In the CAR, the Causes Go Beyond Religion, the Implications Beyond Africa

Since the coup d’état of François Bozizé’s government by Séléka forces in March 2013, Central African Republic has descended into a state of chaos, and a far-reaching humanitarian crisis has emerged. In the early stages of the crisis the Christian population of Bangui was under attack from the mostly Muslim members of the rebel group, Séléka. In recent months, the mostly Christian members of the anti-Balaka group have forced Muslims to flee CAR in search of refuge in countries like Cameroon. This exchange of brutalities between Muslims and Christians suggests that the crisis stems from a mostly, if not purely, sectarian conflict. While religious tension is a major cause of continued violence in CAR, the original causes of the crisis are much more complex.

A History of Crises

Since its independence in 1960, CAR has struggled to find political footing. Coup d’états have been fairly common in independent CAR’s history causing continued political instability which has, at best, hampered economic and social progress, and at worst, allowed for crises like the current one to materialize. This volatility has fostered a culture of government patronage. This patronage has been particularly active in the executive branch; the past three presidents of CAR have given favors to specific ethnic groups throughout the country. These ethnically-motivated patronage practices have caused resentment among CAR’s various ethnic groups as well as resentment among different regional factions. Séléka, the rebel group that overthrew the Bozizé government last March, is composed mostly of northerners. Northern CAR is a region that has been largely neglected by the central government due to its inability to control the rebel forces that had supported the ousted former president Ange-Félix Patassé. Relations between the northern and southern regions of CAR have been and continue to be characterized by animosity.

The divide between Muslims and Christians has become more pronounced as the crisis continues to escalate, but religious differences on their own have not been sources of conflict in CAR’s past in general. Ties between religion and economics, however, have been a source of resentment in the past. CAR is a country rich with valuable minerals such as diamonds and gold. Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa through Muslim merchants and traders, and throughout CAR’s history, Muslims have controlled the trading of CAR’s diamonds and gold, while Christians have been relegated to mining them. The undercurrent of bitterness in response to this socio-economic dichotomy has been exacerbated during this crisis as the violence has turned decidedly sectarian. Once Séléka, composed of mostly Muslims, had secured Bangui, they attacked many innocent civilians throughout the country, and the majority of CAR’s population is Christian. The anti-Balaka group was formed in response to this violence and has now switched positions with Séléka by amassing power and using it to strike back at their Muslim counterparts. Rivalries between the two religions have become more pronounced and old grudges have been brought back to life. While this conflict is marked by its religious aspects, the original causes are steeped in a history of political mismanagement and instability.

Implications for CAR and the world

In recent months, the crisis in CAR has been overshadowed by an equally disturbing crisis in Ukraine; however, just because CAR is generally not considered a major player in the international economy or international affairs, the implications of a crisis of this magnitude could be especially dire. Increased violence that borders on ethnic cleansing against Muslim civilians throughout the country has prompted responses from both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Afghan Taliban. Unlike Séléka, AQIM and the Taliban are well-known and well-equipped radical Islamic groups that have far-reaching goals and worldwide enemies. AQIM has issued threats for France, including a threat to assassinate President Hollande, who has deployed approximately 1,600 troops in Bangui over the course of the crisis. While it cannot be determined for certain whether AQIM would, or even could execute an attack against France, the group is highly motivated by its loss to French troops in Mali last year. France is also receiving the ire of other African Muslims in countries like Sudan where demonstrations have been held against the CAR Muslim minority. France is seen by radical Islamists and some moderate Muslims alike as an agitator and a bully toward Africa’s Muslim population. Countries like CAR and Mali were once French colonies, so French military interventions into Africa are seen as either helpful or imperialistic depending upon who you ask. In both this conflict and the recent Malian conflict that saw fighting between an autonomy-seeking Tuareg population, the general Malian population, and Islamic extremist groups, the issue of religion is at play.

Despite this tension, the French parliament recently granted President Hollande an extension and expansion of troop presence in CAR. This move will boost the soldier count to approximately 2,000. Besides an expected deployment of roughly 500 EU troops, France is the only foreign state to intervene in the crisis. While France’s goal of stabilizing the central African country appears noble, it is difficult to ascertain whether their presence is affecting much change in the conflict at all. Their victory in Mali saved the North Africa state from falling under extremist Islamic rule by radical groups like AQIM, but a much greater military presence would be needed to actually make an effective impact in the current crisis in CAR. French troops have managed to curb some of the violence in Bangui, but the refugee population continues to grow and the violence has spread from Bangui to the countryside.

