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Too Little, Too Late: The International Community and Central African Republic

By: Nathanial Sawyer

One group of children, still in their elementary school years, is paraded to the center of the capital where they are brutally maimed and beheaded. Another group watches the ruthless scene with weapons tightly gripped in their hands.[1] They have already been molded by the various violent factions fighting within the country, their malleable minds already sculpted into the killing machines that they have had to become to survive. Meanwhile, sexual violence cases against women are proliferating like wildfire across the country. People are raped as villages are burned and razed while many cases of such violence are occurring within the camps for displaced persons. 

Sadly, these images of inhumane violence and the callous ruthlessness of ethno-religious cleansing are an often repeated trope in human history.

But this is not a history lesson.

“[They] killed everybody. Man, wife, baby. They killed one wife, she was pregnant.” 19-year-old Muslim Ismaela Hibrahim mimes slicing into his stomach with a blade. “Like a surgeon they took out the baby and kill the baby also.”[2]

Welcome to the Central African Republic (CAR), circa April 2014. 

Sectarian violence between competing Muslim and Christian factions in CAR is sweeping across the nation after months of instability have boiled over into a “humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions” complete with scenes of “shocking barbarity, brutality and inhumanity,” reports Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.[3] UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is warning that the religious violence between Muslims and Christians risks a “de-facto partition” in CAR as Christian militias are “waving a revenge cycle of bloodshed” largely in response to abuses by previously ruling Muslim Seleka rebels.[4] The violence, he warns, could “spiral” out of control if the international community fails to respond with swift and credible force. 

While it is difficult to accurately represent the motivations for the current conflict without the insight of specialists, a brief examination of the political conflicts that are certainly a major factor in the current situation is both possible and necessary. (For such an in-depth analysis, please read this article written by Louisa Lombard, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Natural Resource Economics in the department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley.) While it is too simplistic to describe or conceptualize the current conflict in CAR as “sectarian violence” or “religious conflict,” it provides a foundational frame for understanding the basis of the violence: religion has a heavily “politicized” identity in CAR which represents not a monolithic identity but “just one element of a cosmopolitan sense of self.”[5] As such, these terms are used in this article. 

Many argue that the current instability is a product of CAR’s complex historical context as a post-colonial state with artificially drawn borders when the Europeans left, leaving fractured ethnic and religious lines.[6] In CAR, Muslims make up roughly twenty-five percent of the population. In contrast, Catholic and Protestant Christians dominated the government and the army since its independence in 1960, often resulting in violence against Muslims. There was particular Muslim resentment towards the Christian President François Bozizé. 

Bozizé was a former General who claimed CAR through conquest and bloodshed in March 2003. He used mass military violence to take control of the country, suspended the constitution, and rigged elections for the next several years to ensure that he defeated his opponents, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, militarily and politically. Finally, after a 2011 “re-election” and period of authoritarian rule bloated with corruption, a new rebellion, the nearly entirely Muslim Séléka Coalition, successfully overthrew Bozizé and his regime. 

Political reshuffling then occurred within CAR during the years of 2012 and 2013 with political representation favoring those of the Séléka Coalition. The transitional coalition elected Michel Djotodia, the Muslim leader of the Séléka Coalition, as interim president. Djotodia disbanded the Séléka Coalition in September 2014 and promised to not run as a presidential candidate in order to appease political opposition from former Bozizé forces. This olive branch ultimately only served to weaken his regime as militia supporters of the former Bozizé regime rallied with anti-balaka militias to fight Djotodia’s government. The anti-balaka, or Christian and animist rebel coalitions in CAR, are the main drivers of the violence of the current situation and are targeting Muslims within the country and the Séléka government in response to atrocities committed by the Muslim Séléka coalition during its period of rule.[7] 

Although the UN security council passed resolution 2122 in late 2013, mandating, the deployment of peacekeeping forces to CAR, African Union and French peacekeeping troops have failed to effectively halt the violence. With militia groups serving as the de facto rulers of a country in the plunge into lawlessness, Amnesty International announced that the current deployment level of 1,600 French and 5,500 African Union peacekeepers is insufficient to deter continued anti-balaka attacks on Muslim communities, forcible expulsion of Muslims, and the burning of mosques.[8] Peacekeepers are also having great difficulty disarming the militias which is further stalling progress.[9] 

There are other consequences to the escalating violence. Aid agencies are warning of agricultural and economic consequences due to the mass exodus of Muslims who are fleeing the country to Chad and Cameroon to escape the religious violence. With Muslim traders and cattle-herders taking flight, food prices are skyrocketing and local and regional markets are rapidly declining risking “catastrophic famine and economic collapse.”[10]

Additionally, indirect violence plagues the country’s residents and is causing as much death and destruction as the actual killings. Over 400,000 displaced persons are living in Bangui, the capital, in emergency camps, with an additional 400,000 camping out in the rural forests.[11] Doctors Without Borders, one of the only non-governmental organizations present in the conflict, reports that access to basic provisions such as clean drinking water, food, and medical attention are severely lacking.

