The evacuation of a besieged settlement of 1300 displaced people by the UN-sanctioned French and African Union peacekeeping forces on April 27 marked the disappearance of the Muslim community of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Until last year, 100,000 of Bangui’s 734,000 inhabitants were Muslim.
Deutsche Welle said that day that after the convoy left with the displaced people, crowds chanted “Liberation!” and “We have cleaned Central African Republic of the Muslims!” They looted the deportees’ homes and trashed one of the city's few remaining mosques.
Since January, Muslim communities have also disappeared from other cities and communities throughout the CAR. Thousands have taken refuge in neighbouring countries or in the north of the CAR.
Reporting on the apparent inability of the peacekeeping force to guard the remaining concentrations of displaced Muslims in Bangui, Reuters said on April 30: “One of the dead, a Muslim, was decapitated, his heart ripped out and his body mutilated.”
French military forces and UN agencies, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have made it clear to the Muslim communities, who until last year formed 15% of the CAR’s population, that the best they can offer is transport and some security for the journey into exile.
In this way, they are essentially helping the “cleansing” of CAR communities of Muslims.
Even this assistance is only partial. Deutsche Welle said on April 29 that the convoy that left Bangui three days before came under armed attack as it headed north, with two refugees killed and six wounded.
On May 1, the BBC said security at Bangui Airport had been taken over by the advance detachments of a 1000-strong French-led European Union force consisting of mainly French and Estonian troops. A 12,000-strong UN force is due to be deployed in September to take over command from the French and AU forces.
However, the December 5 boosting of French peacekeeping forces from 400 to about 2000 not only failed to stop communal violence. It also precipitated the fall of the warlord regime of president Michel Djotodia, the collapse of what remained of the CAR state, and the dominance on the streets of Anti-Balaka Christian communalist militias.
The Anti-Balaka are responsible for the anti-Muslim pogroms.
Violence is nothing new in CAR politics, although it is rising. Since the first post-independence coup in 1965, the CAR has been under military rule more often than not.
The first military regime lasted 15 years. Once in power, army commander Jean-Bedel Bokassa was responsible for spectacular acts of sadism against political opponents and anyone who stood in the way of looting the country’s resources.
Not content with promoting himself from Colonel to General, Bokassa eventually had himself crowned Emperor.
Since Bokassa’s overthrow in 1979, coups, mutinies and armed insurgencies have become more frequent. The CAR’s 21st century history has been marked by the “Bush Wars” between the regime of Francois Bozize, who seized control in a 2003 coup, and a constellation of insurgent armies.
The religious communal nature of the violence is new. Before last year, the violence was political ― caused by the fracturing of a kleptocratic military-based elite, the rise of warlord armies due to the splintering of the armed forces and the spill-over of wars in neighbouring countries.
Rebel armies opposing Bozize united to form the Seleka coalition and, in March last year, overthrew him. However, Seleka leader Djotodia was unable or unwilling to control the armed groups, who instituted a reign of terror, subjecting civilian communities to looting, rape and murder.
This was when the conflict took a religious communalist form. Djotodia was the first Muslim president of the CAR. Muslims were over-represented in the Seleka militias.
When the Seleka militias violently plundered civilians, they showed a preference for targeting predominantly Christian communities and sparing communities with higher Muslim populations. The Anti-Balaka militias developed from community defence groups formed in response to Seleka attacks.
The Anti-Balaka rapidly developed a militantly Christian communalist character. By the end of last year, the situation had deteriorated to generalised conflict between Christians and Muslims.
Militias on both sides grew rapidly as communities felt they had to take sides. Half the population of Bangui was displaced as the city divided into Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods.
The December 5 French intervention was directed at disarming the Seleka militias. On February 4, Agence France-Presse said the peacekeeping forces had achieved this.
French political and military leaders downplayed the threat to Muslim civilians from Anti-Balaka.
The 6000-strong African Union force includes contingents from countries already politically and militarily involved in the CAR’s conflicts and from countries suffering their own civil and regional wars. France is directly involved in several of these wars.
Chad was openly supportive of Seleka during the war to overthrow Bozize. On April 4, the government of Chad announced that it was withdrawing its contingent from the AU peacekeeping force because of allegations of pro-Seleka bias.
