Since 2012, a civil war has engulfed a country, fragmenting it along religious lines.
The country is not new to conflict, an unfortunately frequent occurrence since emerging from European colonization in the 20th century. This country is not Syria: it’s the Central African Republic (CAR). A landlocked country in central western Africa, the modern borders are fairly nascent to the area which has fossils indicating an 8,000 year history of human activity. Not much is known about the area until Arab slave traders went there to capture humans in the 17th century. The current country became a de facto French colony in 1887, and a “legal” one in 1903. Encompassed in these new borders were four ethnicities each representing over 10% of the population, and two dominating religions. Fast forward 110 years from the original colonial charter and the country was descending into a familiar pattern of chaos. A civil war has erupted; the ensuing chaos has seen a failed state emerge, ethnic cleansing campaigns undertaken from militias of different religious factions, and the displacement of one quarter of the population. This article will explore how the country descended from decolonization to autocracy and war, attempt to explain the current picture on the ground in the CAR today, and ask why while the US has poured billions into Middle Eastern wars in the past decades, it has shown little interest in meddling in this humanitarian crisis.
The CAR emerged from colonization in 1958 with some French rail networks, schools, and hospitals, and a looming power vacuum. Its first leader, the popular Catholic priest Barthelemy Boganda, died in a 1959 plane crash, to be replaced by his cousin David Dacko as the country’s first president in 1960. A 1966 coup gave way to an authoritarian military government which abolished the constitution and made Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa emperor. 1979 saw David Dacko come to power through a French-backed coup; however, his unpopular reliance on the French for economic support lead to yet another coup in 1981, and an ensuing junta government. This sad story could be seen as pre-written; it is nearly impossible to revitalize an economy which has been ruled by warlords, yet it is easy for warlords to profit off minerals in the countryside if no strong, central government exists to enforce laws across the land. This exact dilemma is what faced Ange-Felix Patasse– the country’s first elected leader in decades– in 1991. With little foreign aid to jump-start the bankrupt country’s coffers, the economy continued to sputter, and General Francois Bozize led yet another coup in 2003. In addition to the domestic turmoil of these years, rebels from the ongoing genocide in Darfur came in from Sudan from the east, while Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army began infiltrating the country with arms from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the south; the LRA is still leading raids to this day. These factors summed to complete bloodshed.
Though today 14 rebel groups control roughly 75% of the country, there are two especially worth knowing from the beginning: the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka. In 2012, the Seleka militia was formed by the Muslim minority in the country’s northeast in response to the burning of a mosque in the capital of Bangui, and an accused reliance on French troops by the Christian Francois Bozie. Despite signing a treaty, the Seleka would eventually march on the capital and install a Muslim head of state. Though technically dissolved in September of 2013, members of the group formed the ex-Seleka, which has been accused of using child soldiers as young as 13 as it would commit countless atrocities pillaging Christian villages. In response to this arguable ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Seleka, the country’s Christian majority formed the Anti-Balaka militia. Despite its name roughly translating to anti AK (47) or anti machete, the Anti Balaka committed as many atrocities as the Seleka. Accused of lynching, beheading, and burning Muslims alive, forced conversions, and an ethnic cleansing campaign of their own, the Seleka, and the carnage they further cascaded the country into, led to the deployment by the UN Security Council of a peace force in 2014. The reason: fear of genocide. Disastrously, even the peacekeeping force is mired in controversy: many of the UN troops deployed in the CAR are from Burundi, and some posit their salaries help fund the authoritarian government in their home state. Further, there are accusations of rape and malpractice by these international troops. More than half of the CAR needs urgent humanitarian aid (2.5 million people), and over 20% of the country has been displaced (600 thousand people). To put that in perspective, this more than equivalent to the entire populations of Texas and California having to flee their homes.
Reasons No Resolution may be Imminent
Rebel factions do not seem to have much incentive to stop their fighting, and a lack of global desire to see this end may fuel this conflict to last for many more years. This is just as much a fight over resources as it is over religion; the country perhaps exhibits inflicted traits of the infamous “resource curse” as it was the world’s 10th largest diamond producer before the war. Today, rebel groups like the FPRC have set up mining brigades, where local children create wealth for militias instead of knowledge for their brains in schools. This setting seems more than acceptable to rebel leaders. Muhammat Said, a senior FPRC General, told Vice news “He who wants peace, must prepare for war,” a bellicose statement that seems far from dovish.
