Citing the total disorder of the Central African Republic (CAR), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated in late November of this year that the country is “on the verge of genocide.” Already, over 600 people have been killed directly because of the sectarian, inter-religious, and political violence. An inestimable number of additional lives have been put at risk, the least of which are the nearly one-quarter of the country’s population displaced either within the country or to neighboring states like the DRC, Chad, and Cameroon. While not yet past the 1,000-strong death toll required by traditional conflict analysts to classify the situation in the CAR as an actual conflict, it is obvious that the level of violence has superseded traditionally understood criminality and has become by all accounts a civil conflict. It is certainly important in the near-term to establish a coordinated international response with a robust mandate through the UN Security Council to quell the violence, disarm the competing militias and other armed groups, and establish a protection regime for the civilians.
Comparing Cases: Getting Some Clarity in the Chaos
What is seemingly unclear is how the situation is evolving, namely, what sorts of atrocities are being committed? Coming armed with the understanding of how certain atrocity acts are carried out not only allows the international community to devise the appropriate and efficient intervention to the situation, but will also provide clarity in trying to sort out who holds culpability during the truth, justice, and reconciliation processes whenever the current cycle of violence ends for the country.
First, then, we should say what the situation is not. It most certainly is not an organized conflict. The dissolution of Séléka was perhaps the most destabilizing driver behind the current situation since Michel Djotodia took control of the central government from François Bozizé in March of this year. Competing armed groups on one side cannot coalesce even with each other, as many of the fighters are dissociated Muslim warriors from neighboring states like Chad. There are at least five main rebel groups who once formed the Séléka alliance. Supporting these groups are home-grown bands of CAR citizens mobilized with rudimentary weapons, machetes, or arms received from former Séléka groups. On the other side, native Christian groups have formed the ‘anti-balaka’ bands to defend their homes, businesses, and places of worship. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians have taken shelter in their respective mosques or churches, thousands more have established temporary refuge in the airfields of Bangui’s airport where French and African intervention forces have established an operations hub, and yet a greater number have fled into the more remote sections of the country where humanitarian aid flows are restricted because of access routes. There is no clear organized force and Djotodia has stated that he has no control over many of the fighting forces.
The disorganization of the central government and its supposed military force lends credence to the assertion that the situation is not yet progressing toward genocide, at least in the short term. Within the atrocity studies community, it is understood that organized authorities and a structured system of execution are conditions making genocide much more feasible to carry out on a large scale. It dispels the common myth that genocides only happen in ‘lawless, third world’ countries. The countries which have experienced genocide – Germany, Armenia, Rwanda to name a few – had organized leadership to mobilize the inter-communal networks around an in-group/out-group identity; such conditions are required to spread the killing on a massive scale. In the CAR however, the fighting forces are disorganized with no central commanding structure and no population network reminiscent of the highly organized ‘federalist killing systems’ present in countries with genocides in their past. Furthermore, the population is much more heterogeneous religiously, with the largest group at 35% practicing native religious traditions. For any genocide to come about in the current situation, a better coalition of the disparate religious groups would have to form despite their religious identities. However, there is no unifying identity on which to mobilize the population beyond national or regional patriotic affiliations. With a primary driver behind the current conflict being inter-religious targeting, it is unlikely that a genocide is immediately looming.
Taking Stock of What Has Happened
So what is it? Certainly, the atrocities that have already taken place point to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Specifically, the widespread murder, rape, forced relocation, and religious/political persecution fall under crimes against humanity. The dissolved Séléka forces have been found to take over and occupy towns and in doing so have been accused by Amnesty International of atrocities. No armed group is innocent though, as mainly Christian organized reaction ‘anti-balaka’ groups have formed to defend their lives and property. These groups may be just as culpable as the Muslim militias, as they move from house to house to look for fighters, destroying much in the process. The wanton destruction of entire housing communities, as well as organized killings by the militia groups, can be classified as war crimes.
Those officials which have invoked the term ‘genocide’ in an effort to gain international support for more robust intervention than the AU/French troops currently offer may not be entirely wrong, however. It just may be that their timing is off. What could occur, following the current line of international involvement, is that Chadian and other forces pull their groups out in response to international peacekeeping intervention. Such action is similar to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) being forced out in the run-up to the 1993 Arusha Accords, only to have the majority Hutu populations retaliate against the Tutsi minority. The genocide only ended after the RPF re-invaded. If the armed Muslim groups in the CAR are forced out by international pressure backed by a peacekeeping force, and the Christian and native religions coalesce around a strong, central leadership, tensions could mount against the Muslim communities. It is here where the seeds of genocide could possibly be sown.
What Does the Present Mean for the Future?
In light of the hypothetical, the conflict as it currently stands could be heading in the direction of Sierra Leone, rather than Rwanda. The atrocities committed in that West African nation mirror closely the communally-organized violence present in the CAR. Implications for the type of atrocities also mirror what occurred following the Sierra Leone civil war, as the ex-Séléka forces seem eerily similar to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) campaign. In the end, the justice and reconciliation mechanisms may take the form of Sierra Leone as well, where the top commanders are indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while those driven to reactionary violence in their communities face a mix of justice and reconciliation akin to the Fambul Tok mechanisms. Hopefully, a long-term international engagement will produce at the very least a negative peace to help the CAR on a path toward stability so responsible governance can take hold. Already, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has stated a commission will investigate the committed atrocities. In the meantime, it is important to remain cognizant of what species of atrocity will grow from the roots of the current conflict, as what has been sown in the CAR will continue to haunt the Central Africans for decades to come.