedded in religious traditions in the country.
Fighters joined the Antibalaka not because of their faith but for revenge.
Following the March 2013 coup, Séléka fighters spread across the country. A Séléka commander, Michel Djotodia, was installed as the new president, but the government in the capital, Bangui, quickly lost control of Séléka fighters. They attacked villages, sometimes murdering entire families, burned crops and looted vehicles. "Just think the four horsemen of the apocalypse," Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch said, "and you'll have the picture. People really hated [the Séléka]. That's what got the Antibalaka going."
The Antibalaka began fighting in earnest in September 2013. Their numbers augmented over the summer by former members of the national army, which had been disbanded in the aftermath of the March coup. Former soldiers trained the vigilante-style community fighters and coordinated their movements. The experience and authority of the former soldiers was instrumental in the militias' growing momentum, and they took over Bangui on 5 December 2013.
The membership of the Antibalaka, reflecting the demography of the southwest CAR, is mostly Christian. However, most fighters joined the Antibalaka not because of their faith but for revenge, or because there was no other avenue for survival. Even so, in the fighting, the Antibalaka militias turned against not only Séléka fighters, but also Muslims living in the capital and south and west regions of the CAR with whom they had lived side-by-side for generations.
The Antibalaka militants justified their atrocities with reference to the violence many faced from the Séléka following the March 2013 coup. When the Antibalaka succeeded in removing the Séléka and President Djotodia from Bangui, many expected a heroes' welcome, compensation, and possibly integration into a reformed national army.
Reflecting the individualistic development of Antibalaka militias, there is no overarching ideology for the movement beyond an undefined desire for survival and revenge. This is informed not only by the violence wrought by the Séléka, but also from underlying resentments predating the current crisis. Muslim and Christian relations in the country since independence have largely been harmonious: towns and villages were mixed, mosques and churches often shared the same street, intermarriage was common, but deep suspicion and antagonism sometimes brewed beneath the surface.
From the 17th to the early 20th centuries, Arab Muslim slave raiders from the Sahara preyed on communities in what is now the CAR. Memories of the raids remain embedded at a community level. The advance of the Séléka and subsequent atrocities brought those memories to the surface.
In addition, while Muslims in the region have historically largely been semi-nomadic cattle herders, there has been a minority of Muslims among the population for generations. The current statistics state that Muslims make up 14 per cent of the population. As the Sahara desert expands south, increasing the desertification of the Sahel, these communities push against more sedentary, agriculture-based, communities that are traditionally Christian and animist, sowing resource-based economic tensions.
Simultaneously, as nomadic herding became less viable, Muslims became traders and shop owners. At the time of the 2013 coup Muslims controlled much of the CAR's rudimentary financial system. Resentments that Muslims 'owned' the Central African economy were on the rise before the current crisis. These tensions provided a foundation to the violence sparked by the Séléka's rampage through the country after their coup.
Religious leaders have been the strongest voices of peace throughout the conflict.
Some Antibalaka fighters claim to fight for the protection of Central African Christians, but religious leaders have denied such claims. There are many testimonies of religious leaders and their communities sheltering from fighters of both sides within the sanctuary of the other's place of worship. While the conflict has developed along religious fault lines, these roughly coincide with cultural and economic divisions, and build on a legacy of a predatory, neglectful state and disenfranchised, impoverished population. Indeed religious leaders have been the strongest voices of peace throughout the conflict. Across religious lines they continue to work on a communal and national level for the cessation of hostilities, disarmament, and reconciliation.
The seizure of Bangui by Antibalaka militias on 5 December 2013 represented a reversal of power structures in the conflict. Throughout the south and west of the CAR, Antibalaka rule replaced that of the Séléka. The Antibalaka began a systematic cleansing of Muslim communities. As the Séléka had done, the Antibalaka concentrated on 'soft targets,' attacking civilians and communities known or perceived to be connected to the Séléka.
Many Antibalaka expected a heroes' welcome, compensation, and integration into the national army.
The national transitional government installed in January 2014 lacks the capacity, experience, or authority to expand its rule beyond Bangui and emphasised preparations for the national elections, which took place in December 2015, alongside calls for peace and disarmament. When Antibalaka demands for compensation for 'liberating' the CAR were not met, militia members began setting up roadblocks to extort money. Kidnap-for-ransom became common; often the victims were Christians. Muslims were more likely to be killed than held for ransom. Towns, mines, and other resource channels including logging and poaching that had been seized by the Séléka now came under the control of Antibalaka militias. Some Antibalaka spokespeople claim to be setting up political parties to advocate their demands and interests. It is unclear how organised or sustainable these initiatives will be.
Meanwhile, atrocities continued to be committed against Central African Muslims; there were multiple reports of cannibalism, women and children were slaughtered, parents turned against children married to Muslims, people were tied together and thrown into rivers to drown, pulled off convoys as they fled and hacked to death. Humanitarian representatives began speaking of the "seeds of genocide." Following the 2014 killing spree that caused thousands of Muslims to flee to western CAR, Antibalaka militias are now reportedly repressing the religious identity of the hundreds of Muslims who returned or remained.
A key challenge for the newly elected leader, Faustin Archange Touadera, includes facing the Antibalaka combatants that still control parts of the country where the state has virtually no presence. The government will need to disarm and reintegrate these combatants. To do so, the government must show the willingness and ability to engage with all former Séléka and Antibalaka factions.
The efforts of international troops in the country since a UN mission, MINUSCA, was deployed in September 2014, have had a marginal impact on the violence. Fighters cannot be disarmed unless all sides lay down their arms simultaneously. As politicians focus on reinforcing their own power bases and enticing international funding, their legitimacy at home erodes and sporadic violence continues. Until peace can be guaranteed by neutral forces, disarmament will likely mean death; so long as violence remains the first reaction, trust cannot be built.