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Ethnic and Religious Division in the Central African Republic: Crafting a New Nation?

Ivan Gulmesoff

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The Central African Republic (CAR) has continued a path of failed establishments of democracy entangled in conflict. While the Séléka group aspired to resolve this problem, it not only exacerbated it, it laid the foundation for more violence and difficulties for the CAR. To fully understand the extent of this problem, one must grasp the history behind the country’s political instability as well as the ethnic and religious implications. Not taking into account the preestablished ethnic groups during the French Colonial period, government officials identified areas of influence in the CAR and reinforced their boundaries (KŁosowicz 2016). Without a robust political system, ethnic groups began competing with each other in politics (KŁosowicz 2016). This ethnic competition in politics has continued being a factor of insatiability within the CAR government to this day.

Leadersidentifying themselves solely through ethnic groups would continue down a path of violence for the government of the CAR. When Prime Minister Ange-Félix Patassé became president, he was from the Sara-Kaba ethnic group, while his predecessor André Dieudonné Kolingba was from the Yakoma ethnic group (Isaacs-Martin 2016). When André Dieudonné Kolingba became president, he relied solely on his ethnic group, replacing all government officials with tribal members as well as overpaying the army due to their Yakoma tribe ethnicity (KŁosowicz 2016). Every subsequent presidency or coup attempt would rely on their own ethnic group for support. In other words, the country was already divided into ethnic segregation well before French colonization. But the French certainly exacerbated this division in order to concretize their control over the country. Every attempt to form a democratic government post-colonialism reverted to the same ethnic segregation, ending with de facto ethnic authoritarianism.

The general population of the Central African Republic is comprised of eighty ethnic groups with the most conflictual being the Gbaja, Banda, Mandija, and Sara-Kaba (KŁosowicz 2016). This conflict between ethnic groups has only become exacerbated by religion. The CAR is comprised primarily of two religions, Christianity and Islam. These religions not only brought people together for a time of worship but unfortunately also became a conduit in which to unite people of each religion for acts of violence. In 2013, the CAR experienced greater violence through a coup than ever before from the Séléka group (Vlavonou 2014). The Séléka group combined rebels from the local military commander Damane, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), and the Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country (CPSK) (Vlavonou 2014). Striving for a common goal, the leaders of the Séléka group were able to convince other rebel groups to join. Crossing the borders of the landlocked state, the Séléka group recruited other militias from Sudan and Chad as well (Isaacs-Martin 2016). While each rebel group loosely maintained their independence in the coalition, they all fell under the leadership of Michel Djotobia (Vlavonou 2014). The common goal promulgated by Michel Djotabia was that all joining groups agreed the government of President François Bozizé had to be removed for the “better sake” of the country. Once established, the coalition exceeded 10,300 men, an estimated twice the size of the CAR army (Vlavonou 2014). By establishing a militia greater than the CAR military, combined with an unpopular government, Djotabia’s advantage was soon obvious.

A self-proclaimed Islamist group, Séléka effectively took advantage of an already weakened government and replaced President François Bozizé with their leader Michel Djotobia (KŁosowicz 2016). Once Séléka gained government authority, an Anti-Balaka group was established in response. As Kane described, “the Anti-Balaka aimed to liberate the Christian population from the yoke of the Muslims (Kane 2014).” While this might have been the aim, random violence became rampant throughout the CAR, even mistaking innocent Muslim civilians for members of the Séléka group (Kane 2014). Not only had the Séléka group created violence to overthrow the presidency, but it had also effectively ignited tensions between Christians and Muslims across the country in general.

As Isaacs-Martin suggests, the image portrayed of segregation or preferential treatment among certain groups tends to be the common theme in a recipe for conflicts in the CAR (Isaacs-Martin 2016). For members of the out-group, the perception of further exclusion may bring them closer together. In the CAR, the negative images portrayed by a specific group are then used to expose, pursue, or condemn other groups (Isaacs-Martin 2016). This perception has led to social conflicts such as social cleansing and total rejection of non-aligned ethnic groups (Isaacs-Martin 2016). However, as previously mentioned, conflict is not new in the CAR and neither are coup attempts. What could have contributed to the drastic escalation of violence with the rebel groups Séléka and Anti-Balaka? As Turner et al. (1984) implies, goals determine a group’s actions while inspired by their sense of belonging (Brown 2000). Adding to the violence was the fact that each group would target what was perceived to be the other’s resources or political support (Isaacs-Martin 2016). Villages were destroyed as well as innocent civilians murdered. While each had different goals and objectives, both rebel groups Séléka and Anti-Balaka displayed a unique ability to influence the groups in their favor while seeking outright destruction of the other.

