The Central African Republic (CAR) is a small nation, a forgotten nation most of the time, but one of the poorest and most conflict ridden in the world. Located between Chad and Sudan, every few years CAR appears in the news for another outbreak of violence. Most recently a group of Muslim rebels from the north called Séléka seized the government in 2013 leading to violent retaliatory attacks by local Christian militias. Unrest and violence continues today. But what exactly is happening and why? What caused this bloodshed? And what is preventing peace from moving forward?
1.HISTORICAL EXPLOITATIVE REGIMES
CAR was built upon a legacy of highly unequal, exploitative regimes that failed to develop any foundation for a functioning state. When CAR was a French colony, two thirds of the territory was leased to private companies who extracted as many resources as possible. As the country was severely depopulated through a combination of disease, forced labor and the slave trade, next to nothing was invested in developing infrastructure or local capacity.
And that legacy has lived on with huge implications today. Some research has shown that colonial regimes that were historically highly exploitative have tended to lead to exploitative regimes today. Without a government focused on the wellbeing of its people, CAR’s succession of abusive administrations has sown seeds of discontent, leading to years of coups by competing groups who feel wronged by the former regime.
2. AN EXTREMELY WEAK ECONOMY
Despite an abundance of natural resources, CAR’s government has never fully tapped into these in any productive way. Years of political instability and violence have blocked CAR’s potential for economic growth. Successful businesses are so rare that those who are economically successful are viewed with suspicion and often accused of witchcraft.
In this economic environment groups have resorted to violence for financial gain, exploiting natural resources. For many unemployed youths, militia groups become an attractive option.
3. CORRUPT POLITICAL ELITES
The revenues that do emerge from deep diamond and gold reserves are often exploited by the government or local leaders to buy the allegiance of armed groups. Allegations of misappropriation of foreign aid have been common throughout the country’s history. CAR has had very few democratically elected leaders since independence, tending towards civilian or military dictatorships. But all leaders have had one thing in common: a propensity for abuse of their powers at the expense of the general population.
4. POLITICIZED ETHNICITY SINCE THE 1980S
In a country with over 80 different ethnic groups, aligning identity with ethnicity has long been common practice in CAR. However, it was only in the 1980s that leaders began giving special treatment to members of their ethnic groups, giving these identities political weight and causing discontent. André-Dieudonné Kolingba, the ruler in the 1980s, favored his own ethnic group, the Yakoma, in the presidential guard creating inequalities and discontent among ethnic groups. This tension has remained present in politics ever since leading to a fragmented civil society.
5. POLITICIZED RELIGION SINCE 2011
The recent conflict has often been portrayed in the media as Muslims versus Christians. This religious dimension of the conflict has only been actively present in CAR since 2011 when then President François Bozizé began using anti-Muslim rhetoric. However, this rhetoric is built upon a long fear of foreign exploitation, often associated specifically with foreign Muslims. In CAR, there is a history of Muslim immigrants dominating the business community (leading to resentment) and foreign Muslim mercenaries from Chad and Sudan pillaging local communities (leading to fear and anger).
This set the stage for religious conflict when Séléka rebels from the northeast of CAR, a predominately Muslim area, arrived in the capital of Bangui in March 2013. Self-defence groups, called anti-balaka, arose in response to Séléka but, rather than attacking only those associated with the rebel group, they attacked all Muslims. Thus the conflict, though not motivated by religious differences, has built upon religious identities.
6. LARGE AREAS OF UNCONTROLLED WILDERNESS
Parts of the east and especially the north east of CAR have been difficult to control throughout CAR’s history. It is sparsely populated and difficult to access much of the year due to monsoon weather and poor infrastructure; the government is barely present in much of the area.
This has led to the northeast being a de facto haven, not only for armed rebel groups from CAR, but also from neighboring Sudan, South Sudan, DRC and Chad. Combined with porous borders and a rampant arms trade, this region of CAR plays heavily into the larger regional context of unrest making a transition to peace all the more difficult.
These 6 factors are driving the conflict in CAR. As recently as late last month violence resumed in the capital of Bangui. The situation is complex and has deep roots in history, but a peaceful recovery will have to take these dynamics into account.