Friday, February 14, 2014

Central African Republic – the New Frontier in Ethno-religious Cleansing


Massive ethno-religious cleansing of Muslims is continuing in Central African Republic (CAR). Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement, “Shocking barbarity, brutality and inhumanity have characterized this violence.” He also said the country’s new government is incapable of effectively protecting its Muslim citizens from the Christian anti-balaka militias who had emerged last year after a coalition of Muslim and Christian rebel groups seized control of the country. They have gone on the rampage in Bangui and elsewhere, largely targeting Muslims, since the rebels were ousted from power last month.

To understand the current crisis, we need to take a look at CAR’s problematic history. Central African Republic, the former French colony of Ubangi-Shari, is a land-locked country – bordering Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. As it has happened almost everywhere when the European colonizers left, they drew borders that had very little common with the reality on the ground. People that were together were divided between nation states, and those who did not share anything in common were forcibly brought to live together – thus seeding troubles forever.

CAR is a manifestation of this divisive policy when she became independent in 1960. Diverse nationalities, ethnic and religious groups were forged together, while during the colonial rule every effort had been made to make the different existing ethnic groups and nationalities see each other as manifestly distinct so as to suit the imperial interest of ‘divide and rule’. Much of the global trouble in the post-colonial era – from Burma to India/Pakistan to Indian Occupied Kashmir to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to much of sub-Saharan Africa - undermining peace, stability and regional security today owes it to that devious policy.

Central African Republic was misruled by civil and military governments – all with active support of France – for the first three decades. Her first president David Dacko was from the minority ethnic group M’baka. He amended the Constitution to transform his regime into a one-party state with a strong presidency elected for a term of seven years. On January 5, 1964 Dacko was chosen president in an election for which he was the only candidate. His seven year term (1964–1971), however, was cut short by a coup d’état carried out by his cousin, army commander Jean-Bédel Bokassa.

On the night of December 31, 1965 – January 1, 1966 General Jean-Bédel Bokassa carried out a successful coup d’état and placed Dacko under house arrest. Dacko was later released on July 16, 1969 and eventually made an advisor to President Bokassa on September 17, 1976. Bokassa enjoyed support from both Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya and the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who declared himself a “friend and family member” of Bokassa. In exchange, Bokassa supplied France with uranium, which was vital for France’s nuclear energy and weapons program in the Cold War era. The friendly and fraternal cooperation with France reached its peak with the imperial coronation ceremony of Bokassa I on 4 December 1977. [Note: A year earlier, in September 1976, Bokassa converted to Islam after a meeting with Gaddafi and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa. But in December 1976 he converted back to Catholicism when Gaddafi stopped financing him.]

When Bokassa’s autocratic and eccentric rule came under increasing criticism during the late 1970s, Dacko went to Paris where the French convinced him to cooperate in a coup to remove Bokassa from power and restore him to the presidency.

On the night of September 20–21, 1979, French paratroopers overthrew Bokassa and restored Dacko to the presidency. In March 1981, Dacko was elected President of the Republic once again in a multi-candidate but unfair election. He was increasingly seen as a French puppet by his own countrymen, and his rule was challenged by Bokassa’s former Prime Minister, Ange-Félix Patassé (who following Bokassa had temporarily embraced Islam in 1976).  Patassé in addition to belonging to the largest ethnic group in the country, the Gbaya, had residential and kinship ties to other ethnic groups and was the most popular politician in the country. Dacko was overthrown on September 1, 1981in a bloodless coup carried out by army chief of staff General André Kolingba, who managed to enjoy support from local French security officers. He was from the minority Yakoma ethnic group based in the south, which dominate the army.

Kolingba suspended the constitution and ruled with a military junta until 1985. He introduced a new constitution in 1986 which was adopted by a nationwide referendum. He floated a new party – RDC and held elections to parliament in 1987 and municipal elections in 1988, which were boycotted by Kolingba’s two major political opponents, Abel Goumba and Ange-Félix Patassé because their parties were not allowed to compete. Under intense pressure from the UN, EU, World Bank, France, Germany, USA and Japan, Kolingba was forced to hold parliament election in 1993.

