In a relatively unknown country in the middle of Africa, scenes comparable to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide or Pot Pol’s Khmer Rouge regime are unfolding, as a cycle of Christian-Muslim violence takes hold across the nation.
Over the past year the historically unstable Central African Republic (CAR) has seen political violence morph into religious violence and hundreds of thousands flee its borders.
The Central African Republic is a multiethnic and multi-religious nation landlocked between South Sudan, Chad, Cameroon and the Congos — holding 4.4 million people, it is roughly 15 percent Muslim and 50 percent Christian (the rest hold mostly animist or ‘pagan’ beliefs).
CAR has a long history of political violence and ‘transition governments,’ which come to power illegitimately, hold elections and use their interim leader position to win the vote.
The current conflict began flaring up in late 2012, but grew out of the CAR Bush War (2004-2007), which was the response to former rebel leader François Bozizé’s takeover in 2003.
Michel Djotodia, a formerly obscure tax official that joined the pre-Séléka groups during the Bush War, led the mostly Muslim Séléka coalition into a restart of the conflict in December 2012. Though Bozizé received troops from several allies in the African Union, the capital Bangui was taken in March and Bozizé fled the country.
Christian vigilante groups, known collectively as anti-Balaka (anti-machete in the local Sango language) arose to defend communities in mid-2013 from rampaging Séléka, and eventually ex-Séléka fighters.
Though Séléka was instrumental in leading Bozizé to power and gained international political recognition, it was disbanded by Bozizé two months after he was sworn in as interim president as it became painfully clear that violence had not abated.
Anti-balaka groups became increasingly vengeful and the Muslim population, who make up much of the agriculture and trade sectors, began fleeing the nation, worsening the food crisis.
In early December, French troops gained a UN mandate to enter the nation, and joined an African Union delegation in attempting to prevent the Séléka and anti-Balaka groups from murdering each other or civilians.
This was the second French military intervention of 2013 in a former African colony — Socialist Party President Francois Hollande sent troops into Mali in January, which led an African Union brigade in successfully beating back an Islamist secessionist movement in the northern desert area of Azawad.
Catherine Samba-Panza was elected in the second round of the election, beating the son of André-Dieudonné Kolingba, a former President who took power in a bloodless coup in 1981 and was edged out of power by ‘democracy’ through domestic and foreign opposition.
Prior to her role as interim President, Samba-Panza was a Christian, Western-educated businesswoman, who was appointed mayor of Bangui by Bozizé; her non-partisan credentials are well-regarded by both sides in the conflict.
By this point in the conflict, the tide of violence had turned firmly against Muslims, with an unspoken media consensus that anti-Balaka groups were at that point responsible for the majority of violence in the nation.
Upon election, Jan. 23, Catherine Samba-Panza promised to be a “president of all Central Africans, without exclusion.” A week ago, she “declared war on the anti-Balaka,” a move criticized by an anti-Balaka leader as “[amounting] to declaring war on the Central African population.” French and African troops have begun forcefully disarming anti-Balaka troops in Bangui.
With around a fifth of the population displaced, the Central African Republic is at a critical stage; if international troops and the new administration are unable to stabilize the nation and convince both anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka fighters to put down their arms, the nation risks a widening bloodbath and accompanying food crisis.
This columnist hopes Catherine Samba-Panza makes good on her word and is able to reunite a torn nation.