On March 24th, 2013, a group of Seleka rebels finished a nearly four-month long assault on Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. The attack started after several rebel groups claimed that the CAR government wasn’t abiding by peace treaties signed in 2008 after the Central African Republic Bush War.
Government of Central African Republic
The primarily Muslim Seleka groups rallied together and overthrew the government of CAR, and installed one of their leaders, Michel Djotodia as the new president of the country — making him the first Muslim leader in the country’s history. Ultimately, Djotodia resigned early due to political pressure, but his time in office should have been a milestone for Muslims in the Central African Republic. So why have thousands of Muslim civilians been killed since then? And why have newspapers and non-profits worldwide decried the situation as ethnic cleansing?
Since March 2013, Muslims in CAR have been forced into a position where they cannot practice their religion publicly. After Seleka had taken over the government, there was a conflict between the leaders of its various factions, which ultimately led to a split. Some groups chose to defect and became known as Ex-Seleka. Disproportionate attacks by these rebel groups on Christians resulted in the formation of the Anti-Balaka Christian militant groups, which began retaliation.
While both sides have committed massive amounts of sectarian violence, Anti-Balaka’s number of violent attacks on Muslims completely dwarfs the attacks by Ex-Seleka on Christians. Since that time, more than 6,000 Muslims have been killed, and at least another 30,000 have been moved to UN guarded camps. Before the violence started, there were 436 mosques in the country, almost all of which have now been destroyed. Before 2013, Muslims made up approximately 15% of the population, and while estimates are hard to make, the displacement of Muslims may have brought that number down significantly.
In the city of Bangui, the UN estimated 99% of the Muslim population had fled. It has been widely reported that the Muslims who have stayed in the parts of the country where Anti-Balaka has control or influence, have had to disown their religion publicly, and have been forced to negotiate for their lives. The UN officially declared the situation to be ethnic cleansing in 2015, stating that the 6,000 death estimates “fail to capture the full magnitude of the killings that occurred.” The report also declared that the situation constituted crimes against humanity.
Another Refugee Crisis
While Muslims are disproportionately affected by the violence in the Central African Republic, the civilian population as a whole has suffered. More than half of the population has been declared as “in need of humanitarian assistance” — roughly 2.7 million people. Within that population, around 1.6 million people are in need of food aid and 412,000 individuals who are considered internally displaced—meaning their homes have been destroyed or are deemed unsafe to live. As of 2016, 491,000 people have also fled to neighboring countries, especially the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon. While thousands of individuals from both religions have had to flee, up to 93% of refugees in Cameroon are Muslim.
In 2013, France deployed troops to CAR in a military intervention known as Operation Sangaris, which received support from several other European countries. In 2014, the UN officially deployed a peacekeeping force (MINUSCA) to assist the peacekeeping force already deployed by the African Union (MISCA). Between 2015 and 2016, the presidential election in the country saw a more moderate outcome in Faustin-Archange Touadera. Touadera promised to put an end to violence in the Central African Republic and pursue a universal peace agreement. After the election, France officially ended Operation Sangaris.
The UN force has been both a blessing and a curse in the region. Most humanitarian groups have concluded that without the peacekeeping force, there would have been much more violence, even the possibility of genocide. It is very likely that thousands or tens of thousands of lives have been saved due to the operation. On the other side of the coin, however, there have been a string of accusations of violence and sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
In June 2017, after the adoption of harsher tolerance policies for sexual assault by the UN, around 600 peacekeepers of the 12,000 soldier mission were sent home. In 2016, there were an additional 120 peacekeepers sent home. The wave of misconduct even led UN chief Ban Ki-moon to fire the head of the force in 2015. Another criticism of the UN project is that militants on both sides of the current conflict see them as ineffective in stopping the violence, and they have been accused of taking sides. This has led to an increase in the number of peacekeepers being targetted and killed by rebel groups on both sides.
While the rate at which displacements and violence were occurring had slowed some since the UN arrival in 2014, both are still happening, and in some ways, the situation is worsening. The total number of displaced people has gone up to 40% in the last year, and it is becoming clear that some off-bounds targets are being attacked more.
According to the UN, violence against some civilians, especially children, and violence against UN Peacekeepers and humanitarian workers has gone up. According to UNICEF, children have increasingly become targets for rape and murder, and violence in the country is possibly on track to get back to where it was roughly four years ago. The economic effects of the war have also made it difficult or impossible for most children to attend school or receive medical treatment.
The humanitarian community is currently only 24% funded for the continuation of the Humanitarian Response Plan in the Central African Republic. Much of the missing potential funding comes from the US, which has planned to remove a massive amount of humanitarian aid funding under Donald Trump.