A Rebel’s Grenade Joyride Led to Awful Violence in Central African Republic
Rebels and militias rampage right under peacekeepers’ noses
Nobody could claim that the Central African Republic was at peace before Oct. 7. There was low-intensity conflict throughout the country, mostly out of sight of the international media. But at least in the capital Bangui some semblance of calm prevailed, seemingly enforced by thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and French troops.
But the illusion shattered even in Bangui on Oct. 7, when a member of the Seleka rebel group, whose rebellion in 2012 sent the country into chaos, left the base where he and about 1,000 of his comrades were stationed as part of a tentative peace deal … and went on a grenade joyride.
Except for the base and one part of the city where the remnants of the Muslim population hold out, Bangui is under the control of Christian Anti-Balaka militias, ad hoc groups that formed in response to Seleka violence and succeeded in ousting the rebels from power last year.
Militia fighters spotted the Seleka fighter taking a taxi through town, leading to a hot pursuit. The rebel tried to ward off his persecutors with grenades—but succeeded only in killing innocent bystanders. The militia caught the Seleka man, lynched him and later delivered his mutilated body to a Muslim neighborhood called PK5.
The incident led to a series of mutual revenge killings, until finally Anti-Balaka elements shut down the city in a coordinated attack, occupying and blockading all main streets.
International forces mostly looked on helplessly, limited to securing PK5 from an outright invasion and protecting the international airport and select government offices of the administration of interim president Catherine Samba-Panza.
But even this limited action cost them dearly. Suspected Anti-Balaka fighters ambushed a U.N. convoy on Oct. 16. A Pakistani peacekeeper was killed and six others injured.
Show of force
The fighting has abated since Oct. 12, but at least 14 people are dead. It’s unclear whether the outbreak of violence was calculated, but in any case it was a successful show of force for the Anti-Balaka movement. Its leaders even went as far as demanding that Samba-Panza step down as president.
She could only hold on to her office because of the support and protection of international troops, who in turn were unable to stop the escalation of violence in the capital.
And while Samba-Panza is still in office, the Anti-Balaka extracted other concessions. The government agreed to release imprisoned members of the movement—a slap in the face of the victims of religious cleansing that killed thousands and displaced millions.
And there have been reports that members of the Central African armed forces colluded with the Anti-Balaka. Both the army and the militia are politically aligned with CAR’s former president Francois Bozizé, who was ousted by the Seleka rebellion and is now in exile in France.
It looks like his supporters are testing the waters to see if they can return him to power.
No plan for peace
Neither the Seleka—which continues to control the northern part of the country—nor the Anti-Balaka seem to have any plan to end the fighting. The interim government is powerless. It has neither the money, nor the institutional or military strength to be anything more than an extremely weak mediator—more a pawn than an independent actor.
For its part, the international community has neither the means, nor the inclination to enforce a political settlement. There is little left for foreign forces to do but manage the fallout of the conflict and protect lives as best as they can.
Especially because France, the most potent military force in the country, wants to concentrate on fighting terrorists in the Sahel region farther north, rather than get bogged down in a complex civil war in Central Africa.
There is only one possible silver lining. Originally, the Anti-Balaka were an extremely disparate collection of individual groups. Now their capacity for coordinated attacks indicates that at least in Bangui, militia leadership is consolidating control.
While this makes the movement more dangerous strategically, it also allows mediators to identify suitable representatives and leaders for negotiations, increasing the chances of a political solution to the crisis … in the long run.