This week saw yet another horrific attack by extremist Islamist militants. 148 students at Garissa university in Northern Kenya were slaughtered by four men from the Somalian jihadist group al-Shabab. The men broke into the campus before killing students in their classrooms and dorm rooms, separating Muslims from Christians as they went. It took hours for the Kenyan army to regain control of the situation, and parents are still faced with the task of identifying the victims. It was as brutal, personal, and on the same mass scale as an attack that left me similarly lost for words five months ago. So who is al-Shabaab, and why are they fighting a war in Kenya? Continue reading
For the second week in a row, it looks like I’ve been wrong. Luckily for me, I’m in good company. The mistake goes back to when President Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria postponed the Nigerian elections for six weeks in February, giving the Boko Haram insurgency as an excuse. I – along with the actual experts – scoffed at the idea that six weeks would be enough time to deal with the conflict that had been so drastically neglected by his government. I also suggested that violence would be likely to follow once the elections actually took place. Yet here we are six weeks later, and Boko Haram is apparently badly damaged, and elections have gone ahead peacefully – leading to the victory of General Muhammadu Buhari. So what difference did six weeks make? What was Goodluck Jonathan’s best decision of his presidency? And how will his successor govern?
Bob Geldof’s got the band back together to release a new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise funds for fighting the Ebola outbreak. Just like the original version, released in 1984 to raise money for the victims of the Ethiopian famine, this year’s version (Band Aid 30) features a whole group of celebrities, from Bono to X-Factor runners up. But as soon as it was released, the song came under fire from commentators in both the West and Africa, who saw it as patronising and a lyrical ‘White Man’s Burden‘. So what are the problems with the song? And how should we react when the West tries to help the Rest? Continue reading
No. We’ll probably be fine. West Africa on the other hand might not be. The Ebola outbreak in the region has been covered extensively in the media, far more than any other African epidemic. At the same time though, the global community has been slow to react with aid to the nations struggling to deal with a flood of cases and paralysed infrastructure. So what is Ebola, and should we really be so scared of it? What is happening in West Africa? And what is the world doing about it? Continue reading
Earlier in January I wrote about the French intervention in the Central African Republic, and the causes of the terrible violence there. Unfortunately my pessimism regarding the effectiveness of the French has been justified in the short-term. Violence has only gotten worse, as the capital Bangui is torn apart by lynch mobs. So what exactly is happening now? Is there any hope for improvement? And why do these terrible things always seem happen in Africa?
Firstly a short recap of the events in the CAR though. As you might remember from my earlier post, the country descended into chaos after a Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, came to power, disturbing the religious balance of the country. Christian militias known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) were set up to protect Christians, and in effect the country turned to anarchy with no effective government. Last time I wrote on the CAR the Muslim president had just resigned, but unfortunately that hasn’t yet helped the situation.
This situation is one of horrific violence and brutality. The Seleka have been forced into retreat, and many of their leaders are heading for the border with Chad, protected by Chadian peacekeepers. The Muslim population has been left to fend for itself. In Bangui the mob violence is extreme, and happening right under the eyes of the French soldiers there. A director of Human Rights Watch described a mob killing and then mutilating two Muslim men while French soldiers stood by. In other cases however the French stepped in. The BBC’s Thomas Fessy saw a Muslim man rescued from the mob by two soldiers, who had to fire in the air to keep the anti-balaka back (video). Meanwhile the Seleka and Muslim mobs have committed their share of atrocities, in a constant back-and-forth of death.
So will the new president and the international community be able to bring a halt to this violence? This is a task which is gets harder by the day. The new president is Catherine Samba-Panza. She has been mayor of Bangui and a founder of a successful women’s rights organisation. She is a good choice, but her challenges are enormous. I wrote about some of the structural problems of the country in my first post on the CAR, but the immediate problem now is the effect of the violence on the population.
