10 September 2013

Power, Religion and the Central African Republic

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People on the run in Central African Republic. Photo: UNHCR/Djerassem Mbaiorem People on the run in Central African Republic. Photo: UNHCR/Djerassem Mbaiorem http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45788&Cr=central+african+republic&Cr1=#.Ui9mh4JQkvZ

When thousands upon thousands of Europeans were slaughtered during the Thirty Year War in the 17th century was it about the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants? Or more recently, when these two Christian sects were bombing each other in Northern Ireland, was it really about “religion”? Theology did have a bearing on the conflicts somewhere in the very beginning, but it was mostly about political alliances, economic power and influence, and the acting out of deep-seated prejudices about “the other.”

If you say, “religion makes people violent,” you can certainly point to examples where this is plausible, but you would also miss other equally important factors in the equation. Human conflicts, particularly at the communal or national level, are always complex phenomena.

What is certain is that religion has often been used to enlist militants for a cause. This is obviously the case with jihadis today. Youth angry about western foreign policies and seething with rage at injustice around them are vulnerable to the call of self-sacrifice in the path of God. But so were the million or so peasants who in 11th and 12th-century Europe left everything to “fight for Jesus” in the Holy Land (never mind that the Crusaders’ symbol, the cross, was an instrument of torture that killed their Master, “the Prince of Peace,” at age 33!).

The thousands of nobles and knights, we surmise, were often more attracted by the prospect of glory and treasure. And so likely were the early conquests “in the name of Islam” by tribal Arab bedouins in 7th-century Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and from Iraq to India a very mixed-motive enterprise. They knew very little about the new faith, except that vast amounts of booty awaited them on the road to empire.

I write these lines a couple of days after Pope Francis led a 5-hour prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square attended by over 100,000 faithful calling the world’s billion Catholics to oppose western military intervention in Syria and urging both sides to engage in peaceful negotiations to end a very bloody civil war.

In the meantime Italian Muslims had organized a prayer rally of their own and one of their leaders told the Reuters news agency that “Praying for the intention of peace is something that can only help fraternity and, God willing, avoid more war.” He continued, “As Muslims who want peace we have to work so that the values of faith and dialogue prevail over the destruction of peoples.”

But to complicate things even more, the news of an attack by al-Qaeda related Syrian rebels on the Christian town of Maaloula has just bolstered President Asad's claim that he has always been the protector of Christians and stymied President Obama even more in his bid to strike the Asad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. True, Christians since the Arab Spring have been attacked as never before in the modern period. And before that, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has had the unintended consequence of sending half the Christian population into exile. Saddam Hussein too, it turned out, had been more protective of Iraqi Christians.

In terms of numbers, the victims of the Syrian civil war are overwhelmingly Muslim – Sunni in the opposition and Shi’i or Alawi on the government’s side. Religion is just one of the layers of a multifaceted, centuries-old, bundle of tensions.

In this blog I have, therefore, two modest goals. First, I want to alert you to a humanitarian disaster that the media have kept all too hidden. Second, even as this alarming crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) shows definite signs of religious conflict, one should not reduce it to that. It is much more about political power, socioeconomic grievances, ethnic tensions, a grievous colonial legacy and a deplorable history of corrupt and heavy-handed governance.


CAR’s colonial and post-colonial burdens

Adam Nossiter of the New York Times put it this way: “the Central African Republic became independent in 1960 after a brutal six-decade colonial reign by France.” I don’t need to go into detail. All the colonial regimes were “brutal” (though perhaps the British were a bit less so than the French). I know from the stories I heard during my nine years in Algeria (1978-87) that particularly in that country, which the French simply took over as their own, Algerians (literally) as second-class citizens suffered great humiliation and hardship. Naturally, the war of independence (1954-62) was especially violent and vicious. A million and a half Algerians died in that 8-year period, most of them civilians on the sidelines.

If you want to get a feel for the insatiable human penchant for greed, lust and the determination to use one’s power to satisfy those desires, have a look at a long interview with the former Emperor Bokassa 1st shortly before his death in 1996 (sorry, it’s in French). True, Bokassa had committed a long list of crimes during his short reign (1976-79), twenty of which were eventually prosecuted in court with irrefutable evidence. Yet here we find him speaking as a patriot who genuinely, it seems, tried to develop his country, but was blocked at every turn by French and Swiss companies intent on pillaging its treasures without giving anything in return, much less pay any taxes.