While the election of Faustin-Archange Touadéra in 2016 presented some hope, the circumstances are too fraught with disaster for him to overcome alone. For one, turnout was incredibly low, with rebel groups and the areas they controlled boycotting the election. More importantly, the two core programs Touadéra’s government has created to see an end to the conflict are severely underfunded. First is an EU funded coalition army to be made in Bangui with soldiers from all sides of the conflict. However, after a mere five days of training, the soldiers are offered a mere 50 dollars a month; the program has 1,900 enlisted troops to date, but may struggle to compete with the both better paid and tested insurgents. Second is an order to offer government services to fighters who voluntarily give up arms; to date, just 800 have accepted the offer, many of whom complain it was an empty promise. The Central African Republic is a failed state.
Reason War was Destined
Researchers Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou published a piece in Vox EU in March 2017, examining a possible link between African colonialism and conflict today. They found a few main drivers: the realization of new borders as colonization ended, the partitioning of ethnicities in the arbitrarily bound countries, and the disproportionate (as compared to other continents) amount of landlocked countries formed by European powers solely concerned with land acquisition. The last of these points is perhaps most straightforward: landlocked countries lack vital sea access, a key driver to economic growth, increase in both import and export capabilities, and attractiveness for foreign investment. Political Scientist and former Colgate University President Jeffrey Herbst articulated the first point by noting how as a result of decolonization, “for the first time in Africa’s history [at independence], territorial boundaries acquired salience…The boundaries were, in many ways, the most consequential part of the colonial state.” Yet is is the middle point, which both brings the other two together into a pressure cooker, that is most apparent in the destabilization of the CAR: partitioning of ethnic groups. The authors of the report use econometric methods, using statistics from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), to quantify how this partitioning of ethnicities leads to conflict. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou found that nations with partitioned ethnicities had conflicts with 40% higher intensity and lasting 55% longer than in countries without such division.They strikingly found “the likelihood of conflict is approximately 8% higher in the homelands of split ethnicities”. This is depicted in the two figures, from the same report, shown below. One can see that the belt of most intense conflict, spanning central Africa, coincides with the continents’ heaviest ethnic density.
Lessons, Improvements, and Implications
Firstly, this is an ongoing conflict, destroying lives and lineages daily. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 2.4 million people are in dire need of help, and you can donate to the UNHCR to help by clicking this link. While neither colonization nor its artificial borders can be erased, the European Union & United States must stop acting surprised when the ramifications of these times come to fruition. They instead must be proactive. While aid may be difficult to meaningfully implement, it is laughable the US usually gave the CAR between $5-$20 million in aid for much of the 2000’s. Even as this number has risen to $90 million in 2016, this figure still ranks 26/49 countries the US gives aid to in Africa. France, meanwhile, gave 170 million euros in 2014, with plans to give an additional 85 million euros between 2017 and 2019. As discussed earlier, the government will need more than that is able to truly control the country’s resources. What could help would be to build a direct rail link connecting Bangui to the large port of Douala, around 1000 kilometers away in Cameroon. Doing so would cost several billion dollars, but it would be a wise loan, if peace is ever reached, for the IMF and the West to make. If they don’t give the funds, it is fully believable China could, continuing to carve soft influence in Africa as the US loses its own foothold. Or more simply, a series of road networks connecting the country’s cattle industry to markets could help bridge gaps. For this was the dream of the notorious Ring Road in Afghanistan; while that road is not famous for working, the road networks built by Lagos governor Akinwunmi Ambode in nearby Nigeria demonstrates the efficacy roads can provide to developing nations. Counterinsurgency teaches that this war can be won by an internationally supported new central government which can win the hearts and minds of people. Building schools and hospitals help in this effort, and requires money.
The second way the US and West can help is by taking in refugees from this devastating conflict. US State Department publically available data show that the US solely settled 31 refugees from the CAR between October 2017 and May 2018. The US takes in less than 1% of asylum seekers, and is on pace in 2018 to take in its fewest number of refugees in 40 years according to Global Citizen.
What is happening in the Central African Republic is horrifying, unsurprising, and underreported. For there to be peace in the country, the world must show its civil war the attention it needs.
This post was written by Eli Wachs.
Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou,The contemporary shadow of the Scramble for Africa, 01 March 2017
Council on Foreign Relations
Vice News on HBO