THE ROLE OF ISLAM IN CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC'S CRISIS
Revenges, rapes, violence, banditism, mass arrests, killings covered by impunity, punitive raids, looting and pillaging even in neighboring Cameroon. All of these are part of the current conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), where even the tragedy of child soldiers has re-emerged. There are no exact figures on the number of victims of this sort of civil war between a central government and rebel groups. Those displaced - at least those officially registered by humanitarian organizations - amount to 500 thousand people in a country of 5 million inhabitants. 60 thousand are the refugees that have fled in neighboring countries. A boundless humanitarian disaster that, as often happens for Africa, has not struck a chord with international public opinion.
The crisis began in March 2013 when the Seleka rebellion (Seleka in the local Bantu dialect, the Sango, means "alliance") took over the country and ousted by force the dictator at the time, president François Bozize'. The military campaign that lead the rebels into the capital Bangui had begun on December 10 2012. Coming from the north of the country, the rebels installed Michel Djotodia as an interim president or rather, as he puts it, "transitional head of state". The Constitution was suspended and the Seleka militias were to be dissolved, but this did not occur.
There is always a good reason for a coup d'etat in the Central African Republic, a country with a long history of dictators who have taken turns at the helm of CAR ever since independence from France in 1960: David Dacko, replaced by his famous cousin - known for his ruthlessness and crimes, and for his unlimited narcissism - the self-proclaimed emperor Jean Bede'l Bokassa, followed by Dacko once more, then by Ange-Felix Patasse' (supported by Khadafi) and finally replaced by François Bozize' in 2003.
The motive leading the Seleka rebels to take over power was not the thirst for social justice or democracy. The putsch was the nth upheaval caused by the natural replacement of one dictator with the next one. This time around though - and this is the worrying bit - there was a religious twist to the saga, something lacking before. Interim president Djotodia is a muslim from the north of CAR.
The Seleka militias comprised people from Darfur, Chadians and Sudanese, most of whom had been living as refugees in CAR for decades. A sort of international brigade whose fighters did not even speak the national language of the Central African Republic: Sango. The only thing they had in common was their religion: the majority of the combatants were muslim in a country where they represent a minority (around 15% of the population against 50/60% of christians).
In a country that had never faced any religious conflict, the Selekas have been responsible of igniting sectarian violence. They were around 3-4 thousand when they began their advance in the north and over 25 thousand rebels entered Bangui only a few months later. Was this a show of support from the people of CAR? Not necessarily because revolutions in Africa often enable the winners to reap the benefits in terms of pillages and rapes.
The "international" nature of these militias and they deployment in the north of the country fuel the hypothesis they could have been supported by the president of Chad, Idriss Deby. A longtime dictator himself, Deby has always played a key role in CAR's internal affairs since his rise to power in 1990. It is probably not a coincidence that the rebellion lead by the Selekas burst following the deterioration of the relationship between De'by and Bozize', whose rise to the presidency had been sponsored by his Chadian counterpart.
At the end of 2012,
François Bozize's presidential guard, composed of
Chadian praetorians, was withdrawn and some CAR
opposition members held in N'Djamena's jails were
released. Then, suddenly, a rebel group popped out
of nowhere with plenty of weapons and resources
that enabled it to conquer the whole of the
Central African Republic within a few months.
The history of CAR isn't any different from the chronicles of abuses, dictatorships, human rights violations, interference and neocolonialism that are abundant in Africa. This is yet another African story ignored by international public opinion and neglected to the point that no one is involved in avoiding the risk of a religious-based genocide.
And if the international community is missing, the former French colonial power fills the void. The UN's shy attempts and the intervention of an African contingent - as usual scarcely incisive - have provided Paris the opportunity to send its own troops on the ground. The Security Council's Resolution 2121 approved in October 2013 has given the green light to the French intervention aimed not at re-installing democracy - which did not exist, nor ever existed before - but rather at re-affirming Paris' paternal role when it comes to its former colonies (take Mali for instance). In the background are economic and strategic interests that have led France first to side with the Seleka rebellion to oust president Bozize' (it is always convenient to climb on the bandwagon), and then to switch sides in the aftermath of the ethnic and religious cleansing forcing interim president Michel Djotodia to step down and go into exile on January 10 2014.
