This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
In September 2014 twelve thousand United Nations peacekeepers are slated to phase out and replace two thousand French troops and to assimilate six thousand African Union troops in the Central African Republic (CAR). The French forces currently in the CAR intervened to halt a political and humanitarian catastrophe and prevent what many feared would amount to genocide. The situation the UN peacekeepers inherit in September will in many ways be worse.
There is no peace to keep in the CAR. Instead there is radicalization within chaos. The violence of the past eighteen months has destroyed all semblance of national unity. There is no police or military. The current president’s influence does not cover the entire capital city, let alone the nation. Her political mandate stretches no further than to bring the country to elections in the first quarter of 2015. The Seleka rebels who overthrew the former president in the spring of 2013, and were themselves overthrown in January 2014, are regrouping. They elected a new military commander in May, ostensibly to provide an interlocutor for the government. The Muslims remaining in the country are trapped in a few villages guarded by peacekeepers who often cannot guarantee their safety. The majority of Muslims–once 15 percent of the population–have fled to neighboring countries.
The conflict in the CAR is often framed in religious language, and there are religious dimensions to the conflict. But this is not a war for God, against “evil,” or in the name of proselytization. Radicalization however is often along religious lines. According to CAR expert Koert Lindijer, the “biggest problem now is that in the perspective of the country’s Christians, Muslims and Seleka mean the same thing.” For Muslims, “Christians are equal to the anti-Balaka.” When Seleka was pushed out of the capital, Bangui, “Christian youths with machetes cleansed the land of Muslims.” This shifts the dynamics of the conflict from political power and access to resources toward bifurcation of the Central Africans along lines of religious identification. This cannot be reconciled with a new constitution, peacekeepers, or food aid.
But, this is not purely a religious conflict. With no Muslims left to blame for the violence and trauma of the past eighteen months, some anti-Balaka vigilantes have begun turning on those they “liberated,” extorting compensation from internally displaced Christians and animists for throwing off the hold of Seleka rebels. UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba has said “…it seems like [anti-Balaka] have arms and they use that power over internally displaced persons (IDPs) to get whatever they want…It is becoming more criminal.”
There is rising fear about the escalating tit-for-tat religious violence and radicalization of religious identities. Previously in the conflict religious establishments were respected as refuges for all; that is now changing. Thousands of mosques and Islamic schools have been destroyed. A church sheltering nine thousand IDPs was recently attacked by unknown gunmen, though Muslim rebels are suspected. A mosque was destroyed and looted in retaliation. There is escalating rhetoric on both sides of “wait, we will soon have revenge.” From some Muslims: “…we will destroy as many churches as the mosques Christians are destroying…let al Qaeda come to protect us.” Many blame the foreign troops for failing to overcome the insecurity, forcing civilians to take personal action toward their own security.
Twelve thousand peacekeeping troops are unlikely to be able to drastically alter the horrors in the CAR. There are strong indications that the current crises could further escalate and spread to CAR’s neighbors–many are already fragile and now flooded with traumatized refugees they are ill-equipped to absorb. Further degeneration of security and entrenchment of zero-sum identity groups will escalate religious radicalization. Even if the UN peacekeepers can restore a semblance of security to the urban areas, it is unlikely the CAR will have a functioning state structure or national identity within the foreseeable future.