The CAR crisis: Who’s who and why | Part One

18 December 2013 | Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy recently completed five years in the French Foreign Legion and is currently working on his MA dissertation at King’s College, London. His research focuses on France’s contemporary relationships with its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. 

A packed taxi drives past a French checkpoint in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Dec. 16, 2013. Over 1600 French troops have been deployed to the country in an effort to put an end to sectarian violence.  More than 600 people have been killed since anti-Balaka launched a strike over Bangui last week before being pushed back - Photo: Jerome Delay - AP Photo

A packed taxi drives past a French checkpoint in Bangui, Central African Republic. The violence in the capital has killed over 600 people already and many more have fled the city – Photo: Jerome Delay – AP Photo

The crisis in the Central African Republic has been internationalised in the past two weeks. Amidst a spike in violence in Bangui which left 600 dead and displaced 159,000 in a few days, the UN authorised France and a regional peacekeeping force already in place the green light to deploy extra troops. While France, the former colonial power, immediately sent 1,200 troops -marking its second major intervention in sub-Saharan Africa this year- the African force may take months to reach its proposed strength of 6,000.

This analysis will present the actors on the ground in the CAR today and briefly explain their interests and motivations, with the objective of ‘decomplexing’ the crisis for those that see just another little war in Africa. There are indeed links between the crisis in the CAR and other African conflicts, especially with ongoing conflicts in Chad and Sudan – and in a wider sense, with the wave of instability that has flash-points across the Sahel – but this is also an internal conflict.

The crisis is an armed confrontation between a number of actors:

  1. The (failed) state in Bangui
  2. The (now ex-) Séléka, or alliance, of armed groups
  3. The anti-balaka militias, remnants of the FACA (Forces armées centrafricains) and supporters of ex-president Bozizé
  4. The reconstituted national army, the ARC (Armée républicaine de Centrafrique)
  5. France
  6. Chad
  7. The MISCA (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine) peacekeeping force, made up of troops from Chad, Gabon and Cameroon.

This analysis will be split into two parts: Part One will cover the Central African actors, and Part Two the external actors.

The (failed) state in Bangui

CAR map

Chronic instability has plagued the CAR since it became independent from France in 1960, largely due to an unbroken chain of profiteering and variously dictatorial rulers. Fifty years of mismanagement left a state apparatus more failed than functional long before the ousting of President François Bozizé in March this year. The Fund for Peace ranks the CAR ninth on its latest Failed States Index (between Haiti and Zimbabwe) – which is based on data from 2012, i.e. before the fighting that ousted Bozizé began – and the CAR has been in the FfP’s top ten since its records began.

Bozizé (like his predecessors) prioritised his own security over that of his people, keeping the ‘national’ army weak and preferring to rely on military support from Chad and France to keep himself in power. But the logic proved self-defeating it became apparent that Séléka, a makeshift alliance of anti-Bozizé armed groups, was able to outnumber and outgun the national forces. Facing little or no resistance, Séléka was able to quickly advance across the country and, when France and Chad decided not to defend Bozizé, the battle was effectively decided in advance.

In Bozizé’s last year in power, the CAR scored highly across the Fund for Peace’s range of indicators of state failure, signalling progressively deteriorating public services, a loss of the state’s monopoly on the use of legitimate force, and massive movement of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). Today, the situation is much worse; there have been no functioning public services in the CAR to speak of since March, the army is not in a position to conduct operations, and one in ten of the CAR’s population – over 400,000 – has been displaced by ongoing violence.

French officials’ recent warnings of the CAR’s ‘somalisation’ describe a power vacuum that has become painfully apparent since March, but that has existed for decades outside of Bangui. Contrary to claims that the country is “on the verge of genocide” (this will be discussed later) the possibility of a Somalia-like situation in CAR is real, with all the inherent dangers; a downward spiral in the humanitarian situation, ever-shrinking possibilities of reconciliation and reconstruction, and the further destabilising of the country by foreign extremists.

These are the wider consequences of state failure, and, along with the CAR’s position in the centre of what Western analysts call the ‘arc of insecurity’ – a description of a series of conflicts whose flash-points stretch across the Sahel from the Sudan to Mauritania – it is this that worries Paris most. Without an intervention, France may have had to face a Somalia-like situation in the centre of a region that it considers of high strategic importance.

For the population of the CAR, the unchallenged presence of non-state armed groups and the complete lack of protection by the state has created a climate of fear and impunity, a quasi-Hobbesian state of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. Following the recent spike in violence in Bangui, French President François Hollande announced that French troops’ immediate objective would be to halt the violence and disarm all groups that threaten the population. France, for many in the CAR, will be a welcome leviathan.

The ex-Séléka

The Séléka was – before it was recently disbanded by its leader, the now-President Michel Djotodia – an alliance of anti-Bozizé armed groups that came together in 2012 for what became the final offensive against the Bozizé regime in Bangui. According to a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique,

“the Seleka reveals a patchwork of political factions from all backgrounds. So we spot Chadian rebels of Colonel Moussa Aboud Mackaye, Sudanese Janjaweed escaped from the conflict in Darfur, troops from the north, including the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC) and the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) – a coalition formed in 2006 in the north of the country by partisans of Mr. Patassé, those disappointed in Mr. Bozizé and disinherited soldiers.”

