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.