Civilian rule was established when Ange-Felix Patassé became the President defeating Kolingba (who by then had ruled the country for 12 years) in CAR’s truly first democratic election. He relieved Kolingba of his military rank of general in March 1994 and then charged several former ministers with various crimes. He also removed many Yakoma (the ethnic group to which Kolingba belonged) people from important government posts. Patassé’s rule lasted for a decade during which three military mutinies in 1996–1997 led to increasing conflict between the so-called “northerners” (like Patassé) and “southerners” (like his predecessor President André Kolingba) and widespread destruction of properties.

On 25 January 1997, the Bangui Agreements were signed to bring an end to the conflict between government and rebel forces. Mali’s former president, Amadou Touré, served as chief mediator and brokered the entry of ex-mutineers into the government on 7 April 1997. The U.N. peacekeeping force was also deployed. In 1999, Patassé won free elections to become president for a second term. On 28 May 2001, rebels stormed strategic buildings in Bangui in an unsuccessful coup attempt. But Patassé survived and regained the upper hand with the aid of Congolese rebels and Libyan soldiers. In the aftermath of this failed coup, militias loyal to Patassé sought revenge against rebels in many neighborhoods of the capital, Bangui. Patassé suspected that General François Bozizé was involved in another coup attempt against him and so Bozizé fled with loyal troops to Chad raising tensions between Chad and Patassé’s government.

In March 2003, Bozizé launched a surprise attack against Patassé, who was out of the country in Niger. Libyan troops and some 1,000 soldiers of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Congolese rebel organization failed to stop the rebels, who took control of the country and thus succeeded in overthrowing Patassé, who went into exile in Togo. General Francois Bozizé suspended the constitution and established a transitional government. Elections were held in 2005, which affirmed General Bozizé as president. Bozizé’s military rule faced rebellion from the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), led by its Muslim leader Michel Am-Nondokro Djotodia – a well-known and -respected intellectual who spoke several languages. Later other rebel groups joined in and fought war – known as the Central African Republic Bush War (2004–2007) – against the Bozizé regime. As UFDR rebels captured many northern cities, France joined the war to bolster its client and bombed rebel held territories. Hundreds got killed and 212,000 people (many of whom were Muslims) were displaced because of the civil unrest. The UFDR and the CAR government signed the Birao Peace Agreement on April 1, 2007. This agreement provided for an amnesty for the UFDR, its recognition as a political party, and the integration of its fighters into the national army. The remaining rebel groups continued fighting the government.

Bozizé was reelected in 2011 in voting widely viewed as flawed. His tyrannical rule was plagued with heavy corruption and nepotism, and he violated the terms of the earlier agreement, which led to an open rebellion against his government. The new rebellion was led by an alliance of armed opposition factions known as the Séléka Coalition.

In November 2012, the Séléka Coalition mounted an offensive against the army and quickly seized control of a large portion of the Central African Republic, threatening Bangui, the capital, and putting the government of President Bozizé in a desperate situation. To save his government from falling, Bozizé – highly adept in playing cat and mouse game - signed a peace deal involving a power sharing government in Libreville, capital of Gabon, in January 2013. Nicolas Tiangaye, a lawyer, was designated by the opposition and the rebels as their choice for the post of Prime Minister in January 2013. Michel Djotodia, the Muslim leader of the Séléka Coalition, was appointed to the government as the First Deputy Prime Minister for National Defense in February 2013.

Séléka captured Bangui accusing Bozizé of failing to honor the January ceasefire agreement and Djotodia was declared the President on March 24, 2013, who reappointed Tiangaye as the Prime Minister. Djotodia promised to lead a transition to new elections in which he would not be a candidate. A new government headed by Tiangaye, with 34 members, was appointed on March 31, 2013 in which Djotodia retained the defense portfolio; nine members were from Séléka, eight represented the parties that had opposed Bozizé, one from Bozizé’s former government, and 16 from the civil society. The former opposition parties were unhappy with the composition of the government. On April 1, 2013, they declared that they would boycott the government to protest its domination by Séléka. Djotodia signed a decree on April 6 for the formation of a transitional council that would act as a transitional parliament. The council was tasked with electing an interim president to serve during an 18-month transitional period leading to new elections. The transitional council, composed of 105 members, met for the first time on April 13, 2013 and immediately elected Djotodia as interim President. Djotodia was formally sworn in as President on August 18, 2013. On that occasion he said that he hoped to be “the last of my countrymen to have to take up arms in order to come to power”. He also vowed that he would not stand as a presidential candidate. He disbanded Séléka in September – a faulty, premature decision which, as we shall see below, was sure to weaken his regime.

