After months of sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians, the Central African Republic (CAR) has a small, precious window of opportunity during which action can be taken to protect the lives and liberties of its people. Parliament’s election on January 20th of Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president ten days after the resignation of Michel Djotodia could mark a new beginning. As mayor of Bangui, CAR’s capital, Samba-Panza was reported to favor reconciliation. While the existing presence of French and African Union peacekeeping forces is a good foundation for such progress, a real breakthrough is possible only if the international community and neighboring states act strongly to support those who wish to stop the violence and bring justice to the perpetrators, advance democratic rule, ensure equal treatment of CAR’s Muslim minority in the north, and heal their land.
Djotodia’s seizure of power last March unleashed a violent civil war claiming thousands of lives, leaving one million displaced, and countless others victimized by religious and other rights abuses. Besides the horrific suffering, the chaotic situation in CAR made it an ideal safe haven or operating base for terrorists from elsewhere in Africa.
The fighting began in December 2012, when the Seleka, an alliance of Djotodia-led Muslims from the northeast and foreign fighters from bordering Chad and Sudan, took up arms against the government. In January 2013, Chad and the Economic Community of Central African States helped secure a peace agreement. After President Françoise Bozizé failed to implement the agreement, the Seleka resumed the war, capturing Bangui last March. Djotodia deposed Bozizé, dissolved the government, and later declared himself president.
Since March, CAR has slid into anarchy while its people endure a human rights nightmare of killings, torture, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearances. With the government weak and largely absent, the resulting power vacuum allowed the Seleka to roam freely, killing civilians, engaging in sexual violence, destroying property, and looting property and food from civilians, churches, NGOs, and UN agencies.
The Seleka also targeted their attacks specifically against the majority Christian population, leading many Christians to view the conflict as a religious war. Churches and their leaders were attacked while mosques and Muslim citizens were largely spared. Further fueling Christian fears were the large numbers of Seleka soldiers among the foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan as well as a letter that Djotodia allegedly wrote to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in April 2012 promising to impose Islamic law if the conference offered him material support.
While Djotodia later denied writing the letter and promised that CAR would remain a secular country, by that time, Muslim-Christian tensions were on the rise.
In September 2013, the fighting entered its most deadly phase when the residents of Christian neighborhoods and regions formed anti-balaka (meaning “anti-machete”) militias.
What followed were waves of brutal attacks and reprisals by both sides. Fighters also targeted civilian populations. While the Seleka set hundreds of Christian-owned homes ablaze, the anti-balaka did likewise to homes belonging to Muslims.
The fighting escalated as 2013 came to a close. While the first series of attacks in September left about 150 dead, an estimated 1,000 perished in December alone.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Djotodia’s departure and Samba-Panza’s ascension signal an opportunity for the international community, including the United States, to help turn the tide. It’s a chance to help bring peace and render humanitarian assistance, giving religious and civic leaders the space to heal sectarian fissures and bring the country together again. The latest targeted attacks on Muslims in Bangui, following Djotodia’s resignation, and the newly deepened mistrust between Christians and Muslims underscore the urgency of the task and how difficult it will be.
Thankfully, sectarian strife is a recent phenomenon that most Muslim and Christian leaders find truly horrifying. Therein might lie the key to peace. These leaders are working tirelessly for reconciliation, but they need the help of a more robust international force that can stop the bloodshed. Moreover, such reconciliation must be based on respect for all religious communities, including an end to discrimination and the full establishment of rule of law and democratic governance. Once the fighting ceases, religious freedom must be upheld for all Muslims and Christians, Seleka and anti-balaka perpetrators alike must answer for their crimes, and the government must move ahead toward new elections and a new constitution.
For the sake of CAR, its people, and its neighbors, the opportunity at hand must be embraced today.
Photo credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images