Operation "Sangaris", as the French intervention in Bangui has been labelled, is also the result of the constant military activism animating French foreign policy when it comes to Africa. Over the last couple of years, Paris has sent troops in Mali (operation "Serval" in February 2013), Ivory Coast (since over a decade) and has been at the forefront of the military intervention to topple Muammar Khadafi in Libya. CAR is plentiful of raw materials (gold, uranium, diamonds), rich public contracts to be awarded to friendly countries and host to a strategic permanent French military presence.
The policy of the interests has had to take into account the abuses perpetrated on the ground, both those committed by Bozize' and by the Seleka, and the risk of having to employ - whether rightfully or not - the "G" word so feared by Bill Clinton during the Rwanda slaughter: genocide. Churches and mosques have been targeted in CAR. On December 5 2013, for instance, 105 people were killed during a reprisal attack on Bangui's central mosque amid growing tensions between christians and muslims.
On one side are the so-called "self-defense groups", made up of christians and also known as "anti-balaka" (literally anti-machete), a reference to the weapons used by the Seleka. If now the French are disarming the Selaka militias, the risk is that the new balance of power could lead to a hunting down of muslims. It would also be interesting to find out how these "anti-balaka" groups suddenly received weapons and military training. This is yet another hint that there are greater interests at stake and concealed players at work over the Central African Republic.
The evolution of Islam
The history of CAR is associated with the name of a christian priest, Barthelemy Boganda, that managed to peacefully rally the people of his country together and obtain independence in 1960. He was not CAR's first president because he died in a plane crash whose causes have never been thoroughly investigated. Islam, on the other hand, has never played any political role in the Central African Republic, nor has it ever been a source of conflict. Muslim minorities originate from the migration of islamic tribes coming from neighboring areas.
In CAR's complex ethnic structure, Bantu tribes - 80 of them across the country - are largely dominant: the Baya in the south-west (32% of then population), the Mandja (21%) in the center-west, the Banda (27%) in the center-east after having fled muslim persecution in Darfur, the Azande in the east coming from Congo and Sudan, the Sara (10%) originating from Chad and the Sango living along the banks of the Ubangui river. The majority of these people are either christian and/or animist. Only the Fulbe and Bororo (or Mbarara) minorities in the north and north-west of the country are muslims and have imported Islam in CAR together with the Hausa populations living in most of West Africa.
Islam in the Central African Republic has never had a great following also because it was traditionally associated with slave trade, flourishing in the hands of the Arabs. And not even Libya's influence during the Patasse' presidency was able to overturn this religious trend. Nonetheless, even though a minority, the Central African muslims - and especially the pastoralist and nomadic Bororo tribes - are considered to be wealthy. This has fueled, over the years, a resentment among the other fellow tribes and has seldom been the source of tensions.
Over the last few years, some provinces in the north of CAR have witnessed attacks against christian clergy. But these were isolated incidents. But now the Bororo have filled the ranks of the Seleka and have taken along their grudge against president François Bozize', whom they deem responsible for the growing instability that has affected their regions of origin.
The ethnic factor and the dangers of a genocide
Besides from religion, there is also an ethnic element at stake. The fight between Ange-Felix Patasse' and François Bozize' has never been on religious grounds - both are christians - but on tribal ones. The first one is a Baya, while Bozize' belongs to the Yakoma minority. The Yakomas have traditionally had a strong presence in the Armed Forces and have been persecuted following Bozize's dismissal from Chief of Staffs in 2001. Mass graves were found by journalists of a catholic radio station, "Radio Notre Dame", leading to the arrest of its editor, a priest.
Michel Djotodia was instead a Gula, a muslim people from the north of CAR. The risk the Central African Republic now faces is that the resignation of the interim president could not be enough to bring the christian and muslim communities back on track. The fact that people started fighting in the streets across the country is symptomatic of a degenerating scenario. At a wider glance, the fight between muslims and christians is very similar to the war waged by Boko Haram (aka Jamaat Ahi al Sunna li Da’ wat al Jihad) in neighboring Nigeria. And this is not a good sign.