Ethno-Religious Violence in the Central African Republic

Global Challenges Conflict

Ethno-Religious Violence in the Central African Republic

Posted on: 4th October 2017
Audu Bulama Bukarti
Senior Fellow, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

After a period of relative calm and optimism, the Central African Republic (CAR) has recently witnessed a resurgent bloodbath between armed groups, including the mainly Muslim Seleka insurgents and the largely Christian-cum-animist anti-Balaka mercenaries. To be effective, solutions must not only stop the fighting but also bridge the underlying intercommunal divisions.

The former French colony descended into violence in 2013 when Seleka rebels toppled the country’s president, François Bozizé, a Christian from the south, and installed in his place their leader, Michel Djotodia, a Muslim from the north. This development overturned the long-standing political setup of the CAR, as for the first time since independence in 1960, a force from the predominantly Muslim north held sway in the country. The rebels’ rule was marked by a campaign of executions, indiscriminate killings, rape, looting, and torching of villages belonging to the majority Christians. 

Within a few months, a backlash ensued from the Christian south, which formed a group called anti-Balaka that started as a vigilante group to wrest back power and contain Seleka’s violence. In next to no time, the crisis took on ethno-religious and intercommunal dimensions. The Seleka posed as the defenders of the CAR’s Muslim 15 per cent, while the anti-Balaka presented themselves as the protectors of the Christian and animist 85 per cent. Anti-Balaka, which associated every Muslim with the Seleka, attacked Muslims, looted their properties, and razed their homes. The Seleka responded by maiming non-Muslims and pillaging their properties.

By December 2013, French and African Union (AU) forces had neutralised the Muslim insurgents in the capital, Bangui. Djotodia was forced to resign as president and went into exile. This gave the anti-Balaka, whose initial efforts to take over the capital failed, the upper hand. 

The anti-Balaka’s self-defence quickly evolved into deliberate targeting of civilians. Human Rights Watch reported in February 2014 that the militia had slaughtered Muslim civilians, publicly lynched them, mutilated them, and set their bodies on fire. A UN inquiry revealed in December 2014 that estimates of those killed in the carnage ranged from 3,000 to 6,000 but noted that “such estimates fail to capture the full magnitude of the killings that occurred.” The report also found that by March 2014, over 99 per cent of the Muslims in Bangui had been either killed or forced to flee, while the total Muslim population of the country had dropped to less than 20 per cent of the total. The UN described the situation as “ethnic cleansing.”

In April 2014, the UN Security Council established a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force named MINUSCA, which incorporated the AU and French forces and was mandated to protect civilians and support transition processes. Over two years, the mission made considerable progress in returning peace to the capital and major cities. It took over law and order and helped rebuild the CAR’s shattered security and institutions. It provided logistical and political support to the Bangui National Forum, a national reconciliation committee composed of 700 religious, traditional, political, and civil society leaders. And it supported the transitional government to organise a relatively peaceful presidential election in which Faustin Archange Touadera emerged the winner in spring 2016 and helped form a new government and national assembly.

These developments brought hope for peace and stability to the war-ravaged country. However, there has been a spectacular increase in violence since the last quarter of 2016. This threatens to reverse the gains made and plunge the country into yet another circle of bloodshed. In May 2017, the anti-Balaka militia killed more than 140 people in the remote town of Bangassou. This led to the exit of an estimated 2,750 to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. In June, several people were killed and at least 35 others wounded in the town of Bria a day after 13 of the country’s 14 armed groups had signed a peace accord. In August, six Red Cross volunteers and at least 50 Christians were killed, while 2,000 Muslims were trapped in a church for fear of attack by Christian militias. 

More than 300 people have been killed and 100,000 have been displaced since May. The UN children’s fund, UNICEF, raised alarm over the recent “dramatic increase in violence” in the CAR and the horror children are going through. The UN expressed worry over what it described as “early warning signs of genocide” in the country. 

The latest swell in violence was partly precipitated by the security vacuum created by the recent retrenchment of peacekeeping troops from the country. In October 2016, 2,000 French troops were withdrawn after their mandate expired. Uganda completed the withdrawal of its 2,500 US-backed troops fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army in August 2017. The situation may deteriorate further when MINUSCA’s mandate ends in November 2017. If MINUSCA troops are withdrawn, the security of one of the poorest countries on earth will be left in the hands of a fragile government struggling to establish control over the capital and secure its presence in major towns. The consequences of such a withdrawal would be horrendous. 

Thus, the UN should review, renew, and revamp MINUSCA’s mandate and strengthen it with more manpower and resources to tackle this increasing bloodbath. Future mandates should be based on results and progress on the ground, and missions should pursue the comprehensive disarmament of militiamen and communities. 

But any UN role is likely to be affected by planned cuts by the administration of US President Donald Trump to the financing of the State Department, international aid, and funding for international organisations, including the UN. The US should be mindful of the devastation any budget cuts may cause to fragile states like the CAR, and it is crucial that efforts should go into improving governance. The US must also keep its promise to make MINUSCA an even “more efficient and effective peacekeeping mission.”

Most importantly, the state of affairs in the CAR today is a result of decades, if not centuries, of deep-seated mutual suspicion and enmity between ethnic and religious groups. Children raised as Christians or Muslims are programmed to hate and vilify the other. They grow up almost as different species in the same environment, as they hardly interact. 

While military efforts seek to curb the current violence, the CAR government, the international community, and civil society organisations must take steps to unite future generations. In particular, these actors should encourage tolerance, respect, and understanding by fostering dialogue and interaction, establishing multireligious schools in which Christian and Muslim children study together, and inculcating national unity in schools. Local religious and tribal leaders should be actively engaged in these efforts. 

Improving governance and inclusive development are crucial. The CAR government must accord equal citizenship rights, protection, and opportunities to all citizens, regardless of their religious or tribal affiliations. These steps will contribute to addressing the root causes rather than the symptoms of the crisis and help bring peace and prosperity to the Central African Republic.

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