Incredible hatred has sprung up between the Christians and Muslims. The BBC’s Paul Wood interviewed a man whose pregnant wife had been killed by Muslims. He had then joined a lynch mob and murdered a Muslim man, before completely devouring the man’s leg, in an act of extreme cannibalism not yet seen in this conflict. I’m not telling this story merely as a shocking detail. Too often we do this with African conflicts: shudder at the violence like we might at a horror film, before turning away again. But this incident shows the incredible hatred that can arise out of anarchy and ethnic or religious clashes. When asked why he had eaten the man’s leg, the killer simply said “Because I was angry”. This is the sort of anger that breeds, that passes on like a disease, and that can destroy a country. Though there are many good ideas for strategies to help rebuild the CAR, it is this kind of anger and hate that they will have to deal with.
As a final thought, many will read this and think “It’s just Africa…” without wondering why. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, and now the Central African Republic; why does this almost unbelievable level of violence seem so common there? This is of course a hugely complex question which can’t easily be answered here, but I have a few quick thoughts on the so-called ‘uniqueness’ of Africa.
Firstly, these are just the African countries that grab the headlines. There are plenty of countries like Zambia, Tanzania or Namibia that have nothing like this sort of trouble. The Western tendency to see Africa as a ‘country’ is an easy trap to fall into. Secondly, the situation that this level of violence arises in is generally (not always though) a situation of anarchy. If we look back to a sustained period of anarchy in Europe, the Thirty Years War, we see many of the same signs. Murder, rape, and even cannibalism; when the institutions of government and society fall away, people in constant fear for their lives and surrounded by violence will turn to terrible things. This is true no matter where the people involved come from.
It will take time and well-thought out assistance from the international community to help rebuild the CAR. In the short term more troops may help to suppress the violence, and allow for work to be done on putting the country back together. In the long term more sophisticated help will be needed. However, through all of this the people of the CAR will somehow need to recover from the fear and hatred that dominates at the moment, and find the strength to work for reconciliation.
This last thought of ‘why always Africa?’, and whether it is true or not, is a subject I hope to return to in a later post.
If you don’t follow the news, you could be forgiven for confusing the situation in the Central African Republic with the conflict in South Sudan, or Mali, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What is the problem with these central African states? While there are numerous factors, most of them go back to the colonial period.
The European colonial powers, especially the French and Belgians have an absolutely atrocious record in Africa. Firstly, they gained colonies for prestige or resources. They didn’t actually care about creating any effective form of government, other than what was needed for extracting resources. They played tribes off against each other, choosing one tribe to rule through. This ‘divide and conquer’ strategy meant there was no sense of national unity, and led directly to the ethnic clashes and genocide after independence.
When the colonisers exited, they left the newly independent countries with weak, undemocratic governments as well borders that had nothing to do with the people living inside them. Even after independence the French continued to alternate between supporting dictators and coups against the dictators. Unfortunately for the CAR, this pattern is exactly what happened there.
If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s in the name, not many people would have any clue where the Central African Republic is. I suspect that if more people would be interested if they knew that it was once ruled by a self-proclaimed Emperor who was allegedly a cannibal and spent the equivalent of the entire national budget on his crown. Unfortunately since then the situation hasn’t improved much. After mainly Muslim rebels took over the country in March, the CAR has been mired in anarchy and genocide. So why has there been so much strife?
While the CAR has always suffered under autocratic leaders, there hasn’t always been this sort of unrest. Until recently the Christian majority and Muslim minority lived in peace, despite the Muslim minority feeling neglected by the Christian government. However in 2013 after a long period of internal conflict, a coalition of numerous Muslim rebel groups, the Seleka, forced out the Christian president Francois Bozize and put their own leader in power. This fact that their leader Michel Djotodia became the first Muslim president seems to have set the two religions against each other.
Basically, since the rebel takeover in March there has been no effective government in the CAR. Christians set up their own militias to combat the Seleka, and this has turned into the two sides killing civilians and each other, mainly around the capital Bangui. The French sent troops to try and stop the killing, but so far haven’t had too much success. On Friday the president resigned, but experts are divided as to whether this will stop or instead fuel the killing. Unfortunately for the CAR, continuing violence is likely to make the CAR “just another African mess” in the eyes of the world.