Written by Igor Pejic exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Desi Tzoneva
The Central African Republic (CAR) was under French colonial rule until the sixties. Before that, various Arab tribes practiced the slave trade across that region (mostly in the north and east parts of the country). After colonisation, the slave trade was integrated into the European slave trade system and much of the population suffered greatly because of this. The Arabic slave trade also managed to convert a lot of people into Islam, furthermore creating small political entities which developed from these slave traffickers; other non-Muslim folk paid the higher price during this period of time. The first divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims occurred at that time, which are present to this day and are probably one of the causes of the perpetual violence in the CAR. People of CAR are mostly divided between two major religions, according to the United Nations (UN), it is estimated that 80% are Christians (Catholics and Protestants), 10% Muslim and 10% Animist. These estimates are highly doubtful. Until 2012, coexistence between these religious denominations was rather peaceful. There were even marriages between different religious groups. After the outbreak of the conflict in 2012, the situation in the country rapidly deteriorated.
The raging conflict in CAR has its roots in the colonial period and the economic structure which was changed at that time. The colonial policy of semi-slavery, which imposed forced labor, also favoured some ethnic and religious groups in accordance with the colonial interests in CAR. Favour was given to the Muslim population. Though this may seem as religious/ethnic bigotry, the real reasons were still essentially economic. Over the years, the economic system imposed by the colonial regime managed to evolve, depending on the current political structure of the state and its politicians. Underdevelopment and overall social poverty combined with the greed and corruption of the state actors, especially during François Bozize’s term in office, escalated in an all-out rupture of the society between Seleka and anti-Balaka factions. In 2013, Seleka’s seizure of power plunged the country into a state of collapse and violence. Periodic clashes were replaced with an all-out civil war between the two factions. The economy of the country was reduced to survival methods, chronic banditry and daily inter-communal reprisals that pushed the nation to its limits, and left it vulnerable to regional factors to implement their agenda and interests in a manner which further led to an escalation rather than de-escalation of the conflict in the country (CAR has mines and vast deposits of diamonds, especially in the border regions). Since 2015, the combat zone has been situated in the centre of the country, while Muslim enclaves are in the west; also, the whole Muslim group is labelled as “foreigners”, which reflects the lack of national cohesion in the country and the complexity of the entire conflict.
Seleka (which means ‘alliance’ in Sango) was formed in September 2012 as an opposition group in order to overthrow president Bozize. The main protagonists of this group were Moussa Dhaffane, a general who was leading a militia called the Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country (CPSK), and Noureddine Adam, a leader of the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP). After the formation of the group, both of them continued their work on spreading the groups’ influence and alliances with other militias who were eager to join the fight against the current government at that time. Alliances with other groups were both short and long term. The presence of Chadian fighters (mercenaries) in Seleka was also very noticeable. The number of troops that the group has varies widely; some estimates suggest 10 000 to 20 000 fighters, while others suggest around 3 000. The most realistic estimates are probably those that suggest around 5 000 Central African combatants supported by a large number of mercenaries, mostly Chadian, but there are also some mercenaries that come from the Darfur region. After the 2012 expansion of Seleka into new areas which were captured in CAR, recruitment also started on the local level. Many locals who had been recruited were promised money or some form of material benefits. There is also a significant level of “material motives” involved in Seleka’s recruitment, though most of the recruits consider themselves Muslims. This is an important factor in understanding the Seleka organisation; although they are an armed group which practices violence, they are not fundamentalists or terrorists per se. Their battle against the regime and the anti-Balaka movement is entwined with ethnic and religious tensions, but their goals still have a nationalist form. From the start, the leaders of Seleka wanted to take power. It was stated at the beginning of the movement that the power shift should be done peacefully, though the notion of a violent coup was never out of sight. After the fall of Bangui to Seleka, other regional capitals were also taken. At that point, it was clear that Seleka wanted a total rearrangement of governmental power in CAR. When faced with international factors, they would usually state that they possess the needed “intellectual capital” in order to implement governmental transition and ensure good governance later on. Though these things remain rather questionable, the things that Seleka did change were their warfare, which changed from targeted to predatory, and the need for an all-out coup in the country, which was probably forced by the large number of mercenaries inside the group who needed the spoils of war (in order to get paid). Ironically enough, the looting started after the coup in March 2013, and everything was subjected to looting from houses, shops, medical centres, cars etc. The plundering did not only occur in towns, it was also present in villages and other smaller and poorer places (some villages were entirely razed to the ground). Afterwards, the looted goods were systematically transported to Chad or Cameroon and were later sold on the street markets. The greed was enormous; soldiers, but especially commanders of Seleka, gained huge profits. The greed reached its peak when the group started occupying diamond mines in the eastern parts of the country. As the mines fell in Seleka’s hands, the group implemented its own people in the mining administration, hence giving them control over the production and extraction of diamonds. Again, the smuggling of diamonds and gold brought huge profits to Seleka. The group also managed to impose various taxes for mining, which were illegal. During their time in power, Seleka did not manage to implement the much-needed socio-economic reforms and so-called good governance. In the end, their main objective was greed and personal gain portrayed in looting and diamond exploitation. Predatory behaviour of the group was mostly aimed at short-term gains like pillaging, looting, endemic robbery and overall ill treatment of the population, demonstrated especially by the Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries in the west of the country. This led to a further deterioration of the entire CAR society. Lastly, during their time in office, Seleka members used their positions in government for personal enrichment. This was evident in their dealings with the granting of mining concessions.
