Chaos in Central African Republic is about power, not religion

This is neither jihad nor crusade. Fighting in the CAR is over political power, with the capitol city Bangui as the prize.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Angry residents shout accusations at French soldiers as they depart, after a shooting disrupted a meeting between the commander of the Sangaris forces and Muslim community leaders, in the Kilometer 5 district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.

This post originally appeared on the Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

The growing violence and chaos in the Central African Republic (CAR) has returned to the front pages of the media in recent weeks.

The Seleka (“Alliance”), a group of numerous different militia groups, mostly from the north of the country, which is predominantly Muslim, launched a campaign in December 2012 to overthrow the government of Francoise Bozize. They seized Bangui in March 2013.

Subsequently, national elections were held on April 13, 2013, and Michel Djotodia was elected as interim president -- with Seleka support. He subsequently dissolved Seleka.

Once disbanded, Seleka fighters proved to be uncontrollable. There have been credible claims of human rights abuses (including rape, murder, and possibly the use of child soldiers among others) documented by Human Rights Watch.

In response, communities formed militias, broadly labelled anti-balaka (or anti-machete), to protect themselves from ex-Seleka fighters. These anti-balaka militias are largely Christian and have targeted civilians, normally Muslim, as well as ex-Seleka forces. The rhetoric used by the anti-balaka fighters is often religious and anti-Muslim.

Commentators are increasingly casting the conflict in religious terms. The country is at least 50 percent Christian, evenly divided between Protestant and Catholic, approximately 35 percent traditional religions, and 15 percent Muslim.

The Muslims live mainly in the north of the country, perceive themselves to be marginalized, and have never held the presidency. There are accounts of former president Bozize’s presidential guard, and other members of the security sector, committing human rights abuses among Muslim communities.

The roots of the current conflict are, however, less religious than they are economic and political.

Militias are engaging in sectarian violence, attacking other communities rather than protecting their own.

Religious leaders stressed to Human Rights Watch that the violence was not religious but political. An imam in a village attacked by anti-balaka fighters claimed that they were loyalists to Bozize and had military weapons.

The BBC supported the assertion that Bozize loyalists were among the anti-balaka fighters. They attacked Bangui on December 5.

So far however, Mr. Djotodia remains in nominal control as interim president.

This violence appears to be  predominantly political and sectarian and makes use of existing religious differences and rhetoric.

What is going on in the CAR is neither a jihad nor a crusade. It is rather a struggle for political power with Bangui as the prize.

Ms. Mellgard is research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

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