As already hinted, CAR is a country that is fractured along ethnic and religious lines, where Muslims comprise only a quarter of the population. As a group, the animists form the majority, however, Catholic and Protestant Christians dominate the government and army. Over the years, the on-going Christian missionary activities and the penetration of the fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army (originally from Uganda) have radicalized many Christians within CAR. Many of the Séléka rebels, on the other hand, were Muslims who had suffered badly under Christian President Bozizé. The militia supporters of the fallen Bozizé regime organized around anti-balaka stoking hatred against Muslims. In spite of Djotodia’s genuine sincerity for and commitment to lasting peace and stability of the country, sectarian violence escalated and his coalition government was weak to stop it.

In November 2013, the UN warned the country was at risk of spiraling into genocide. The UNSC passed resolution 2122 ordering the deployment of peacekeeping forces. As the Séléka withdrew, the international forces allowed the anti-balaka militias to take control of town after town. The resulting violence and forcible expulsion of Muslim communities were predictable.

On December 2, 2013 anti-balaka Christian militiamen killed 12 people, including children, and wounded 30 others in a terrorist attack on the mostly Muslim Peuhl (Fulani) ethnic group in Boali escalating further violence. In Bohang village, the anti-Balaka targeted and killed 27 Muslims. On 8 December, they also attacked a hospital. On 13 December, African peacekeepers fired warning shots into a mob targeting Muslims who had taken refuge in a church compound. The next day, sectarian fighting continued in the capital between gangs of Christian and Muslim youths. Muslim houses were burnt forcing their exodus. Even the peace-keeping forces from the African Union were attacked and some were brutally killed by Christian militiamen.

Tiangaye declared that the country was in “anarchy, a non-state.” Under pressure from regional leaders who felt the situation was untenable, Tiangaye and Djotodia both resigned at a summit held in N’Djamena, capital of Chad, on January 10, 2014. The National Transitional Council chose Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president on January 20, 2014.

Since Djotodia’s resignation, attacks on the Muslim minority community, including summary executions, cannibalization, lynching, and torture and looting, have become more common. Christian militias have destroyed mosques, attacked Muslim neighborhoods and businesses forcing Muslim residents to flee to north-western towns, such as Bossangoa and Bouca, where there had been a sizeable and well-established Muslim presence. The anti-balaka attacked Muslim civilians in CAR’s northwest towns of Bouali, Boyali, Bossembele, Bossemptele, and Baoro. International troops had failed to deploy to these towns leaving civilian communities without protection. The most lethal attack documented by Amnesty International took place on 18 January in Bossemptele, where at least 100 Muslims were killed. Among the dead were women and old men, including an imam in his mid-70s. Armed violence has slid into general lawlessness and robberies are on the rise.

“The situation for Muslims remains very bad and most are now fleeing to Chad and Cameroon,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, adding that entire Muslim districts in the capital have been abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are said to have fled in this ethno-religious cleansing. Aid agencies fear that an exodus of Muslim traders and cattle-herders could lead to catastrophic famine and economic collapse.

In its latest report the Amnesty International said that “Anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic.” Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, said, “The result is a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.”

As we have witnessed before with the Balkan and Rwandan tragedies, the international community and the UN have been very slow to respond to ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Africans, respectively, especially when the perpetrators of such horrendous crimes are Christians. The victims in CAR are African Muslims who now face extermination. The international peacekeeping troops have been reluctant to challenge anti-balaka Christian militias, and slow to protect the threatened Muslim minority as the Séléka withdrew. Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, said, “They have acquiesced to violence in some cases by allowing abusive anti-balaka militias to fill the power vacuum created by the Séléka’s departure.”

Mrs Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has opened a preliminary investigation into crimes against humanity in the CAR. She said the incidents she was looking into included “hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities”. In many incidents, she noted, “victims appeared to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds.” It is good news, and she should be congratulated for opening the investigation. After all, we can’t afford another Rwanda and Bosnia in our time.

To protect CAR’s remaining Muslim communities the international peacekeeping forces must break the control of anti-balaka Christian militias and station sufficient troops in towns where Muslims are threatened. The UN must consider a de facto partition of CAR into Muslim and Christian areas to stop this genocide – something that has already been suggested by UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon. Saving human lives is more important than artificial borders that only bleed.

 

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