What must be particularly galling for Central Africans are the details Bokassa divulges about his friendship with French President Giscard d’Estaing who clearly used him for hunting wild game once or twice a year way beyond the legal limits, for buying up loads of treasures at a steal, and in the end for seducing his own wife. That said, she was the official wife. He did have at least fourteen other wives, having fathered close to fifty children!

It must be said that to understand the context here, the CAR has significant reserves of oil, gold, diamonds, uranium and lumber, but remains one of the poorest countries in the world. What is more, the 4.6 inhabitants of this beautiful country have inherited a dreadful history of political instability since 1960. The CAR has witnessed one democratically contested election (2005) and four military coups – which brings us up to the current crisis.


A borderline “failed state”

Decades of military coups, ethnic tensions in several places but especially in the north, potential incursions by the Lord’s Resistance Army (of Joseph Kony infamy) are among the factors that have crippled the CAR for decades. As a result, the United Nations in the early 2000s set up an agency to help stabilize the CAR, BINUCA (the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic). But the situation rapidly went from bad to worse since December 2012. I’ll let the UN website tell the story:


“Turmoil last broke out when a loose rebel coalition called Séléka – meaning alliance in the local Sango language – overthrew democratically elected President François Bozizé. After seizing large parts of the country in an initial push in December, rebels and the Government reached a cease-fire agreement and other deals in January 2013, in Libreville, Gabon, under the aegis of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

“Hopes for a peaceful settlement of hostilities were short-lived, however. The agreements faltered in March, when thousands of rebels flooded the riverside capital Bangui, sending Bozizé into exile and pushing the country into another vicious cycle of violence, looting, sexual violence and other abuses.”


Against a backdrop of mounting chaos since March 2013, the UN’s goals remain clear: “The priorities are to strengthen the political dialogue for the implementation of the Libreville Agreements, to restore security throughout the territory and create a conducive environment for holding credible elections, as well as to ensure the respect of human rights and provide humanitarian assistance.”

Reaching anyone of these goals remains difficult at best, however. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, addressed the UN Security Council in August, warning that the CAR is “not yet a failed State but has the potential to become one if swift action is not taken.”

Specifically, reports the UN, “About 1.6 million people are in dire need of food, protection, health care, water, shelter and other assistance. More than 206,000 people are displaced within the country, with many hiding in the bush. Nearly 60,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring states, two-thirds of them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The UN envoy to the CAR also warned that without the establishment of a proper political order, “the country runs the risk of descending into chaos and anarchy.” His advice to the Security Council was to provide a peacekeeping mission with 3,500 soldiers with additional troops provided by the African Union.


The religious dimension

First of all, who are the rebels who took over the CAR in March? Who is part of this “loose coalition”? Back to Adam Nossiter’s careful background article:


“The rebels emerged from the barren, more-Muslim north, angered at the neglect of a region inaccessible from the capital for half of the year because of heavy rains and poor roads, accusing the president of reneging on an agreement to integrate some of their fighters into the army.

‘No schools, no roads, really — it’s chaos,’ said Abdel Kadir Kalil, a Seleka commander, explaining why he had taken up arms. Carrying an elaborately carved ceremonial cane on the terrace of the Libyan-built five-star hotel where he lives here, he added, ‘We wanted to develop the country, but the ex-president, Bozizé, he ignored our projects.’”


The ousted president who had first entered the political scene via military coup, François Bozizé, told the French media in August that he hoped to regain power. Apparently, as of this writing, he has sent troops to counter the rebel Séléka forces and contest on the battleground the legitimacy of their self-declared president, Michel Djotodia, also the country’s first Muslim leader, who has promised to step down after elections in 2016. Already, Djotodia’s spokesman has accused the pro-Bozizé soldiers of attacking Muslim villages.

