"Blessed are the Peacemakers"
Violence in eastern and western Central African Republic (CAR) has increased and spread to new provinces in 2018, as the government in Bangui remains unable to extend control outside the capital. A peace agreement signed in June 2017 between the government and thirteen of the fourteen main armed factions had little effect, and ex-Seleka and anti-balaka militias along with hundreds of other localized groups operate openly and control as much as two-thirds of CAR’s territory.
In April 2018, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and government security forces launched an operation to disarm a militia group in Bangui’s PK5 neighborhood, a predominantly Muslim enclave in the majority Christian city. After rumors spread that the peacekeepers intended to disarm all Muslims, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by armed Christian groups, heavy clashes broke out, killing more than twenty people, including a UN peacekeeper, and wounding nearly one hundred fifty. Days later, demonstrators laid the bodies of sixteen people killed in the violence in front of MINUSCA’s headquarters in Bangui, accusing peacekeepers of firing on civilians.
Over the following weeks, violence spread outside of PK5 as reprisal attacks were carried out by both ex-Seleka and anti-balaka militias. In May 2018, gunmen attacked a church in Bangui, killing sixteen people including a priest; several mosques were attacked in retaliation. Ex-Seleka leaders met in northern CAR and threatened to attack the capital, prompting MINUSCA to enhance security around the city.
Since gaining independence in 1960, CAR has experienced decades of violence and instability. An insurgency led by the Seleka (or “alliance” in Sango)—a coalition of armed, primarily Muslim groups—has resulted in the severe deterioration of the country’s security infrastructure and heightened ethnic tensions. Seleka fighters launched an offensive against the CAR government in December 2012, and both seized the capital city of Bangui and staged a coup in March 2013. In response to brutality by Seleka forces, “anti-balaka” (meaning “invincible” in Sango) coalitions of Christian fighters formed to carry out reprisal violence against Seleka fighters, adding an element of religious animosity to the violence that had previously been absent.
In September 2013, anti-balaka forces began committing widespread revenge attacks against mostly Muslims civilians, displacing tens of thousands of people to Seleka-controlled areas in the north. Seleka forces were disbanded by the government shortly after revenge attacks began, but many ex-Seleka members started committing counterattacks, plunging CAR into a chaotic state of violence and an ensuing humanitarian crisis. Since the outbreak of renewed conflict in 2013, thousands of people have been killed and nearly 575,000 refugees have been displaced, the majority of whom fled to neighboring Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite optimism after the election of President Faustin Archange Touadera in the spring of 2016, the crisis only intensified. A de facto territorial partition led to a pause in Muslim-Christian fighting, but fighting between factions of the ex-Seleka has grown. Though the government maintains control of Bangui, most armed groups have boycotted President Touadera’s attempts to calm the region through disarmament, leaving the government powerless outside the capital. Lawlessness in the rest of the country has allowed armed groups to thrive and fighting has increased in the central, western, and eastern provinces. The conflict has also wreaked havoc on the economy, crippling the private sector and leaving nearly 75 percent of the country’s population in poverty.
Reports by human rights groups and UN agencies suggest that crimes committed by both ex-Seleka forces and anti-balaka groups amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Due to the scale of the crisis, the UN Security Council established a peacekeeping force in April 2014 that incorporated African Union and French forces that had been deployed to CAR previously. MINUSCA was established, with a mandate to protect civilians and disarm militia groups, and currently has nearly fifteen thousand peacekeepers operating inside CAR. MINUSCA faces significant challenges in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians and dismantle armed groups, primarily due to lack of infrastructure and reluctance to use military force. Numerous attacks have also been carried out against UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers; fifteen peacekeepers were killed in CAR in 2017 and six peacekeepers have been killed in attacks by various armed groups in 2018.
The United States has long supported economic growth, the rule of law, and political stability in CAR, and it remains concerned about the high levels of violence and worsening humanitarian crisis. Further deterioration of the security environment will increase sectarian violence and spillover will continue to destabilize the region, posing challenges to ending the conflicts in neighboring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.