CAR: What’s Religion Got to Do With It?

How important is religion to the crisis in the Central African Republic?

Recent reports on ongoing violence have drawn attention to the fact that Muslims, by the hundreds of thousands, are being attacked and forced to flee by Christian/animist “anti-balaka” militias. In March of last year, a loose rebel coalition called Séléka overthrew the government of François Bozizé, installing the country’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. In September, Djotodia disbanded Séléka, but according to the Guardian  “Many of the rebels refused to disarm and leave the militias as ordered but veered further out of control, killing, looting and burning villages.” Djotodia was no longer in control of them. The anti-balaka (balaka means machete in Sango) militias are reportedly a response to the crimes of the former Séléka. They are perhaps even more decentralized than Séléka; a French officer described elements of the anti-balaka as “civilians armed with machetes.”

The role of religious identity in this conflict is paramount, but it would be a mistake to assume that this makes it a religious conflict. In CAR, religion is tied to a number of historical and political factors and intersects with ethnic identity. This has led to some interesting constructions, such as the call by Amnesty International to “stop ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in CAR.

So if it’s not about religion, what is it about, and why are people targeting each other based on their religious identity?

The answers lie in CAR’s history; Muslim traders arrived in the early 19th century, but by the latter half of that century this amicable relationship was transformed by the Arab slave trade. Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist who as been studying the country for over a decade, writing for the blog Africa is a Country, tied religious and political identities in CAR together this way:

It’s not that religion is unimportant, but rather that religion maps onto a host of other historical divisions in the country, chief among them “foreignness.” Among people in the capital, Bangui, there is a widespread anxiety that their country is being invaded and plundered by foreigners. They have a fair amount of historical support for this fear: whether in the case of the trans-Saharan trades’ nineteenth-century raiders or the case of the French-backed concessionary companies of the early twentieth, or of incompetent contemporary ministers’ corporate contracting, people with roots in far-off places have been the ones to obtain greatest monetary benefit from the CAR’s resources. The fear of foreign plunderers — and especially “Chadian,” “Muslim” plunderers — festered and grew during former President Jean-Francois Bozize’s decade (2003-2013) in power, because of the support he received from Chadian President Idriss Deby, who sent a contingent of Muslim soldiers to assure Bozize’s security. The impunity “Chadians” in Bangui enjoyed as a result was the source of much tension. The fact that the Seleka alliance that toppled Bozize in March was also predominantly Muslim piled more injustices and abuses onto these longer-standing tensions.

Because of this history, Muslims have historically been the target of state harassment in CAR. Ultimately, however, like most other conflicts in the world, this one is about political power and the access to resources it provides. After decades of French exploitation and the despotic rule of the colonial state, a coup against the French-backed independence government, and a French-backed coup against that government, CAR’s people have struggled to replace the old colonial machine with a more democratic system. History also shows why the African Union force in CAR, made up in part of Chadian soldiers, is seen as not neutral or untrustworthy by many; especially when Chadian peacekeepers are thought to have backed the Séléka rebellion and are accused of having killed three Christian civilians in February.

When Séléka took power and Djotodia became interim president, he promised that he would step down and not run in post-transition elections, which were to be held no more than 18 months after he was elected by the National Transitional Council. In the meantime, shortly after Séléka took power, he declared that “The Central African Republic is a secular state… It is true that I am Muslim, but I must serve my country, all Central Africans.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently met with religious leaders from CAR, who traveled to the UN and Washington DC in a show of inter-religious unity. The Secretary General publicly reiterated that the conflict is not a religious one, but that “religious and ethnic affiliations are being manipulated for political purposes.”

There are many reasons to be hopeful. In January, Djotodia stepped down when the National Transitional Council elected a new transitional president, the respected and popular mayor of Bangui (the capital city), Catherine Samba-Panza. She appealed for peace by saying “I am the president of all Central Africans, without exception… I appeal to my anti-balaka and Seleka children to listen to me and together lay down your weapons.”

Religious leaders are highly influential and it is encouraging that at the highest levels, they are working together to encourage their compatriots to lay down their arms. Yet some have also stressed the importance of not mistaking the conflict for a religious one. The Alliance of Evangelical Churches and the Episcopal Conference in CAR released an updated version of its Bangui Declaration on February 14th, which said:

The confrontation between Seleka and anti-Balaka has started a cycle of reprisal in which the civilian population have fallen victim. We condemn this violence, whatever its origin. Moreover we do not accept the amalgam of labelling of anti-Balaka as “Christian” militia. Indeed the anti-Balaka are the expression of exasperation, with the ongoing atrocities, from a part of the population – mainly young men – that witnessed multiple abuses by Seleka rebels. However, we reiterate that all anti-Balaka are not Christians and that all Christians are not anti-Balaka. It is the same for ex-Seleka and Muslims. Incorrect terminology that labels anti-Balaka “Christian militias” must be corrected. This amalgam propagated by national and international media has given a religious connotation to a crisis that is in its core political and military.

Further international involvement, then, will have to pay attention to these political-military nuances and better coordinate the actions of the international community in terms of peacekeeping. The French sent in a unilateral force that was meant to be short-lived, but President Samba-Panza has already asked that they stay until elections early next year. The French population, and some opposition leaders, are less than enthusiastic about this idea. The broader climate is more conducive to an international force, as President Déby of Chad has called for a UN mission, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended to the Security Council that the disparate forces currently deployed should come under a single UN command, and the European Union has approved the deployment of 1,000 troops. The EU force is set to deploy at the end of April, but it is off to a rocky start; so it remains to be seen whether a sufficiently resourced multilateral mission will be able to step in and prevent further violence while a political solution is worked out.