Empathy has been replaced with hate for generations in the CAR. Ethnic groups have isolated themselves and lacked a necessary trust for each other through every attempt at democracy. It seems the people of the CAR have lived for generations passing down ethnic traditions of customs, beliefs, languages, and religions. Cultural context defines and ultimately allows a causal perception of “how the world works” that justifies an individual’s rationale for conduct by establishing norms(Beasley et al. 2001). As Beasley et al. suggests, the options of solving a problem across groups become more difficult with established cultural norms (Beasley et al. 2001).Cultural norms encompassing an ideology of distrust between ethnic groups have contributed to the coups and violence in the CAR (Vlavonou 2014).  The coups created over the decades are a clear example of strong ideologies being intensified by ethnic cultural norms.

Religion broadened the scope of hate by crossing boundaries of ethnicity while justifying the cause of continued violence. The Séléka and Anti-Balaka groups both took advantage of this fact to pursue their goals and objectives. This alone arguably increased the destruction and violence in the southwest and southeast of the CAR (Vlavonou 2014). The majority of state affairs were managed at the time by Christians, adding more enflamed desire for the establishment of a coup by Islamic ethnic groups (Mehler 2011). This sectarian conflict, led by the Muslim Séléka group, successfully removed President François Bozizé (KŁosowicz 2016). Since 2013, the Séléka group has been disestablished. However, Anti-balaka has continued to create violence, including crimes against humanity (Glawion and Giga 2018). These norms of hate based on ethnicity now included religion and was justified and conditioned in a positive light over time by the Séléka and Anti-Balaka groups.

Recommendations

As Bales (1953) suggests, expressive activities should be used to mitigate tensions within a group (Brown 2000). While ethnic groups might be separated by religion now, they must have a clear understanding that they all fall under the umbrella of the CAR government and must begin peaceful, respectful, active communication. The problems may seem self-evident to a global civil society but not to the people of the CAR without active communication amongst each other. Although they may not immediately like each other, having the same purpose, overseen by international participants, may bring them together. Once this is established, social interactions with each other should be reinforced to build bonds of trust and reliability, thereby mitigating the likelihood of failure. However, overcoming the cultural history and established social norms may be extremely difficult without committed international help.

The key to establishing norms may begin by applying the self-categorization theory for a better understanding of intergroup behavior and in-group norms established in the CAR as a result of the violence created by the Anti-Balaka and Séléka groups. As the theory of self-categorization states, a group’s behavior is a result of a collective understanding (Smith and Postmes 2011). The Anti-Balaka and Séléka groups used religion as an avenue to expand their social categories while developing a collective understanding. The challenge now would be to reverse this through an alternative national collective understanding and bring all ethnic groups together under the same social/national category umbrella. To solve the continued violence and failed establishments of democracy caused by the rebel groups Séléka and Anti-Balaka in the Central African Republic positive norms creating trust and empathy must be established between all ethnic groups. As Roessler implies, a common practice through African countries is the exclusion of certain ethnic groups who threaten their political party (Roessler 2011). While not perfect, South Africa implemented what they call a “rainbow nation” in an attempt to unify groups feeling a sense of national identity (Gibson 2006). While the group dynamics in the CAR may be entirely different, this could be a system to consider as a start.

Attempting to establish a democracy without positive normative change first may result in reliving a history of violence. The rebel groups Séléka and Anti-Balaka not only created an increased state of chaos through violence, they also laid the foundation for new norms of hate for future generations. As Idowu Koyenikan once said as a lesson for all Africans,“You can no longer see or identify yourself solely as a member of a tribe, but as a citizen of a nation of people working toward a common purpose” (Koyenikan 2014). This great challenge needs to be adopted by all of the CAR. Failure to do so may ultimately lead to the failure of the state as a whole.

Ivan Gulmesoff is a doctoral candidate in Global Security in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University. Currently serving as a Naval Aviation Maintenance Officer in the United States Navy, he hopes eventually to transition to an agency like DARPA, specializing in technological innovations/advancements.

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Africa

Russia wants to bolster economic ties with Lesotho

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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In southern Russian city Sochi, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho, Lesego Makgothi, held wide-ranging diplomatic talks mid-February to understand deeply how to continue to build upon relations in numerous areas especially economic cooperation.

Makgothi, who has been Minister since 2017, made his first official trip to Moscow.

