On 23 March 2013 the world awoke to the news that President François Bozizé of the Central African Republic (CAR) had fled the country and a rebel coalition had taken the capital. The somewhat automatic response from the African Union (AU) condemning the unconstitutional handover of power was matched by ensuing chaos in the country as a loose coalition of rebel groups, predominantly from the north of the country and broadly Muslim, battled over who would become president. Eventually it was Michael Dijotida who took the helm and oversaw the country for nine months.
It was during that first nine months that some of the most serious human rights abuses were perpetrated, while global leaders pondered their response. As the rebel coalition, known as the Seleka, advanced on the capital, they left death and destruction in their wake. Meanwhile, religious leaders of all faiths would travel to communities, where at times bodies still lay on the ground, to comfort mourners and urge them not to take revenge.
The AU largely led the global response, with the exception of France, which decided to put troops on the ground while the UN negotiated the creation of a peacekeeping mission.
Unlike in past conflicts or coups, a clear religious element to the conflict emerged, which was evident in the first nine months amid reports of Christian homes being targeted repeatedly by the Seleka coalition forces, while they spared the homes of Muslims. Such was the historic peaceful coexistence between the two religious communities that Christian leaders told CSW of instances in which their Muslim neighbours would warn them when a potential attack may be coming, or which stalls to avoid in the market because they were selling tainted food products to non-Muslims.
The conflict took another turn in December 2013 however, when over 1,000 people were killed as a rival rebel group known as the anti-Balaka marched on the capital, heralding the commencement of a large-scale displacement of the country’s Muslim population.
At an intra-community level, religious leaders strove to maintain the bonds of fraternal relations even at the height of the conflict when they too found themselves targeted by armed groups. In parts of the country, Muslims were provided refuge in the compounds of Catholic churches and the priests in charge came under pressure and physical violence from anti-Balaka armed groups for offering this protection. The religious fault line, which was began to open for the first time in CAR’s history due to the activities of Seleka, was widened and deepened by the anti-Balaka and became embedded in the contours of what was previously an ethnic and political conflict.
Today, CAR remains impoverished, and has spent decades among the least developed countries in the world. The lack of impetus for effective intervention by the international community was partly because the conflict was perceived as an internal issue that should be resolved internally. The last decade has shown just how quickly something that appears to be solely of national concern can develop into a wider conflict.
With a population of approximately 5 million people, everyone in the country has been affected by the conflict. Millions have been displaced internally and others who fled across borders are yet to return. Geopolitical interest in CAR has also grown, with Russia setting its sights on the mineral-rich country and courting its political leaders for years as relations between France and CAR deteriorated.
In many ways, CAR has been through several cycles of conflict in the last decade. While the security situation is not the same as it was a decade ago, it is far from being a stable nation with a secure future.
After years of conflict, there was some hope when the country adopted a new constitution and underwent two rounds of elections to usher in a new president. He was initially credited with addressing and dealing with the root causes of the conflict. However, it now appears that President Faustin-Archange Touadéra is following the path of his predecessors of decades past, as he attempts to change the constitution and lift presidential term limits.
The proposals were first made in 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic looked set to delay presidential elections slated for the end of the year. In March 2022 Russian diplomat Yevgeny Migunov met with the President of the Constitutional Court, at the time Daniele Darlan, and argued that Presidential term limits contained in the 2016 constitution should be abolished. By October 2022 Ms Darlan was removed by presidential decree from her post in a move widely considered as paving the way for an amendment to term limits.
This unusual diplomatic activity has widely been interpreted as a blatant positioning of Russia’s preferred leader to stay in position and support the Kremlin’s geopolitical aims both diplomatically and through the Wagner Group, a brutal mercenary outfit with strong connections with Russia’s political elite. The foreign fighters have been providing support to the national army. However, their presence in the country is marked by violence, brutality and comprehensive exploitation of the country’s mineral and other resources. Together with the national army, the group stand accused of some of the gravest human rights violations and the disproportionate targeting of the country’s Muslim population when supressing armed groups.
Many in CAR support Russian intervention, especially after ten years of what has been perceived as failed Western and UN action to root out armed groups and stabilise the country. However, this decisive and often brutal repression of armed groups leaves more behind than just the appearance of peace. The asymmetrical targeting of northern ethnic and Muslim religious groups shatters social cohesion and trust in the state. The work of non-governmental organisations, religious leaders, and community leaders to bring people together who were starkly divided along ethnic and religious lines in the violence is truly at risk.
In April 2022 three Russian nationals were accused of descending on a maternity hospital in the capital, Bangui, and sexually assaulting women and nurses in the wards. Those who described these gross violations spoke on the condition of anonymity and with a heavy sense of resignation that no one could do anything because Russian mercenaries enjoy the protection of the state and operate with total impunity.
If CAR’s history tells us anything, it is that grievances that are left to fester in silence tend to find a means of expressing themselves, and in CAR it is often the armed strong man who speaks loudest. Those who suffer most are civilians, who are violated and displaced time and time again as strongmen battle for supremacy.
As with ten years ago, the developments in CAR should not be dismissed as an ‘internal matter’ that the country needs to resolve. Russian influence on the continent has far reaching consequences. Alliances and bilateral relations that have been nurtured for years came to the fore internationally when Russia invaded Ukraine and key African leaders supported the aggression during significant votes at the UN General Assembly.
Most recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov completed a tour of African capitals that included CAR, Ethiopia, Mali, South Africa and Sudan. The geopolitical influence is undoubtedly connected to the resources that states like CAR and Sudan can offer Russia, especially as it enters the second year of war with Ukraine, where support from these states can potentially chip away at consensus in the diplomatic arena. However, the consequences for civilians in these countries are dire, and there must be concerted international action to bring foreign mercenaries operating in CAR and nearby nations to account.
The AU’s Peace and Security Council must place the situation in CAR and role of Russian mercenaries firmly on its agenda. Skirmishes between Sudanese nationals, foreign Russian nationals and armed groups from the CAR in early 2023 are a reminder of how quickly the conflict can spill over. This is especially sensitive when both Sudan and neighbouring Chad are currently led by military leaders who seized power in coups within the last 18 months.
CAR has changed a lot over the past decade; however, the human rights concerns remain the same as innocent civilians continue to find themselves brutalised in the name of ‘peace or stabilisation’, compounded by Russian greed. The time is beyond due for the AU, the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council to hold foreign mercenaries operating in CAR – and potentially neighbouring countries – to account, even if they are present at the invitation of the government.
By CSW’s Central African Republic Team
Featured Image: ‘School children in the Central African Republic‘ by hdptcar is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.