However, descriptions of the Séléka as a “mainly Muslim alliance” in the Western press (France 24, BBC, Financial Times) are misleading. The Séléka originates in frustration at the ‘abandonment’, going back to the 1980s, of the country’s northeast region by the state in Bangui – fault, again, of leaders whose policies ensured that the state functioned only in the capital, and lately not even there. According to Roland Marchal, a specialist on the economics and politics of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, “Seleka today is perhaps more a Christian movement, if we must use these labels, than a Muslim movement”. He describes “a federation of armed groups which are themselves poorly structured, with no real chain of command… [in which] there has never been any real control at the political level”. While the alliance originates in the predominantly-Muslim northeast of the country, more than three quarters – of an estimated 20,000 in its ranks today, according to Marchal – were recruited in Bangui after the capital fell in March. The recruits were young people from the militias of the ex-president Bozizé, composed overwhelmingly of Christians.

Thus, as Marchal points out, the idea of the Séléka as a Muslim force is seriously flawed.By extension, statements which made headlines in the run-up to the UN’s authorisation of France’s intervention – notably French foreign minister Laurent Fabius’ warning that the country was “on the verge of genocide” must be seriously reexamined. The fear of allowing ‘another Rwanda’ would certainly played on many peoples’ minds at the UN. But the CAR is a country without a history of sectarian tension, and I have seen no evidence that suggests Christian and Muslim communities in the CAR are organising to eradicate one other.

However, the Séléka have hardly been magnanimous in victory. During their advance and certainly after the fighting stopped, the alliance – being, as noted above, poorly structured and with no real chain of command or political structure –  quickly became part of the problem. Atrocities, score-settling, and general lawlessness have steadily increased since March, but this is hardly a surprise; the Séléka have not effectively filled the power vacuum created in Bangui, and as conflict continued there was now no force capable of imposing order in the capital or elsewhere.

In September, Djotodia decided to formally disband – and effectively outlaw – the Séléka, a decision which the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies described as having “the potential to destroy both him and the country”. The disbanding of the alliance and Djotodia’s threat to subject to those refusing to lay down their arms to ‘the law’ (it was unclear who would apply it) could, as the ISS notes, “unleash between 20 000 and 25 000 armed fighters on a country known for recycled rebellions”. The predictions now seem fully justified; a recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group charged Séléka with “carrying out a countrywide, criminal operation that has no other motive than personal gain”, while Human Rights Watch reported “large-scale attacks on civilians, looting, and murder” from mid-September.


People queue to receive aid near a displacement camp in Bangui on December 13, 2013 - Photo: Fred Dufour for AFP

People queue to receive aid near a displacement camp in Bangui on December 13, 2013 – Photo: Fred Dufour for AFP

The anti-balaka militias

Faced with violence and exactions and with no-one to protect them, civilians have begun to take up arms in increasing numbers. Since the March coup, ‘anti-balaka’ (‘anti-machete’) self-defence militias have sprung up and begun to fight back. According to the ICG report cited above:

“The atrocities committed by Seleka Muslim combatants have outraged the population and led to the creation of self-defence groups called ‘anti-balaka’… These groups have been quick to target Muslim families and orchestrate what the Archbishop of Bangui feared and described as a ‘return match’. Seleka combatants have continued to fuel this spiral of violence by attacking Christians.”

Like the Séléka, the anti-balaka have been responsible for large-scale killings, and spiralling violence has only served to decrease the possibilities of national reconciliation. The ICG described the situation in the capital on December 2:

“Any spark might trigger an outburst of violence in Bangui. After months of repressive policies by the Seleka regime, Bangui residents are increasingly frustrated and willing to resist, including by violent means.”

Three days later, apparently coordinated attacks in Bangui by the anti-balaka, ex-FACA elements, and supporters “exacting revenge for nearly a year of Séléka-instigated instability” left 600 dead and displaced 159,000 in less than a week of fighting, according to a UN report.

The anti-balaka are an expression of the risks to the CAR’s society of a prolonged security vacuum. With no-one protecting the population, the social contract that normally exists between the state and its people – that that implies that people will confide in the state a monopoly on the use of violence for the good of all – is not being honoured. The nightmarish ‘state of nature’ that can result was effectively the situation in Somalia, and is a possible outcome in the CAR as long as there is no power capable of ensuring a minimum functioning of the state.

Earlier this week, Djotodia responded positively to an offer from anti-balaka groups to lay down their arms in return for amnesty and representation in government, declaring “I’m ready to reach out”. Hopefully the statements will be matched by action, as the CAR’s population will have to collectively reach out if normal life is to resume in the country.

The ARC (ex-FACA)

When Séléka took power in March, the FACA (Forces armées centrafricains, the national army) melted away, leaving Séléka as the country’s de facto armed forces. As Séléka’s infamy grew, however, Djotodia began to distance himself from the alliance which had put him in power, creating the ARC – Armée républicaine de Centrafrique – in July as a new national army. Djotodia intended the ARC to be a collaboration between the FACA and the Seleka, but it is as yet unclear how straightforward effecting a merger between two forces that recently faced each other in battle will be. Such obstacles would certainly have to be overcome before the new national army can begin to work for the benefit of the people of the CAR.

In July, only 1,000 of eight thousand soldiers of the ex-FACA had reported for duty with the new army. Though it was reported last month that 90 per cent had now returned, they will require equipment before becoming operational, and the question of how 20,000 non-conventional Séléka fighters will be integrated remains a mystery.

Coming soon: ‘The CAR crisis | Part Two’ – France, Chad, and the MISCA.


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