According to the official media release, Lavrov and Makgothi exchanged views on important global and regional issues, including Russia’s participation in international efforts to resolve conflicts and crises in Africa and some ways to ensure sustainable socioeconomic development of the continent.

They noted a desire to expand these relations in all areas, beginning with the political dialogue and then cooperation within international organizations, as well as in trade and economic, cultural and humanitarian areas.

During the discussion, both noted geological prospecting, mining and the energy industry as promising areas. The economy is based on agriculture, livestock, manufacturing and mining. Water and diamonds are its significant natural resources.

Both ministers also focused on cooperation in education exchanges. Russia has expanded the quota by five times for students from Lesotho. This will make it possible to meet the interests of Lesotho and to train specialists in healthcare, meteorology and mining starting next academic year, 2019/20.

There was also the possibility of sending law enforcement officers to study in advanced training courses at the educational institutions under the Russian Interior Ministry.

Lavrov informed that an inter-parliamentary Russian-African conference has been scheduled to take place later this year, and Russia would host a general meeting of the African Export-Import Bank’s shareholders.

Lavrov and Makgothi believed that this would make it possible to considerably raise the level of cooperation and to chart specific ways of further enriching Russia’s relations with Africa. He invited Makgothi to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum scheduled for June.

In general, Lavrov and Makgothi advocated for greater cooperation between Russia and the African countries in all areas, primarily within the context of a proposal put forward by President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, at the BRICS summit in July 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Lesotho’s geographic location, the southernmost landlocked country in the world and is entirely surrounded by South Africa, makes it extremely vulnerable to political and economic developments in South Africa.

Relations between the two countries were established soon after Lesotho gained independence in 1966. Lesotho, with about 2.5 million population, is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

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‘Endemic’ sexual violence surging in South Sudan

MD Staff

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The intensification of road patrols followed shocking incidents of rape and sexual assault, reported in the area in recent weeks. UNMISS/Isaac Billy

A surge in sexual violence in South Sudan’s Unity state targeting victims as young as eight years old, has prompted a call from the UN human rights office, OHCHR, for urgent Government measures to protect victims, and bring perpetrators to justice.

Despite the signing of a peace deal between belligerents last September, UN investigators found that at least 175 women and girls have been raped or suffered other sexual and physical violence between September and December 2018.

The actual level of violence is likely to be considerably higher, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists in Geneva on Friday.

“Obviously (it is) not the whole picture, but they found 175, women and girls who had been either raped, gang-raped or sexually assaulted or physically harmed in other ways,” he said. “And 49 of those girls who were raped, were children.”

According to a joint report by OHCHR and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), attacks against women have decreased significantly since the peace accord was signed on 12 September.

Nonetheless, it warns that such incidents are “endemic” in northern Unity state, on the border with Sudan, creating a sense among communities that it is normal to be a victim of sexual violence.

Victim’s testimony recalls recurring attacks

Citing the testimony of one victim, Mr. Colville explained that many women are raped while fetching firewood, food or water – often more than once – as they lack any protection.

“She said, ‘If we go by the main road we are raped, if we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three separate occasions.”

The surge in conflict-related sexual violence is attributed to many factors including the breakdown in the rule of law, the destruction of livelihoods, forced displacement and food insecurity, after years of civil war.

Large numbers of armed young men, a ‘toxic mix’

But one of the main reasons is the large number of fighters in the area, who have yet to be reintegrated into the national army, according to the peace deal.

Most of the attacks are reported to have been carried out by youth militia groups and elements of the pro-Taban Deng Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, SPLA-IO (TD), as well as South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF).

In a few cases, attacks were perpetrated by members of the group affiliated with reinstated Vice President and peace deal participant, Riek Machar, Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (RM), the UN report says.

“Particularly in this area, there are essentially three main groups who…are involved in these rapes, including the National Government force,” said Mr. Colville. “And a lot of these young men who are heavily armed, are just waiting around…This is a very toxic mix, and there are also youth militia which some of these official groups ally with and you don’t know exactly who they are; they’ve been heavily involved as well.”

Rule of law ‘just not applied’

A key challenge is tackling the prevailing impunity throughout Unity state, which is linked to the volatility of the situation across the country, OHCHR maintains.

“There’s been very little accountability in South Sudan for what is chronic, endemic problem of sexual violence against women and girls,” Mr. Colville said. “Virtually complete impunity over the years, as a result, very little disincentive for these men not to do what they’re doing. The rule of law has just not been applied.”