If true, it would be an act of retaliation for the many attacks on Christians and their institutions since March. A Catholic website, for instance, deplored the renewal of hostilities against their own: “Muslims join Seleka Rebels in anti-Christian killing spree.” The short article begins in this way:


“More violence and looting against the Catholic Church in the Central African Republic has been reported by the Fides news service. On Sunday, August 18, missionary priests and nuns of the Sœurs de la Charité at Bohong were forced to take refuge in Bouar some 60 miles away after an attack by the Seleka rebel coalition.”


Interestingly, a Muslim website (www.onislam.net) reports that the Muslim rebel leader’s coup has raised religious tensions “in the Christian-majority country.” On March 31 Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of Bangui, told Agence France-Presse that “We are sitting on a bomb. An evil sorcerer could blow up the whole house. I don’t want us to underestimate the problem.”

The article states that 15% of the country is Muslim (most figures I’ve seen say 10%) and that Christians should not panic: “The different religions have always coexisted peacefully and leaders from both sides have urged people not to confuse the fact that there is a Muslim leader, with the ‘Islamization’ of the country.”

Still in the aftermath of the coup, other Christian leaders appealed for calm. Pastor Nicholas Guere Koyame, head of the Alliance of Evangelicals in the CAR, said in particular, “The new authorities are not there for a religious goal but a political goal. They must present their political agenda to convince the population.”

In the same way, the top Muslim leader, Imam Oumar Kobline Layama, urged the rebels not to be swayed by those “who want to turn this change into a religious problem.” But the Christian community was nervous, and for good reason.

In a long and meticulous Wikipedia article on the 2012-13 CAR conflict, we read that among the parties that signed on to the Séléka alliance was the Chadian FPR, though based in north-east CAR. Rumors have it that others have come in from the Darfur area of the Sudan which borders the CAR. And of course, the worst fear with an ongoing, intensifying struggle is that groups loosely associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (who were active in the 2012 war in Mali) will find an easy foothold in the CAR.

It's not surprising that Christians have been targeted, especially because one of the grievances behind the Séléka takeover was about the corruption of the Bozizé regime and its near total neglect of the northern region which is mostly Muslim. In August the Catholic Herald announced that 15 people had been killed by Séléka and a thousand driven from their homes as five villages in a gold mining area were attacked.

A Carmelite Father who has been in the CAR since 1992 was very worried:


“The situation remains fragile and the killings are continuing near my mission. Thank God, most refugees are being accommodated by local families while temporary shelter is sought for them. But what’s most worrying is that mostly Muslim villages are left in relative peace, while those with Christian or animist populations face harsh treatment.”


Last thoughts

Are there underlying – age-old, perhaps – religious tensions in the CAR? Indeed there are. That said, as I hope to have shown here, there is much more at play. Besides its weighty colonial legacy, the CAR struggles with its own patterns of military interventions, corruption, ethnic favoritism, and as a result poor governance.

One hopes and prays for the success of the UN’s BINUCA program and for peacekeeping forces to provide a sufficient buffer and incentive toward peace and productive negotiation. That of course is the key element: that CAR regional leaders representing the major factions of the political class can come together and hammer out a common solution.

I started out with the way religion can lead to violence, but I want to end with its equally proven potential for peace and understanding. So I leave you with the evocative conclusion in the Catholic Herald piece:


In a peace appeal from Bouar [the district of the Carmelite priest] on Monday, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders said they feared the country now faced “the nigmwo4mare of ethnic or religious war,” and warned that “no creed, either Christian or Muslim, allows violence, murder, theft, robbery and rape.”


May these religious leaders find the will and the way to create together a way forward!



(Sept. 21) I was waiting for more news, but this Associated Press communiqué is all I have. Self-proclaimed Michel Djotodia, presumed leader of the Séléka alliance that took power by military force, issued a decree on September 13 officially dissolving Séléka. We can only guess at this point why he did this. In order to rule, Djotodia needs legitimacy, and no foreign power has recognized his rule. What is more, Séléka has earned an international reputation for pillage, rape and murder. It's not hard to see why he wanted to distance himself from the very group that put him at the helm of the country.

But will he succeed in bringing together the dispersed units of the CAR's army in order to effectively push the various factions within the Séléka alliance back into the north? That would be nothing short of a miracle without some foreign intervention by the AU and others. But if this happens and Djotodia keeps his word about democratic elections, then there is clearly hope for this country that has suffered for far too long!