Central African what?

Jonathan Couturier

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Photo Source: UNHCR / S. Phelps via Flickr.

Where is this? Over 20% of its population has been displaced. Civil strife has killed thousands. Central government has no control over its territory. The violence has destabilised the region.

Syria? No. This is the Central African Republic (CAR), which has been in the midst of a bloodbath for over a year.

Western media have only recently started paying attention, but even now it seems to matter little. It hardly pre-occupies newspapers and broadcasters in the same way that Syria does.

Disinterest in what seems to be “another African war” has led to superficial and simplistic coverage. Important questions are not being asked. In this case, the conflict has been explained as a feud between Christians and Muslims. This is lazy journalism.

Superficially, the religious-feud explanation may work. In March 2013, President Francois Bozize was overthrown by a loose rebel alliance from the North, called the Seleka. The press, almost as a refrain, describes them as ‘predominantly Muslim’.

The Seleka have been committing widespread abuses against the civilian population. In response civil-defence militias were formed. Going under the name of ‘anti-Balaka’, these are described as ‘predominantly Christian’.

In a cycle of retribution, the anti-Balaka have persecuted Muslim civilians for their perceived – but inexistent – connection to the Seleka. The French and other African countries have sent troops to quell the violence – to no avail. Even though the Seleka-regime was deposed in January by regional powers, Muslims are now being systematically targeted and exterminated.

This version of events offers convenient answers: Who are the Seleka? Muslims. Who are the anti-Balaka? Christians. However, it is also misleading. It obscures economic, ethnic and political power-struggles.

When the Commander of French forces on the ground, General Francisco Soriano, was asked who the anti-Balaka were, he confessed having no idea. But reports from Al Jazeera, IRIN and Human Rights Watch suggest that the anti-Balaka are partly formed from ex-President Bozizé’s supporters. There are also ex-members of the armed forces, themselves largely drawn from Bozizés ethnic group.

Is this a pattern? Could the anti-Balaka be driven by the remnants of Bozizé’s regime, keen to get their hands back on CAR vast mineral wealth, including uranium, diamonds and gold?

As for the Seleka, they are indeed ‘predominantly’ Muslim – but that seems to be a coincidence. They come from the under-developed North of the country, which has been rebellious for decades. Their defining characteristic is not their religion. It is the fact that they are poorer than the rest. They hail from marginalised ethnic groups, who happen to be Muslim.

They are also formed of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, and even some Chadian troops. What does that tell us? Inequality and neglect have inspired a rebellion amongst people who happen to be Muslim. Some mercenaries have latched on – probably in it for the spoils. Foreign powers too – playing regional politics (and also vying for spoils).

The “Christians versus Muslims” explanation therefore seems tenuous. All the more so, considering the near-absence of religious violence throughout the CAR’s history.

So what should we make of this? Labels are a distraction. They do not explain the root of the conflict, and should not be taken at face value. As suggested by the newly appointed president of the CAR, Catherine Samba-Panza, religion is being instrumentalised.

What is the religious label distracting us from? Inequality and power struggles.

The anti-Balaka may be Christian, but their entanglement with Bozizé and ethnic interests suggests a power struggle, not a religious one.

As for the Seleka, the rebellion broke out in the first place because of an unfair distribution of resources. They didn’t rebel in the name of Islam. However, the Muslim community is now being scape-goated for Seleka’s actions. Who benefits? Whoever lays their hands on power once this is over. They won’t have to share resources with the CAR’s Muslims. Winner takes all.

The religious label also distracts us from regional trends. Western media focus on religious strife in Nigeria and Cameroon with Boko Haram; and Islamist insurgencies in Mali and Chad. They assume religion is the common thread. But that is missing the point. The driver in all these conflicts is not religion, it is inequality. These rebellions started as a protest against marginalisation and deprivation. They latched on to religious narratives to frame their cause – and to gain backers.

The picture in CAR is still fuzzy. More details may yet emerge. However, it is clear that attempts to explain the conflict have been too simplistic. This is typical of Western reporting on Africa. Always be weary when news report use broad labels like “Christian” or “Muslim”. At best, it is laziness. At worst, we are being deliberately misled.

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