After agonies in Central African Republic, will the Muslims stay?

The last US ambassador to the devastated African nation talks about the good, the bad, and the ugly there. Peacekeepers and a new matriarch-president are part of the good.

Jerome Delay/AP
Men run across the Avenue de France while French forces take cover as heavy gunfire erupts in the Miskin district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday, Feb. 3, 2014.

Fears of a genocide in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been voiced increasingly since a coup last spring by Seleka, a loose coalition of mostly Muslim forces. When Seleka leader Michel Djotodia proved unable to govern CAR, widespread looting and atrocities brought a backlash by militias made up largely of Christians.

French diplomats warned this fall of chaos and of a Rwanda-style genocide. The French sent troops, and recently an American airlift put African peacekeepers from Rwanda and Burundi on the ground.

In early December Seleka was driven by peacekeepers out of the capital Bangui – unleashing anti-Muslim killings that are still not under control.

This weekend Seleka rebels massing north of the capital were further scattered by units from the 5,000 African and 1,500 French forces now operating in CAR. New reports of fighting out of the town of Boda Tuesday suggest more than 70 killed there, mostly Christians. 

The last American ambassador to CAR, Laurence Wohlers, was pulled out in 2012 amid political upheaval. He still closely follows events. Amb. Wohlers says one tragedy is that CAR previously was not torn along Muslim-Christian lines, but increasingly is now.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Wohlers wonders whether the minority Muslim community can stay in CAR “given all that has happened,” and points to new dangers and opportunities: 

Much of the news about Central African Republic has stressed horrific human rights abuses.

Without in any way downplaying the importance of that coverage, there are also two really important pieces of good news to focus on. 

The first is the arrival of significant numbers of new peacekeepers. The Burundians and Rwandans in particular are good at getting out into the streets. There is also a new EU force that will be arriving soon. Compared to a month ago you have a much more professional force on the ground. They are still stretched thin but are making progress, at least in the capital. Their arrival led directly to the departure from Bangui of most Seleka troops. [Seleka] is no longer a threat in Bangui, though it is still a problem in the north.

What is the other good piece?

The new president, Catherine Samba Panza, who really is someone exceptional. She has put in place a largely technocratic government and in record time. This is important because the international community needed a government they could work with. For example, the [International Monetary Fund] IMF would have trouble providing money without a finance minister it can trust. Things won’t change overnight but this is going in the right direction. 

Leaders at the African Union (AU) meeting last week said that CAR could still slip “into the abyss.” Could it?

 It could slip. There are four main danger points: First, even if Seleka left Bangui, they aren’t done yet. Over the weekend, a sizeable number of Seleka reassembled in a town 70 miles north of Bangui. They finally left when AU peacekeepers arrived, but only to go to towns further north. Why, what they want, what they are intending – isn’t clear yet. They left Bangui without heavy weapons but are still formidable fighters. What do they want? To loot and pillage? To take control of parts of the north to establish a de facto fiefdom? It is a worry. 

Second, the departure of Seleka unleashed forces of mob violence in Bangui. That is not surprising as there was so much anger there. In addition, you have a lot of young thugs who are taking advantage of the chaos. Mob action is difficult for foreign peacekeepers to get control of, as it is so amorphous and decentralized. The new government has announced it will stand up the Central African forces again. That is important as they are the ones who can go into neighborhoods and those narrow streets and be tough in a way the foreigners can’t, since they don’t know the context.

Two other dangers?

Yes, some of [former president Francois] Bozize’s old clique are back in Bangui. Three or four of them worry me. These young thugs have armed local militias. One reason there are  so many machetes around the capital is because Bozize’s people distributed them to locals at the beginning of the conflict last year. At least one, a captain noted for atrocities, Capt. Eugene Ngaikosset, called “the butcher of Paoua” for human rights abuses in the northwest in ‘06 and ’07 – has been back. Another is Patrice Ngaissona, a former minister under Bozize who claims to be one of the anti-Balaka leaders. They are certainly looking to get Bozize’s circle back into power. They could be a destabilizing force for the new government.