Since Djotodia’s overthrow, the interim government led by lawyer Catherine Samba-Panza has been unable to project any authority. Samba-Penza herself cannot go anywhere without AU bodyguards, as no CAR armed force can be trusted not to carry out a coup or assassination.
The Seleka militias have not been entirely disarmed and have not entirely lost their penchant for indiscriminate violence. On April 26, 22 patients and staff were killed by ex-Seleka fighters robbing a hospital run by NGO Medicins Sans Frontiers.
But the violence has become largely one-sided. The Anti-Balaka gangs have been mostly unchallenged as they systematically ethnically cleanse the Muslim minority.
The militias are mainly armed with weapons such as machetes and shotguns ― effective for atrocities against civilians but ineffective against the modern military weapons of the peacekeeping forces.
The New Republic reported on April 30 that Rwandan officers in the AU force alleged that while African peacekeepers were consistently trying to protect Muslims, the French were often standing by during attacks and sometimes even frustrating attempts of AU peacekeepers to intervene.
Major Augustin Migabo said: “The Anti-Balaka are next to [the French] with their machetes and guns, and we can’t do anything. This is a big problem. The different contingents have different rules.”
France has a long history of claiming humanitarian motives to justify military interventions in the CAR. In the 1880s, during the “scramble for Africa” when the continent was carved up by rival European imperialist powers, France justified its first military incursions into Central Africa by claiming it was to suppress the slave trade.
However, enslaved Central Africans were overwhelmingly sent to the plantation colonies of France and other European powers in the Americas.
Over the next quarter century, violence grew as France waged wars of conquest against regional states. In 1910, central Africa was finally incorporated into French Equatorial Africa. In World War I, Central Africans were conscripted to fight and die for France and were prominent in the mutinies on the Western Front.
In the 1920s, a non-violent movement developed against the forced recruitment of Central Africans to work in slave-like conditions in rubber plantations and building railways.
French repression of this movement led to armed revolt, followed by three years of war and brutal French reprisals including mass executions and the razing of villages.
French military interventions continued after the CAR became independent in 1960, safeguarding French control over diamond mining, which dominated the economy.
French military forces remained in the CAR throughout the brutal rule of Bokassa, and armed and trained the dictator’s forces.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who became French president in 1974, forged a particularly close relationship with Bokassa. Their partnership in plundering the country’s natural resources was symbolised by a notoriously extravagant gift of diamonds from the emperor to the president.
When Bokassa’s increasingly unhinged regime finally became an embarrassment to France, a French special forces parachute regiment and an undercover intelligence commando squad were despatched to overthrow him. This was justified by the humanitarian aim of freeing the country from a monster.
With each coup that followed, the pattern has been repeated. French forces are deployed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe; their intervention fuels the violence creating further humanitarian crises that justify further intervention.
In 2009, 57% of the CAR’s legal export earnings were from diamonds. The illegal export of diamonds has become an important source of income for the various armed groups. This has fuelled other illegal plunder of natural resources, such as ivory poaching and smuggling.
When Seleka forces took Bangui in March last year, French troops did not engage them. At the same time, 13 soldiers from the South African peacekeeping force were killed trying to stop Bozize’s overthrow.
US NGO Enoughproject.org cited international interest in the CAR’s oil reserves as a further driver of the violence. A large, undeveloped oil reserve straddles the CAR-Chad border. Chad switched its support from Bozize to Seleka in 2012 in response to Bozize talking to South Africa about developing the oilfields, Enoughproject.org said.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian catastrophe escalates. The death toll is unknown, but an April 30 press release from the UN World Food Programme noted that deaths from bullets would be exceeded by deaths from malnutrition and disease caused by the conflict ― and that most victims will be children.
The violence has altered the CAR’s demographics. Most cities, towns and villages are already declared “Muslim-free” by the Anti-Balaka. The April 30 New Republic said: “CAR has already begun taking steps to make its most powerful institutions Muslim-free.”
This includes the new CAR armed forces being created under the peacekeeping forces’ supervision.
These new armed forces have been rejecting Muslim recruits, but they have accepted recruits from the Anti-Balaka gangs.