If France wishes to make a concerted effort to stabilize CAR and quash a blossoming genocide, they would need to fully commit. Two thousand troops will not be enough to sustain an effective military campaign, and even so, some French lawmakers were opposed to the 400 soldier troop-boost. UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon believes 10,000 troops would be necessary to secure a country as large as CAR and stop a crisis as extreme as this. Because France will likely shy away from such a commitment, the effectiveness and purpose of their military presence could be called into question. Because France is the former colonial ruling of CAR, some Muslims view its intervention as “criminal” as opposed to humanitarian. France could end up making more enemies than friends in this crisis if they continue an ineffective military campaign. Full commitment to securing Bangui and the countryside, as well as commitment to aiding the burgeoning refugee crisis, could change the outcome and possibly end the violence, but given the political climate in France, this commitment is unlikely.

Whether there is an increased French presence or not, the UN Security Council needs to step up. There are talks of deploying 12,000 UN peace-keeping troops to CAR which would provide essential support to the general population and the refugee population — separation between the two is rapidly dwindling. There are obstacles standing in the way of approval, however. One of the major obstacles is money. Every member-state of the UN Security Council must contribute funding for peace-keeping operations and for some countries the cost of such a mission would be too hefty. The deployment would also occur months from now, and some of the troops would be current African Union troops who would simply wear different hats to indicate that they are now UN peace-keeping troops.

The crisis is already a year old and the UN has only just now considered a greater presence in the country. In this regard, the UN has already failed. Wait-and-see policies in the wakes of ongoing crises have not served the UN or the countries in the midst of these crises any good in the past. The extent of crises such as these could be greatly reduced with well-managed multilateral action. While issues of money and time are real obstacles to overcome for any effort, they seem somewhat irresponsible with the possibly of an eradication of the entire Muslim population in CAR hanging in the balance. This hesitation not only reflects poorly on the efficiency and relevance of the UN, but it threatens the lives of those who still remain in the crumbling state that is CAR. The UN must act as swiftly and effectively as possible in order to help protect the general and refugee populations of CAR and suffocate the spreading violence.

Trouble for Cameroon

The growing magnitude and severity of the CAR crisis is not only endangering the people of CAR, but it is threatening the stability and economic health of neighboring country, Cameroon. The UN Refugee Agency has recently reported that nearly 20,000 refugees have entered Cameroon which borders CAR to the west. This influx has put a strain on local economies in Cameroon which cannot support such a drastic increase in population. Basic necessities such as shelter, food, and water are in high demand while supply is dangerously low. Prices of goods in Cameroon have skyrocketed and services for refugees are lacking. In addition to putrid conditions, the violence that has plagued the CAR countryside is seeping across the border. The Cameroon army has had to fend off raids from CAR gunman seeking to obtain goods from border villages. One raid, however, included 400 men who were seeking to free a CAR rebel leader. It resulted in the death of six gunmen and the capture of one.

Any time violence spreads across national borders, it is cause for alarm, but in the case of Cameroon, it could be especially detrimental. Cameroon has enjoyed relative economic prosperity since independence. But despite this economic stability, there is internal political discord between various ideological groups that could be exacerbated if the CAR crisis finds footing within the country’s borders. Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist group that opposes all western influence and culture in Islamic Africa, has increased its influence in Cameroon’s northern region with the on-going conflict in Nigeria. The potential genocide against Muslims occurring in CAR could motivate Boko Haram take action in Cameroon. Cameroon’s national government is considered one of the most corrupt in the world and the radical religious group could see the spreading crisis and increasing refugee problem as an opportunity to seize more power in Central Africa. Further, Cameroon has been weakened by the Southern Cameroon National Council, which demands its independence from Cameroon. Corruption and tension to the north and south creates a weakened state that could be further weakened by the CAR crisis.

As far as economics are concerned, Cameroon’s economy is fairly healthy despite political corruption and the Central African state has several business contracts with China dating back to 1997. Conversely, Chinese businesses have made significant investments in Cameroon, and the Chinese government has provided substantial aid to the Cameroonian government since the late 1990s. The CAR crisis has harmed the Cameroonian economy even if only slightly, but if the crisis worsens, the relatively weak central government could easily give way to the influence of the stronger aforementioned extremist groups. This would undoubtedly harm Cameroon’s economy and its international economic relations. Countries that appear somewhat less influential economically have caused or contributed to international economic crises before. Cyprus and Greece are examples of such a phenomenon, and while the circumstances are different in this situation, any country that contributes to the global economy has the potential to create problems in the global economy as well. Possibly the only things worse than genocide and a humanitarian crisis in one country are genocide and humanitarian crises across several countries. 

The CAR crisis has already wreaked havoc within its own borders, but it has the ability to do further damage elsewhere. This damage would not be limited to Africa. Stopping the terror of mass killings is the first priority, followed closely by securing the state, and assisting the population. The next steps should include not only discourse on relations between Christians and Muslims, but also a meaningful effort to resolve the other initial causes that allowed this crisis to occur in the first place.