Mobile courts provide glimmer of hope for victims

Among the practical measures taken to a bid to help vulnerable communities in Unity state, UNMISS has cleared roadsides to prevent attackers from hiding from potential victims.

A mobile court system is also operational in towns, including Bentiu, which has had “some success” in bringing perpetrators to trial, OHCHR’s Mr. Colville said, noting nonetheless that “this is just a drop in the ocean”.

“There are thousands and thousands of perpetrators, there are officers involved, there are commanders who’ve got command responsibility who instead of being investigated and brought to book…have been promoted, and are still in charge of groups operating in this area who are still raping women,” he concluded.

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Italy making its way back to Africa

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The countries of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia) have recently been the focus of attention of Italian diplomacy, with the need to find political partners in Africa to resolve the migrant crisis, the signing of a long-awaited peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, China’s rapidly expanding influence in neighboring Djibouti amid the French and US military presence there making the region a strategically important hub.

Rome would like to see an end to Ethiopia’s “landlocked imprisonment” on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea and Djibouti, restore Italy’ presence in the region, based on its colonial past, and ensure Italian companies’ participation in the construction of a strategically important transport infrastructure in the region where they could be entrusted with looking at the possibility of building a railway connecting the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with the Eritrean port of Massawa.

The share of Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans in the migration flows from Africa to the European Union via Chad, Sudan and Libya has been traditionally high. Italy, which currently ranks third after China and the United Arab Emirates in terms of investment in Africa, wants to help reduce migration by investing in the Horn of Africa countries’ economy and transport infrastructure to improve the economic situation in the region and bring locally produced goods to foreign markets.

With 90 percent of Ethiopian exports going to Djibouti, a country with a population not exceeding 900,000, this helps check the number of Ethiopians heading to the EU, since the country depends on Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia both in terms of infrastructure and also from the standpoint of ensuring political stability in these countries.

While still remaining a poor country, Ethiopia keeps growing fast economically, raking in an impressive yearly growth of 10.3 percent between 2007 and 2017, compared to the regional average of just 5.4 percent. According to experts at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Ethiopia, with its fast-growing population and relatively cheap labor, will soon emerge as an “African China” in terms of production volumes.

Addis Ababa is also active diplomatically, promoting closer ties with Kenya and Sudan. Italy, for its part, is staking on Ethiopia as an economic and political springboard for expanding its foothold in the Horn of Africa and extrapolating this presence into the Arabian Peninsula via the Red Sea and towards the Indian Ocean.

It is apparently with this goal in mind that, while traditionally maintaining a partnership with Ethiopia and having access to the Indian Ocean, Rome seeks a more dynamic relationship also with Kenya. Italian donor NGOs are currently working in Kenya, and Italian exports to this East African country now exceed €182 million. According to Italy’s Foreign Development Assistance Program (la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo Esteri), Somalia enjoys a priority position here with €270 million worth of Italian grants expected to come in the next 20 years.

Chad and Niger, which border on Libya, are a logical continuation of the Sudan – Eritrea – Ethiopia – Djibouti – Somalia – Kenya geopolitical chain being built by Rome. This explains why Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Ndjamena and Niamey in January after stopovers in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Chad and Niger play a key role in balancing the international security system in the Sahel region, where Italian troops serve as part of a multinational force deployed there. Since the collapse of the Libyan state, Niger and Chad have been viewed by Rome as Europe’s southern border. Rome credits the 80 percent drop in migrant flows from these two countries to Libya to its cooperation with Chadian and Nigerian partners.

Meanwhile, the broad outlines of a rivalry between European powers, above all Italy and France, for control over strategically important African regions and their resources are already visible.

France fears that Italy’s diplomatic successes in Africa could eventually give Rome political and/or economic control over a vast region stretching from Algeria to Kenya, which in turn could politically separate French-speaking North Africa from Central Africa.

Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, which have been a traditional zone of French influence, have not been overlooked by Rome either with an Italian embassy expected to open in Burkina Faso shortly.

Rome’s expanding foothold in Kenya and Somalia is geographically taking it to Madagascar on the east coast of Africa, which is a place where France has its own interests too.

The present cool in Franco-Italian relations, stemming from the two countries’ conflicting views on the migrant problem and the ways to solve it, as well as the degree of political and legal sovereignty EU member states not sharing the views of Brussels, Paris and Berlin on matters pertaining to foreign and domestic economic policy, gives us a reason to expect the competition between Italy and France in Africa to heat up.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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