The anti-Balaka movement started in the first decade of the 21st century. The group was primarily orientated to provide defense to villagers from various bandits, which were especially present in the regions like Bossangoa, Bozoum and Bocaranga. The Bozize government provided the group mainly with ammunition, but also with other supplies. Interestingly enough, the group was mainly composed of Christians, but Muslims were also present. Though the anti-Balaka movement began as a spontaneous group managed by civilians who were in need of security, the group quickly incorporated low-ranking officers, thus changing the structure. After 2013 and the growing power of the Seleka group, anti-Balaka started an open confrontation against Seleka attacking their footholds around Bossangoa and Bouca. The group quickly managed to expand its sphere of influence as well as its mobilisation. As Seleka became more violent, many young men who were directly or indirectly caught in Seleka’s violence or were just unemployed, sought their salvation within the anti-Balaka group. It should also be noted that many members of the anti-Balaka group remain loyal to former president Bozize. The actual strength of anti-Balaka varies widely. Estimates range from 50 000 to 70 000 fighters. This is due to the inconsistency of their ranks. Many of the fighters occasionally join battles of anti-Balaka if they consider them necessary. Most of their operations are situated in the western part of the CAR, though the group remains highly fractured (in the west of the country, anti-Balaka is formed out of loose alliances of various armed groups), some form of central command is evident in Bangui and surrounding areas (some rumors suggesting that gendarmerie and Bozizé’s Presidential Guards participated in consolidating anti-Balaka’s structure). Since there is a clear lack of control and communication between anti-Balaka in Bangui and other groups in other parts of the country, it is difficult to determine not only the real number of fighters, but also who is responsible for violence, banditry and especially crimes against Muslims. The anti-Balaka leadership in Bangui is limited and simply cannot control other parts of the group which goes rampant across other areas of the country. Thus the leadership often marks these sub-groups as “infiltrators” or fake anti-Balaka.
As with Seleka, anti-Balaka’s initial goals quickly lost shape. What started as a self-defense movement transformed into an all-out war against Seleka. The Muslims in the country suffered greatly because of this. Most of them were ill-treated and not even considered as CAR nationals but rather as Chadians. As the self-defense motive became weaker over time, the anti-Balaka group started with a systematic capturing of strategic towns and checkpoints.
Socio-economic frustration towards the Muslim population is deeply rooted in CAR. Violence committed by the anti-Balaka group has left a deep scar in the social structure which makes the reconciliation process rather difficult. The socio-economic paradigm quickly stretched and took the shape of a religious conflict. The targets were not only combatants of Seleka, but also women and children of Muslim origin of various social backgrounds who suffered the desolation of this conflict. Plundering of the Muslim population was common for the anti-Balaka and was one of the main sources of income. Greed and the socio-economic frustration were fully expressed at this point. Entire Muslim communities have been pillaged to the ground. Notable trends can be observed in the anti-Balaka violence towards Muslims: firstly, looting was always extremely violent and targeted the Muslim community; secondly, attacks were present even when there was nothing left to take. However, the main threat of the anti-Balaka group is the possibility of evolving into something similar of those armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Armed groups in eastern DRC, which were motivated by self-defense at the start, quickly transformed into criminal organisations driven by greed and profit. This spiral of hatred and violence in a civil war is immense. The need to destroy an opposite ethnic group which inhabited the same country (sharing the same land, culture, nationality) usually surpasses common sense.
In the CAR civil war, the influence of neighboring countries is rather strong and is shaping the conflict in more ways than one can imagine. Chad, with its security interests and shifting support of the groups; Sudan’s role in supporting Seleka; and Cameroon’s security interests and interests in natural resources also play a significant role in the conflict.
