What Drives the Violence in the Central African Republic

4 MINS READJul 26, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
What Drives the Violence in the Central African Republic
French soldiers patrol Bangui as part of peacekeeping efforts in the Central African Republic in 2015. The last of the peacekeeping force is set to depart the country in October despite a recent surge in violence there.

Even with a freely elected government in place, the Central African Republic has its share of troubles. The French forces that have helped stabilize the war-torn region are steadily departing despite a growing number of attacks. French President Francois Hollande confirmed July 13 that the surge of French troops sent to intervene in 2013 will complete its withdrawal by October 2016. The assertion comes amid reports of renewed violence in the former French colony. Murders, kidnappings and looting in Bangui, the country's capital, have become more frequent. Reports indicate that since early June, more than 6,000 people have fled for Cameroon to the east and Chad to the north. The new wave of refugees has strained already stretched humanitarian budgets, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which said it has received only 11 percent of the funds it needs to manage the situation.

In previous years, the atmosphere in the country was tense and at times violent under the transitional government of former acting President Catherine Samba-Panza. But the uptick in attacks since democratically elected President Faustin Archange Touadera took office in March has been notable, prompting the question: What is driving it? 

Conflict in the Central African Republic intensified in 2012 when disparate Muslim groups in the country unified under the banner of the Seleka movement. Angered by the exclusionary rule of President Francois Bozize's administration — which mostly served the interests of his family and close inner circle — Seleka militias overthrew him despite his pleas for French help. Instead, French forces already in the country opted to protect the international airport but did not intervene to protect Bozize or his government. Bozize's downfall left a power vacuum that the Seleka movement tried to fill by appointing Michel Djotodia as president. Large-scale sectarian violence broke out as Christians in the country formed their own militias, the Anti-Balaka, and attacked Muslims in Bangui. More than 100,000 Muslims fled the capital for the country's northern provinces and to Cameroon and Chad.

As this breakdown of social order was occurring, security imperatives and economic interests led Chadian President Idriss Deby to send troops first to try to bolster Bozize and then to shape the political environment of its southern neighbor in its favor. France's military intervention in December 2013 came amid concerns of a possible genocide of Muslims by the Anti-Balaka. The presence of Chadian troops became contentious after Chad backed the Djotodia government and its troops took a heavy-handed approach with civilians, forcing them to withdraw. France's presence in the country, which eventually grew to 2,500 soldiers, provided a stabilizing force and enabled Samba-Panza's transitional government to take over from Djotodia, who had been incapable of asserting his government's rule.

Samba-Panza took office in January 2014, and her ministers succeeded in ushering in elections in March 2016. Even though notable violence and security lapses continued to occur, especially in the provinces and in Bangui's predominantly Muslim PK5 quarter, the overall trend showed a decrease in organized violence.

The election that elevated Touadera was hailed as a democratic success that could turn the page on the violence plaguing the country. But instead there has been a noticeable increase in attacks since he took office. One factor in the surge has been the presence of numerous armed groups that had been spawned over the past several years of violence. The ease with which they can get arms and munitions has meant that any attempts by international forces to fully disarm them have been futile, especially as international security efforts remain almost entirely focused on stability in Bangui. But because those groups are largely scattered and decentralized, there is no single, large armed force capable of marching on Bangui as the Seleka movement did in 2012.

Intercommunal violence and reprisals between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic continue. In addition, French-led efforts by the European Union to reform the country's army, which previously meddled in the political affairs of the state, have generally lagged, despite some small successes. As of now, the Central African Republic's army remains institutionally weak. In addition, deadly clashes among the constituent groups in the Seleka movement have broken out in the provinces, underscoring the confusion inside its ranks after the collapse of its power in Bangui.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the recent escalation of violence resides within Touadera's government. The new president, who was Bozize's prime minister from 2008 to 2013, has relied heavily on former Bozize ministers to form his new government and security apparatus, including to reform the security services and to lead a program designed to bring ex-militants back into the government. Touadera's reliance on former Bozize figures is likely driving the recent spate of violence, as militants react to what they see as a return to the status quo that they overturned in 2013. That, along with the perennial weakness of the Central African Republic's state, will continue to provide a governance vacuum for militant groups to exploit. 

For now, the violence in the capital and provinces appears to be contained, and there looks to be no return to the widespread fighting between militant groups that raged throughout the country a few years ago. France, for its part, is still set on ending its military intervention in the Central African Republic. Unless a severe degradation of the security environment threatens areas crucial to France — such as the international airport, the French Embassy, the roads between Bangui and Cameroon, or the Cameroonian border area — the former colonial power will likely continue its troop drawdown and largely extract itself from the ravaged and perennially unstable country.

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