What if thousands had perished at the hands of ruthless militias and no one was there to report it? This seems to be the fate of the Central African Republic (CAR), a nation which has already suffered from eight coups since 1960, and is now poised to endure even more bloodshed. Indeed, whilst the international community remains cautious over the apparent success of the UN intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, across the northern border into the CAR, an even more depressing picture has emerged. In a country which consistently ranks among the least reported nations on earth, there haunts the spectre of genocide, as violence between transitional authorities and rebellious factions, combined with a conflict decidedly religious in nature, shows no signs of closure. The situation in the CAR has become so unbearable, that the French Government recently announced it will deploy more of its forces to the restive African nation. This is a considerable turn of events for President François Hollande, who is already facing severe criticism at home and abroad for his military adventures in Africa.
Nonetheless, Paris appears committed to its latest endeavour to ‘save’ one of its former colonies. Following a new UN Security Council resolution on 10 October 2013, the French Government confirmed that, by 2013, it will ramp up its military presence to a total of 1,200 troops. France is not the only international actor attempting to change the heartbreaking CAR storyline. In addition to French logistical support, transitional authorities in Bangui are also counting on military assistance from Burundi and the neighbouring Cameroon. For its part, the UN has also authorised the expansion of its International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (AFISM-CAR) to a total of 3,600 soldiers by spring of 2014. Hopes that an international military response could end hostilities, however, have given away to a heavy dosage of reality, and – as ever – more questions: what is it that ails the Central African Republic? And can it truly be saved?
A History of Violence
To determine whether foreign intervention will result in progress for the CAR, it is necessary to understand how the current crisis emerged. As it stands, the transitional leadership in Bangui is staring deep into the political and security abyss. Led by interim president Michel Djotodia Am Nondroko, one of the leaders of the five ‘groups within a group’ that make up the now-defunct Séléka rebel coalition, the transitional government is now facing reprisals from forces loyal to the very leadership Djotodia helped depose on 24 March 2013. The situation, however, is far more complex than a simple case of retaliation from those supportive of former president François Bozizé Yangouvonda, and those loyal to his successor, Djotodia. Once acting in conjunction with Djotodia and his cause – to unseat Bozizé – the five rebel groups which make up the Séléka movement, including the Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country (CPSK), the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) and the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), have since splintered off and formed their own separate militias. The factioning of the Séléka rebel movement had been noted as early as 14 September 2013, when Djotodia confirmed the organisation had “disolved”. At the time, Djotodia’s comments seemed to invoke a sense of promise that the violent overthrow which began in March 2013 was finally coming to a conclusion. However, those who felt optimistic over the sudden turn of events were probably less than attune to bloody history of the CAR.
Djotodia would later reveal that he had “lost control” of the Séléka movement which he claimed had broken apart, a rather ironic admission, given that the name “Séléka” means “the union of the CPSK-CPJP-UFDR” in Sangho, the primary language spoken in the CAR. Nevertheless, Djotodia noted on 07 November 2013, that when his Séléka forces had first arrived in the capital, Bangui, suddenly “all the jobless, big-time bandits and escapees from prison” had dressed in uniforms and purported to be “Séléka”. The interim leader added: “it is difficult for me because I don’t know who they are. It is hard for me to control them”. Whilst some criticised Djotodia for ‘shifting’ the blame on the Séléka movement’s behaviour – which included, among other dastardly deeds, rape, murder and arson attacks – it became clear that the interim leader underestimated the scale of the violence his former allies would soon conduct. Indeed, what began as a 5,000-strong, largely Muslim force aimed at relinquishing the power of Bozizé – who had likewise been accused of human rights abuses, and had also gained control of Bangui through a military coup – soon devolved into something far more harrowing. To begin with, the size of the northern-based Séléka movement reportedly swelled to over 25,000. Making matters worse, the rebel group also began to attract even more unsavoury elements, including Islamic extremists affiliates from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, before subsequently launching attacks not only against government installations, but also on fellow CAR civilians, particularly those espousing the Christian faith.
This change in strategy – or complete loss thereof – meant that the coup transitioned into a war decidedly religious in nature, and one that now teeters on the brink of genocide. Human rights organisations have noted a steady rise in clashes between Muslims and Christians, with the Muslim minority Séléka-linked fighters specifically turning their attention toward Christian civilians who make up 80% of the country’s population of 4.6 million. Attacks, ranging from outright slaughter, to the raping and pillaging of entire villages have become all too frequent. More recently on 26 October 2013, reports emerged which showed that at least eighteen people were savagely murdered by Séléka affiliates, the youngest victim of whom was believed to have been just two weeks old. Less than two weeks later, on 08 November 2013, Amnesty International released satellite images which further illustrated how desperate the crisis has become. In the photos there lie evidence of arson attacks and other assaults on nearly 500 homes in the northern town of Bouca. Other images, meanwhile, depict thousands of people attempting to flee their homes in the nearby village of Bossangoa. Meanwhile, Djotodia’s inability to confront these horrors, combined with the lack of a cohesive national security system – reports suggest that CAR civilians must rely on just 200 police officers for protection – means that residents are often forced to take matters into their own hands. So far, it the mainly Christian population has done just that, by forming their own local ‘defence’ organisations in the rural regions. However, these ‘defensive’ armed groups have also transformed into more “offensive” structures, with members engaging in tit-for-tat attacks against local, and innocent, minority Muslims. In other words, the March 2013 overthrow of Bozizé has led the CAR down the path of genocide.
The Forgotten Bloodshed
By now, the depressing picture of the CAR is well understood. What remains unclear, however, is what direction the CAR will take next. For their part, the international community, including France, appears to be responding. However, most of the global help currently remains in the hands of human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Médecins San Frontières (MSF) – that is until France and other world powers deploy to country by 2014. But even these efforts have been chastised by critics, who particularly question the motivations behind Paris’ determination to ‘save’ the CAR. In addition to charges of neo-colonialism – France controlled the country until 1958 – are allegations that the European nation is only drawn to the CAR due to its vast resources, including gold, diamonds and uranium. French officials would deny these claims. Nevertheless, the mere accusations against the European nation perhaps belie the true problems facing the CAR. Like many former colonies in central Africa, the CAR is struggling to rid itself of its history of European oppression, whilst simultaneously dealing with the bloody – and potentially genocidal – aftermath. And also like many countries in Africa, the world does not seem to notice.