A report released by UN Secretary General Ki-moon recommended the urgent deployment of 12,000 peacekeepers to CAR to avert a “humanitarian disaster.”[12] Interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, echoed Ki-moon’s calls for more support and assistance from the international community. “Without massive support and assistance from the international community... we will not meet our goal of stabilizing the country and restoring constitutional order within the required timeframe,” Samba-Panza remarked. While the European Union has plans to add 1,000 soldiers to aid African Union forces and France also recently approved an enlargement of their operation to 2,000 soldiers, other nations are still balking on their commitments such as Germany who, though promising logistical support, declined to deploy soldiers. 

The US response has included threats of targeted sanctions against those inciting religious-based violence. “The United States is prepared to consider targeted sanctions against those who further destabilize the situation, or pursue their own selfish ends by abetting or encouraging the violence,” Secretary of State John Kerry indicated in a statement.[13] The US has also provided logistical support for peacekeeping troops by ordering US military aircraft to fly African and European forces to CAR promised up to $101 million to support peacekeeping troops.[14],[15]But these responses are drastically insufficient and miss the boat on how the US can actually make a difference in the CAR. 

First, we need to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and increase our aid proportionately. The US response is suffering from “too little, too late” and our measly commitment to fly the peacekeeping troops of other countries and to provide only $101 million is woefully insufficient given the severity of the situation.[16] While threatening targeted sanctions might let us save political face in the international community, the immediate deterrent effect of targeted sanctions is close to zero. Violent factions in CAR are currently blinded by nationalistic xenophobia and there is no practical manner in which to enforce sanctions.[17] The US should increase the amount of its aid and contribute to the overall peacekeeping presence in both CAR and surrounding countries into which refugees are pouring.[18]

Second, the US should rescind abortion ban conditions from all humanitarian aid to CAR. One of the major consequences of the conflict in CAR is burgeoning violence against women, particularly rape, gang rape, and sexual slavery. Current US policy currently conditions reception and use of US humanitarian aid on a prohibition of their use in abortion services.[19] Worse still, if organizations in CAR do not separate funds from the US from other international donors, then the entire pool of aid falls under American restrictions. The net effect of our current abortion condition policy is thus complicit in the continuation of emotional and physical trauma on the girls and women already abused in the CAR conflict. Our policy results in denial of medical attention and abortions in donor-funded hospitals despite the fact that abortions are legal under CAR law. The US should terminate this policy of enforcing the ideology of some Americans onto others who are outside of the jurisdiction of American law and who clearly disagree with these views on abortion. This would enable current and future levels of US humanitarian aid to CAR to be more effective at helping a particularly traumatized population who is suffering from magnitudes of violence in CAR.

It is clear that the US must do more than it is currently doing to help stop the violence and alleviate the turmoil of thousands of displaced persons. While there are few right answers to such a complex predicament, the above recommendations are just two of many easy starting points at which the US should immediately begin. 


[1] All Africa, “Central African Republic's 'Spiral of Vengeance' Could Undermine Trust Among Communities Far Into Future, Security Council Warned,” January 22, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://allafrica.com/stories/201401230464.html?viewall=1

[2] Gregory Warner, “Jewels Lie Beneath the Violence in the Central African Republic,” National Public Radio, February 27, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/02/21/280734197/jewels-lie-beneath-the-violence-in-the-central-african-republic

[3] United Press International, “Evidence of Mass Graves Found in Central African Republic,” February 13, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2014/02/13/Evidence-of-mass-graves-found-in-Central-African-Republic/UPI-96761392304836/

[4] EuroNews, “France Says ‘Partition’ Must be Prevented in War-Torn Central African Republic,” February 12, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.euronews.com/2014/02/12/france-says-partition-must-be-prevented-in-war-torn-central-african-republic/

[5] Louisa Lombard, “Genocide-Mongering Does Nothing to Help Us Understand the Messy Dynamics of Conflict in the CAR,” January 24, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://africanarguments.org/2014/01/24/genocide-mongering-does-nothing-to-help-us-understand-the-messy-dynamics-of-conflict-in-the-car-by-louisa-lombard/

[6] Dr. Habib Siddiqui, “Letter from America: Central Africa Republic – the New Frontier in Ethno-Religious Cleansing,” Asian Tribune, February 16, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.asiantribune.com/node/71275

[7] Anne Looke, “Who are the Ant-Balaka of the CAR?” Voice of America News, February 18, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.voanews.com/content/cars-anti-balaka/1854082.html

Too Little, Too Late: The International Community and Central African Republic

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