Foreign Policy Blogs

A Muslim Call to Partition the CAR


A Rwandan soldier, left, exits a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft near a refugee camp full of displaced residents at Bangui M’Poko International Airport in the Central African Republic Jan. 19, 2014. U.S. forces were dispatched to provide airlift assistance to multinational troops in support of an African Union effort to quell violence in the Central African Republic. Credit: SSgt Ryan Crane

While the world focuses on the calls for partition by pro-Russian citizens in the south and east of Ukraine, similar calls from a small African nation are drawing less attention — despite horrific human rights abuses occurring on its territory. In what the U.N. human rights body and Amnesty International have called “ethnic-religious cleansing” between the country’s Muslim minority (15 percent of the population) and Christian militiamen, more than 2,000 people are dead and nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 4.6 million have been forced to flee the Central African Republic (CAR).

The conflict can be traced back to 2003, when François Bozizé, the army’s chief of staff, seized control of the country with the backing of Chad’s oil-rich president Idriss Déby. Déby helped keep Bozizé in power for eight years, supplying elite Chadian troops to quell unrest, until Bozizé looked to South Africa as its new guarantor. Afterwards, relations with Chad quickly soured, and an angry Déby then backed a loose coalition of mostly Muslim rebels from north and east CAR in their efforts to take over the country. The current conflict is not unprecedented – since independence from France in 1960, the country has suffered five coups and numerous rebellions. Additional spillover from conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Chad has made the CAR a chronically weak state.

Ethnic-religious tension between Muslims and Christians exploded in late 2012, when Muslim Seleka rebels, supported by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, quickly overran the country’s army. One of the complaints of the Muslim rebels was their exclusion by southern tribes from the country’s oil, gold and diamond wealth. After a series of peace deals with the opposition were not honored, the Seleka rebels invaded the capital and overthrew President Bozizé last March, installing the country’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. Widespread human rights abuses by the Muslim rebels, including the pillaging of neighborhoods, rape and killing of people, prompted the creation of the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias, mainly consisting of the Christian-majority and some animists. While their agenda was not purely religious in nature, the disproportionate violence carried out against Christians prompted Christian militias to attempt a coup early last December, with violence exploding between the two communities in the following days. The forced resignation of Djotodia in January, amid mounting international condemnation, emboldened the attacks of Christian militias on those Muslims, and others, it accuses of having collaborated with the government.
The international condemnation has led to the deployment of some 2,000 French troops and nearly 5,000 African peacekeepers on the ground to help stabilize the country, and more are on the way. The U.N. Security Council approved a peacekeeping mission of 11,800 soldiers on April 10, although they will only arrive in September. The African forces currently consist mainly of Burundian and Rwandan forces, after the widely-despised Chadian forces withdrew in late March.

The ongoing fighting has led to entire neighborhoods emptying of their Muslim populations along with the destruction of property and mosques. Recent violence has seen ex-Seleka militants, who have been ousted from the capital Bangui, regrouping in the north and carrying out attacks on the local population. An attack on a hospital in the northern town of Nanga Boguila on April 26 led Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors without Borders, to suspend all but emergency care. Three MSF staff were among the 16 killed in the armed robbery involving more than 40 militants, in an action that has not been condemned by the current government.

Far north of the capital, some angry Muslims now talk of a simple solution to the threat of religious violence from Christian militias terrorizing the country’s south. Young Muslims in the town of Bambari, which lies roughly on the dividing line separating the Christian south from a northern region controlled by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, are circulating by cellphone a design for the flag of the “Republic of Northern Central Africa.”

“The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence,” said Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group lobbying for the secession of the north.

Within Seleka, hardliners like General Abakar Sabone — who controls the far north Vakaga region — has said partition is inevitable if Muslims are denied a role in government. Other Seleka leaders, such as General Mohamed Dhaffane, second vice president of the ex-Seleka coalition, is uncertain of the benefits of independence. The interim government in Bangui, led by a Christian ex-lawyer named Catherine Samba-Panza, is vehemently opposed to partition, and France, the major foreign military power in CAR, has said it will do everything to prevent partition. Despite the government’s opposition to partitioning the country, it has already taken steps to partition some of its most powerful institutions, making them Muslim-free. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned of the dangers of partition, and other African governments are also skeptical of partition on a continent where many borders were arbitrarily drawn, with ongoing separatist movements in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

If the country were divided along the lines suggested by the separatists, many fear a repeat of the situation in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but is now threatened by civil war between troops backing President Salva Kiir and soldiers loyal to his sacked deputy, Riek Machar. The fighting in South Sudan seems to have worsened ethnic tensions between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, and sparked a massacre in the oil town of Bentiu. Others fear an independent north would also play into the hands of neighboring Chad and Sudan, whose mercenaries have been fighting alongside the Seleka rebels.

If partition is not the answer, the root causes of the call for partition need to be addressed by the interim government in Bangui, with the support of France and the international community, including the U.N. The concerns of Seleka leaders will need to be aired and acted upon, to include a greater role in government and share of resources for Seleka should their fighters lay down their weapons. Greater humanitarian efforts will be required to disperse already approved aid to fleeing refugees, many of whom have fled to different provinces of the country and to the neighboring nations of Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. Should these efforts fail, the de facto partition could lead to a de jure partition, with the poison of ethnic-religious hatred lingering in the country and seeping into neighboring countries.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]

Great Decisions Discussion group