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


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.


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
Ivan Gulmesoff
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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