Tentative good news from the Central African Republic

By one measure, the Central African Republic has been tearing itself apart for well over two years now. In August 2012 a faction of the country’s largest Islamic militia, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace, joined forces with a number of other Islamic rebel groups, and the combined group, calling itself the Séléka (“coalition” in Sango), began a campaign against the forces of the CAR army and the other faction of the CPJP. Despite the involvement on the government’s side of troops from neighboring Chad (though Chadian paramilitary groups likely aided the rebels) and two multinational groups (the Multinational Force for Central Africa and the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic), and despite an attempted ceasefire/power-sharing agreement between the government and the rebels that came together and fell apart in January 2013, in March the Séléka forces captured CAR’s capital, Bangui, and forced President François Bozizé into exile in first the Democratic Republic of Congo, and then Benin.

The rebels installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, as the new president of the country, but his stint in the big chair was doomed pretty much from the start. Because he came to power in a coup, most of CAR’s neighbors refused to recognize him as anything more than the leader of a transitional administration that would shepherd the country through quick elections. But Djotodia, having come to power at the head of an armed Islamic uprising that had committed multiple atrocities in the process, in a nation that’s about 4/5 Christian and ~10% animist, wasn’t going to win those elections, so he declared that the “transitional period” would take three years. As a gesture of good faith, I guess, he declared that the Séléka militia would disband.

Welp, it turns out that this satisfied nobody. Most Central Africans, while they were willing to accept Djotodia as the head of the transition, seeing as how his men controlled the capital, weren’t prepared to be governed by this guy for three years, and meanwhile the Séléka essentially told him to go pound sand and not only didn’t disband, but kept on carrying out attacks against the country’s non-Muslim population. In response, a number of Christian and animist militias began to form, called “anti-balaka,” or “anti-machete,” due to their opposition to the Séléka and its favorite weapon. These militias formed first to defend their communities against the Séléka, but quickly got turned on to the idea that they could carry out raids of their own, reprisal attacks against Muslim communities.

Djotodia was hopelessly overmatched trying to control a nation that was descending into total chaos, so in January 2014 he stepped down, replaced by the mayor of Bangui, Catherin Samba-Panza, who had no connection to the previous fighting and was seen as a compromise pick. Unfortunately the fighting has continued essentially unabated, with international observers warning of impending genocide and of the possibility that the country will be irreparably divided between its Christian and Muslim zones (Central African Muslims are mostly concentrated in the north of the country. Even the presence of a UN peacekeeping force, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (no, seriously), or MINUSCA (after the French Mission multidimensionnelle…well, just take my word for it), which deployed starting last April and became fully operational in September, hasn’t been able to stop the violence. To date, well over 5000 people have been killed in the conflict, and the UNHCR says that over 425,000 refugees have fled the fighting, with probably hundreds of thousands of others internally displaced. It’s a very bad situation, maybe the worst (in terms of pure human suffering) ongoing conflict in the world right now outside Syria.

Map of the Central African Republic showing the areas controlled by the Seleka (via)
Map of the Central African Republic showing the areas controlled by the Séléka (via)

By another measure, the crisis in CAR has actually been going on for over a decade. The current fighting stems directly out of the Central African Republic Bush War, which took place between 2004 and 2007 but wasn’t really settled until 2012 (in fact the splinter group of the CPJP that helped start the current fighting splintered precisely over the CPJP’s decision to sign a treaty with the government in 2012 and formally end the fighting). That war broke out after Bozizé, at the head of his own rebel army, had marched into Bangui and installed himself as president in 2003. The Islamic Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, led by Djotodia, rebelled almost immediately. The CPJP was one of the militias in the union. Hundreds were killed in this first phase of the conflict and many thousands more displaced. Oh, and if all this wasn’t horrible enough, we shouldn’t forget to mention the Lord’s Resistance Army led by professional serial killer Joseph Kony, which has been operating in parts of the CAR for years now, and whose freedom to commit atrocities has only been enhanced as the country’s institutions have further decayed.

While it’s easy to categorize this fighting as another example of religiously-driven violence between Muslims and Christians, it’s really rooted in decades of weak and/or corrupt governance that has ignored Muslims in the north when it wasn’t outright mistreating them. It’s about people (Muslim, Christian, and other) suffering under tremendous economic deprivation and turning to violence against their neighbors as the only way to provide for themselves and their communities. And it’s about Bozizé, whose coup in 2003 ended what had been a relatively peaceful stretch for the embattled nation.

Anyway, this is all prelude to the announcement yesterday that Séléka and anti-balaka leaders have reached an agreement to stop the fighting. This isn’t the first ceasefire that has been negotiated in the course of the fighting, so it’s far from a sure thing that this one will actually hold up, but any relief for the people caught up in the fighting has to be welcome, right? Interestingly, this ceasefire seems to come with what one official in Kenya (where the talks were being held) called a “Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration agreement.” When the previous ceasefire deal was reached, in July, there was a lot of talk about partitioning the country either formally or informally, so the idea of “reintegration” is interesting. It means reintegrating the militia fighters into everyday society, but it will also have to mean a reintegration of the entire country if the ceasefire is to sustain itself.

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