Finally, the immediate humanitarian situation is so bad. There is little food. The new president has appointed an excellent, technocratic cabinet of ministers, but the government has no money. How does it quickly show people things are changing, that money is coming into the economy and a little law and order is being restored?

You know President Samba-Panza from your time as ambassador. Why are you supporting her so strongly?

She represents or reflects an interesting combination. She comes from a prominent family so she knows all the actors. She ran her own business and has a solid sense of what the economy needs. That is rare in Central African politics. She has a good sense of the problems of everyday people and has a talent for mediation and conflict resolution. Just talking with her, she has great common sense. You don’t feel a big personal agenda and she really believes in her country. She has a certain gravitas. When she speaks people listen. She has a talent for putting things succinctly and gets to the nub of issues. Also, she is in a society that has real respect for the matriarch, the older women. She can play that role.

Samba-Panza says more peacekeepers are needed, even as the EU voted for 500 more and the UN is contemplating 10,000. Will we see more?

I think we are moving toward more. You need to move quickly to change the sense on the ground. Once these young thugs see the looting isn’t going to work, they will stop, and the air gets sucked out of the violence.

What has most surprised you about the dynamics in CAR?  

It was clear when Seleka came in they didn’t have the experience or capacity to govern. I don’t think any of us anticipated how bad it would get, and how quickly.

That Seleka leaders were incapable of controlling anything, would allow looting to go on, which was not in the interest of [Mr.] Djotodia, undermining their own government, speaks to how much Seleka was no organization at all but a loose collection of people who temporarily banded together in search of resources. Once they arrived, they all split off.

The real tragedy is that this was not about traumatic ethnic or religious cleavage. The Muslim community was not demanding Seleka to come in and liberate them. By and large people lived together. This was really about a group of adventurers coming in to maximize their own profit without regard for the country.

To view this crisis through a Christian-Muslim lens is not correct? 

This was not initially a Christian – Muslim conflict. It gradually became so. (Seleka also pillaged and looted its own Muslim community.) But the most focus was on Christians. There were attacks and counterattacks, recruitment of some Christians that triggered later retributions. And then Dec. 5 was a key moment. Anti-Seleka forces in a very coordinated attack were successful in killing a number of senior Seleka officers, which prompted a horrendous counter attack. They just went around neighborhoods killing indiscriminately.

At the street level it has become a Muslim – Christian thing. A friend in Bangui the other day had been out in his car and a group of people ran past. He asked what was happening, and one of them said 'we just saw a Muslim and we are going to kill him.'

In that sense, we have moved into a moment of de facto religious cleansing if you will, at the mob level. And that is very dangerous.

What is traditionally distinct or unique about CAR? 

Ironically, before all this, a distinguishing feature was the relative absence of religious and ethnic conflict. Not to say things were perfect. But by and large people lived together, inter-married, it was a pretty strong state in that sense, with a strong feeling of national identity. There was enough land and water for everybody. People didn’t have to fight over land. There was a common language that almost everyone spoke.

Even if a CAR president didn’t govern particularly well, there was a feeling of Central African-ness that was impressive. As long as the government provided roads and markets, people did OK.

What concerns you most now?

You have to wonder if Muslims are going to want to stay, or will be around to stay, given all that has happened.

That is not just a tragedy for them, since many were born and raised there. But it is an economic tragedy. A lot of the basic commerce that ties together the informal economy, the stores in villages, the buying and selling of agriculture, the transfer commerce to neighboring states – a lot of that was done by Chadians, Nigerians, Cameroonians, Senegalese. Many of whom are Muslims. Those people are gone or in the process of leaving.

It may sound great to say that Central Africans can just jump in and take over. Well it is not so simple. Maybe in 10 years. But what is going to keep the oil in the engine in the short and mid- term when these people leave?

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