Rape, murder and cannibalism... is there any hope for Central African Republic?

Published 28 July 2014  |  
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
The crisis in the Central African Republic has forced nearly 1 million people from their homes.

A ceasefire was signed between Central African Republic's warring factions in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo on July 23 following three days of negotiations.

The 'Muslim' Séléka and 'Christian' anti-Balaka have been fighting since a coup in March 2013, killing thousands and causing about a million people to leave their homes.

The violence between these rival militias has been gruesome and unrelenting.

There are regular reports of people being hacked to death with machetes, houses burned, women raped, brutality towards children, and perhaps most horrifically, acts of cannibalism have been committed on both sides.

Is it possible that a conflict that has gone on for more than a year really be halted by few days of talks?

The success of the ceasefire did not look hopeful when the Séléka representation failed to show up to the second day of talks, nor when fighting continued in Bambari, in the south, on the day the deal was signed.

During the negotiations, Séléka dropped their demand for the division of the country into a Muslim north and Christian south, as was done in neighbouring Sudan.

Two days later, however, one Séléka leader told the BBC that they would not keep the ceasefire, and called for an immediate partition, saying that CAR as a nation was finished.

Religious division

Almost all Muslims have fled the capital, Bangui, and many Christians have left towns in the north which were predominantly Muslim.

Christians make up 80% of the population, Muslims 15% and about 5% follow traditional religions or animism.

But although the parties to the conflict are described as Muslims and Christians, this did not begin as a religious conflict. Religious leaders were quick to unite in condemnation of the violence, and have refuted its description as a religious war.

The Inter-Religious forum was set up by Imam Omar Kabine Layama, the Muslim spiritual leader, together with Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui and Rev Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, leader of the Evangelical Alliance in CAR.

The forum has spread a message of unity within CAR, and called on the international community to help with peace and security efforts.

It is also significant that until now, there has been no history of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in the country.

Rival forces

The Séléka coalition, which includes Chadian and Sudanese troops, came together in order to remove President Bozizé last March, who was blamed for depriving Muslim communities in the north. They have since fractured and formed numerous territorial groups.

It is thought that the anti-Balaka identified themselves as Christian as a means of separating themselves from the Séléka when they initially formed in order to exact retribution for Séléka attacks.

As the conflict has continued, these groups haven't become any more concrete in their identity or ideology.

Indeed one of the likely factors preventing the negotiation of a ceasefire before now is the difficulty of identifying respected representatives from both groups.

"There's no membership card, no set of beliefs, really they're self-defined groups of people with weapons without command structures or ideology," says Catherine Mahony, regional emergency coordinator for West Africa and the Great Lakes region at Catholic development agency CAFOD.

Humanitarian needs

The severe under-development makes it difficult to know exactly how many have been killed, as roads are few and far between.

But as a result of both the current conflict, and the pre-existing humanitarian needs in the country, the United Nations estimates that almost half of CAR's 4.6 million population are in need of humanitarian aid.

There are currently 7,000 French and African Union peacekeeping troops in the country, although the disparate clusters of violence make it difficult to control.

A further 5,000 international peacekeepers are meant to arrive in September, but so far it doesn't look as if these will be ready in time.

Prospect of division

The suggestion that CAR should divide along religious lines would not aid many of the pre-existing development issues and could in fact exacerbate some tensions.

"Given that this war didn't start because of interreligious conflicts, but it's been manipulated that way, it would seem wrong to divide people irreparably along those lines," Mahony says.

Separating north from south would also mean cutting off the most deprived areas north from the most developed cities in the south. And such divisions of territory could well be artificial, and therefore unsustainable.

"The idea that Muslims have a natural home in the north is a myth," says Mahony. "There was a greater concentration of Muslims in the north and east, but that doesn't mean they have a natural connection with that area.

"It's also an incredibly neglected area, and that's exactly the problem, the displaced communities, who are the most vulnerable, are being pushed to the most neglected areas."

As similar conflicts have demonstrated, division along religious lines doesn't resolve tension, and the critical issue of resources remains – as can be seen particularly in neighbouring Sudan and South Sudan, which was divided in 2011.

Some argue that this conflict has long been a fight for the country's natural resources. Mapping key conflict sites, it's possible to see clusters of Séléka and anti-Balaka around oil reserves and Uranium-rich areas.

An illegal trade in ivory and diamonds is also helping to fund the conflict, according to Enough Project, a Washington-based rights group. Militants are trading diamonds and ivory for weapons from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.

Hopes for peace

Although last week's ceasefire already seems unstable, some hope still rests on the prospect of additional troops arriving in September. It is hoped that a neutral, external force will have the best chance of securing the country.

Any future peace talks need to incorporate wider representation of CAR's population, not just those who have been given a voice by their brutality in the conflict.

"Any dialogue has to include the grassroots. It can't just be men with guns, because they don't represent all of the community. We would want to see civil society leaders involved, not just those who have the monopoly of force," says Mahony

Another key focus is the election, which though scheduled for March 2015 is unlikely to happen then. Faith leaders and women's organisations are some of the groups that Mahony thinks deserve a hearing and a stake in deciding the future of their country.

"We need to make sure that people like that who aren't going to exploit for their own material gain are at the forefront," she says.

"If we do our best to ensure that they are round the table at the elections then we can potentially avoid these situations where we have military rule by men with guns."

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