As Christian forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) continue to slaughter their Muslim brothers and sisters, a few disturbing patterns have become clearer.
How did we get here?
In March of 2013, Seleka rebels (primarily identifying as Muslim) overthrew the government of CAR, citing abuses against Muslims in the northeast. They established a temporary interim government and began a series of brutal attacks against officials and soldiers they linked to abuses against Muslims in CAR. In the span of three months, Seleka forces destroyed 34 villages or towns and targeted at least 40 civilians.
What resulted of this brutality was a new wave of violence in the name of self-defense. These groups called themselves the anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) and began slaughtering Muslim civilians, sweeping from the north southward. Human Rights Watch reported in December 2013 that Muslim survivors of anti-balaka attacks told of extremist statements made by the attackers, including aims to kill all Muslims.
CAR is 50% Christian (about half Roman Catholic and half Protestant) and 15% Muslim. The remaining 35% is made up of an assortment of traditional religions, systems with strong cultural influence on the Christian majority.
Following a series of “tit-for-tat” revenge killings that left at least 62 people dead near Bambari (the location of the military headquarters of the Seleka), a ceasefire was announced on the 23rd of July by representatives from what remains of the Seleka and the anti-Balaka. The ceasefire was incredibly basic, stipulating only a “cessation of hostilities” in the quest to resolve conflict in CAR. Failure to mention even an interest in demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of militia groups (DDR), political transition, or discussions over Seleka demands for partition were all extremely worrying, even before the Seleka military chief announced his forces would ignore the ceasefire made less than two days prior.
The peace process is not made any easier by the reality of major growing divides within the armed militia groups. Even if the leadership of Seleka and anti-Balaka forces agree to a ceasefire, it does not mean that forces will adhere to the terms, especially given the growing autonomy of smaller militia groups and complete breakdown of any functioning CAR security forces.
French and African Union forces have been deployed to secure Muslim areas to protect them from religious violence at the hands of the anti-Balaka looking to raze their areas, and a larger UN peacekeeping force is scheduled to arrive later this year, but the situation is anything but secure. A very tense atmosphere has settled over the Central African Republic as everyone waits to see how bloody the next few months will be. Observers are beginning to draw comparisons between this conflict and the experience of Rwanda in 1994, urging further outside help.
However, this conflict may be even more difficult to shake than conflict between ethnic groups in Rwanda, specifically because of the influence of resource politics and economics on the ongoing violence in CAR.
Dying Over Diamond Mines
The rebellion that ousted former president Francois Bozize of CAR was motivated by the perception that the Christian government was depriving the more Muslim north economically, favoring the Christian majority in commerce and under law. Resource politics evolved into identity-based ideology, as the rebel group known as the Seleka solidified their distrust for Christian citizens and developed an identity as a pro-Muslim force. Extreme ideology of this sort does not spring from nothingness, but instead sprouted from economic disparity in the country, perceived largely along religious lines.
Following the revolution and throughout the responding anti-Muslim violence sweeping through the country, resources have played a larger and larger part in territorial gains. Diamond and gold mines play a massive part in determining where militias operate. This is no coincidence, as CAR ranked as the 12th largest diamond exporter before the government overthrow in early 2013.
Early into the rebellion which ousted Mr. Bozize, rebel forces boasted about capturing a major mining town in southeast CAR called Bria. This was an exceedingly big deal, and was one of the first five towns the rebels aimed to secure for themselves.
There are countless anecdotes in recent years about Muslim middlemen controlling the diamond trade and Christian laborers working the mines for low wages. The massive economic disparity between collector and miner has been described as a major influence on the “poverty trap” in CAR, as miners have often been “stuck” in the profession of miner. A new wave of Christian militias attempting to seize these mines should be a major concern to all observers, and thankfully this has been well-reported in the past few months.
Invaders from the outside of mining communities come with weapons and a desire to take the mines, often demanding that the residents leave the towns surrounding the mines. This is what played out in the mining town of Boda, as Christian militias demanded that Muslim inhabitants evacuate the mining town or face death. The aggression of Christian militias across CAR in this way is not just an idle threat, as reports of rape, throat-slitting, and razing of entire villages often follow.
CAR has seen several civil wars, uprisings, and wave upon wave of unrest since liberation, but it appears that many times these conflicts are motivated more along economic lines than political ones. International Crisis Group (ICG), in a 2010 report even states “Rebellion in the CAR has little to do with political agendas but rather is a means for opportunists to force the president to buy them off… It gives credence to the theory… that greed motivates civil war.” CAR has an almost endemic problem with resources within its borders, as poverty and economic unrest are easy motivating lines for conflict. The diamond mining industry in CAR has created a system of a “hand-to-mouth existence” for many living there, and when rebellions often equate to an opportunity for increased resource wealth, many will more easily take up arms.
As with many conflicts before, the problem of gold and diamond mines will make a back-and-forth exchange of land (and massacres that come along with this series of conquests between forces) something that will not easily be resolved. Mines are easily captured from civilians, offer a real source of income for their holders either through legitimate trade or smuggling operations eastward when diamond bans are in effect, and are plentiful and scattered throughout CAR.
This is all significant because a simple religious explanation often overlooks the intricacies of operations on the ground. Aggression towards and around mines and other significant economic locations indicates this more than a simple Muslim-Christian conflict or a desire to destroy the “other”. Religiously-fueled extremism is definitely an issue, as it is incredibly hard to break one’s mindset should one fall to this ideology. The distinction is that this extremism is created from a complex network of resource politics and moves to further trouble the economic environment of CAR. This wave of anti-Muslim violence at the hands of Christians is in no way a new phenomenon in CAR, but part of a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence motivated by economics but masked by religious difference.
If there is to be any success in creating a lasting peace in CAR, economic causes of conflict must be addressed. Simply giving concessions to whichever two political entities may claim leadership has not been enough and never will be enough. As long as resources and economic disparity play a large role in the politics and daily lives of so many citizens of the Central African Republic, a new insurgency group will gain footing to unseat the previous one and then will guard themselves against the next impending wave of rebels, withdrawing as much mineral wealth as possible while holding on to power.
Map of CAR activity via Frontier Services Group/Africa Monitor
Image via BBC/AFP