Thousands of Muslims Are Fleeing Killings in Central African Republic
International peacekeepers cannot prevent exodus of historic proportions
Thousands of threatened Muslims have fled the capital of civil-war ravaged Central African Republic among “jeering crowds,” according to Al Jazeera. More than 2,000 peacekeepers from Europe and Africa proved powerless to prevent the sectarian flight from the city of Bangui—and so has the international community at large.
“We had no possibility to stay on because we had no protection,” one refugee is quoted as saying.
A man who fell from one of the refugee trucks was reportedly beaten to death by the jeering crowd. Journalists witnessed the lynching of a man by members of the army only minutes after the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, held a speech at the same location.
Almost a million people have fled their homes in Central African Republic. That’s 20 percent of the population, making the crisis in CAR comparable to the civil war in Syria.
With more and more mass graves being uncovered, the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened preliminary investigations into atrocities that have taken place since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2013.
It’s an important step, but don’t expect it to limit the violence in the months to come. Thousands of people are fleeing their homes because neither local nor international security forces are able or willing to protect them.
How did things get so bad in Central African Republic?
There’s no simple answer. Some of the conflict’s dynamics are decades old. And violence and insecurity make it difficult for journalists, investigators and aid workers to observe events in much of the country.
But we can name some names.
Central African Republic suffers chronic instability. Since its independence, democratic changes in government have been the exception. Violent regime change is the rule.
Even after the country’s last civil war officially ended in 2012, the government never regained full control. Former colonial power France meddled continuously in CAR’s internal affairs, installing and ousting presidents at will even as Paris’ interests in the country waned owing to the fall of uranium prices after the Fukushima catastrophe.
CAR is a major uranium supplier.
The country’s last full president, Francois Bozizé, was so bad that his ouster by northern rebels in 2013 arguably could have been a welcome event. But the rebels proved to be even more incompetent and violent.
The media generally portray the conflict as a religious one, but Christians and Muslims in CAR traditionally get along far better than, say, the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in Rwanda did before the genocide in that country.
It wasn’t inevitable that CAR would descend into sectarian violence. Many of the rebels that captured Bangui in 2013 were Muslims. If they had made an effort to re-establish a functioning government and working security apparatus, some of the country’s Christians—who have dominated politics since independence—might have grumbled but consented.
Instead, the forces of the Séléka rebel coalition went on a rampage of killing and looting. This in turn led to the creation of the anti-balakas, local self-defense militias that are now responsible for much of the violence against civilian Muslims.
Saying ‘never again’ solves nothing
The crisis has its roots in bad decisions by CAR’s government and rebels, as well as by France and, to no small extent, neighboring Chad—which has tried to take advantage of France’s waning interest in CAR to establish itself as regional power by supporting Séléka.
But the entire international community—from CAR’s neighbors to the African Union and the United Nations—share the blame for letting the situation escalate.
While some African peacekeepers were already inside the country when the rebels took Bangui, they showed neither the interest nor the ability to stop the unfolding crisis.
France, the Western power with the historical responsibility as well as military capability to actually do something, behaved like the problem would go away on its own.
After U.N. officials started using the word “genocide” in connection with the killings in CAR, the world body sent more peacekeepers alongside a small deployment of French troops.
Ex-Séléka commander Michel Djotodia, who had replaced Bozizé as president, was forced out. Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian, businesswoman and women’s rights activist, replaced him.
But at no point did the international community mustered the strength to control much more than Bangui’s international airport, certain government buildings and convoys entering the country from neighboring Cameroon.
Some effort was made in the capital to disarm the populace, especially after a contingent of Rwandan peacekeepers arrived. But this did little to restore order.
Nobody even knows what’s going on in large parts of the rest of the country, even though some stories have surfaced of brave individuals sheltering Muslims or Christians from their persecutors.
What way forward?
The violence in Central African Republic can accurately be described as “ethnic cleansing.” Nobody has the resources to stop it, merely to manage it in certain locations. Like the Chadian soldiers guarding the convoy of Muslims leaving Bangui.
Some of these people will go to Chad. But many Muslims will remain, especially in the north. There’s a real risk that the current conflict could come to define internal politics for decades to come, with grievances becoming the main ingredient for renewed outbreaks of violence.
International forces must restore order before any political process can begin to pick up the pieces of Central African Republic. But it’s not even clear that the country can produce a functioning government.
South Sudan, for one, just demonstrated the danger of putting too much faith in weak political institutions. Conflicts between that country’s political elite have led to a full-on civil war.
Maybe the international community should establish a stewardship government for Central African Republic. These externally-managed regimes do not guarantee success, as the British stewardship over Israel and Palestine aptly demonstrated. Care should be taken to limit the role of bad actors, particularly France and Chad.
But really, how much worse could an African Union- or U.N.-mandated administration be compared to what’s going on today?