Chad’s President, Idriss Déby, plays a leading role in CAR’s security and political matters, but he also represents a problematic factor since he brought President Bozize to power. Also, his ties with Seleka and their ranks, which are filled with Chadian troops and mercenaries, does not make things easier. Chad’s main interests in CAR are security and dealing with Chadian rebel groups which use the foreign territory as their base of operations. Many of the Chadian rebellious groups sought shelter in the west of CAR since it was not controlled by the government. Some rumours even suggest that the Chadian government supported Seleka because they could bring an end to these groups and potentially do a great service to Chad. Economic interests are also something that Chad needs to look after. A vast border that Chad is sharing with CAR is a major route for human as well as cattle migration. Though these things may not sound like much, they are potentially dangerous because of epidemics and a lack of control in these border regions. Secondly, much of the oil reserves of Chad and CAR are situated in the border region. Chad’s shift in support from Bozize to Seleka was driven by its oil interests. If Seleka took hold of governmental power, Chad could easily exploit those fields, or could prevent CAR from exploiting them. Some unconfirmed reports suggest that many non-state actors from Chad were interested not only in oil but in timber, gold, diamonds and other natural riches CAR possesses. Still, the most concerning matter for the Chadian government should be the constant destabilisation of CAR and the evolving ethnic tensions between Muslims and Christians which can easily spread north and engulf the southern part of Chad.
Sudanese interests in CAR are focused on supporting Seleka and eventually securing their place in society thus securing an important ally in CAR. Seleka and the Sudanese government share many common interests and ideological attitudes. Supporting Seleka, Sudan would also expand its sphere of influence in the region through an indebted partner. This would not only benefit Sudan in the security sector, but also in the economic sphere. Benefits of natural resources like oil, gold and diamonds would be much easier to exploit by the Sudanese state and non-state actors.
The main concerns for Cameroon are the incursions staged by Seleka fighters from CAR. The eastern border region of Cameroon was used as a backup or safe haven for various fighters, refugees, bandits and mercenaries fleeing from CAR. During 2013, there were incursions by these armed groups followed by looting and pillaging. After 2014 and the emergence of anti-Balaka, the problem became more complicated. Both groups from CAR started using Cameroon as a rear base of operations. Cameroon needed to repel the incursions from Seleka and also prevent further looting done by some anti-Balaka groups. These incursions and clashes, which were threatening the eastern border of Cameroon, were only accelerating the destabilisation of the country. At the same time, elements of Boko Haram were emerging in the northern parts of the country, spilling over from Nigeria. Boko Haram even managed to kidnap a daughter of the Vice-Prime Minister, killing more than 15 people in the process. Therefore, it is of outmost importance for the government in Cameroon to stabilise and prevent further escalation of conflicts in CAR. Remnants of the Seleka organisation might join the ranks of Boko Haram if they are left without any other options. Economic reasons are also on the line. Many gold and diamond mines are located in the border region with CAR. A deepening crisis in CAR, ergo a destabilisation of the border region, will affect the mining activities and prices. Diamond smuggling across the Cameroonian border is also reaching new heights since the escalation of the conflicts in CAR.
Other international actors which are interested in CAR are France and the United States (US). France has vast interests in the whole sub-Saharan region, including CAR. Deposits of minerals, oil and especially uranium makes CAR an attractive territory. Extensive reserves of resources in CAR forced France to even send troops in 2013, but they were quickly withdrawn in 2014. The US has similar interests in CAR as the French do. The new doctrine of expending their potential oil and gas “vassals” is spreading into Africa. Significant discoveries in oil and gas reserves prompted the US foreign policy to search for new frontiers. This was quickly incorporated into the US normative of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ and the US’ security interests. Despite these interests of diversifying their sources of oil and gas, not much has been done in terms of de-escalation of the conflict, except sending some humanitarian aid packages.
Though religion might seem to be the main cause for the CAR conflict, deeply-rooted economic and social problems between ethnic groups are fuelling the flames of this civil war. The roots of the current political and social crisis lie in the systematic collapse of the state. A decomposition of CAR, which was initiated with these problems, was further escalated with the absence of a judicial system, an inability to provide a decent life for its citizens and overall weakness of its security forces, which should have prevented the emergence of various armed, bandit and mercenary groups. All of the armed groups fighting in the conflict quickly managed to spread a culture of violence and banditry across the country. Armed by a wide spectrum of guns which originate from Europe, Iran, Sudan and China (Chinese ammunition is probably the most widespread ammunition used in the CAR conflict) allowed these groups to literally take over the country. In order to end the conflict, the international community must step in. This also includes neighboring countries which, to some extent, are using the CAR civil war to profit or expand their influence. Rebuilding the government, judicial system and laying a foundation to some form of civil society is essential in order for the reconciliation process to begin. Atrocities committed by the armed groups and their leaders must be punished as well so that the victims may finally find peace. Lastly, purging corruption and forming a competent security force that can quell banditry and secure natural resources in all parts of the country, thus securing peace for the people, will be the final part of the mechanism which can stabilise the country and probably the region as well.
MA IGOR PEJIC, graduated in Political Science from the Foreign Affairs Department at the Faculty of Political Science and now he holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Organised Crime from the University of Belgrade, Serbia.