Chasing ghosts in the Central African Republic

What on the surface looks like sectarian violence in CAR is a much more complex and far reaching conflict.

French-owned Areva owns 90 percent of deposits in a uranium mine in the CAR [AREVA/EPA]

A violent and brutal conflict is underway in the Central African Republic. Although English-speaking media has only recently began to pay real attention to the progress of the conflict, the current phase of violence goes as far back as January 2013, and is deeply intertwined with the history of the country. At its simplest, the conflict apparently pits the Muslim Seleka rebels against the Christian anti-balaka militia groups. Yet the seemingly random lynching of individuals, notably minutes after a presidential address in Bangui, which has brought the crisis in the CAR to the attention of the non-Francophone world, suggests that even these categories may be insufficient. 

Four individuals have occupied the CAR presidency since March 2013, and even though the country made the history books recently by appointing as transitional leader the third female head of state in contemporary Africa, there is little to celebrate as the fighting escalates in scale and in brutality. Is this just another case of “Africans gone mad”? Are poor people really so irrational that they would begin to randomly massacre each other in broad daylight on the basis of their religion? Or is there more to this story?

The first position suggests intractability: History suggests that violent religious or ethnic differences are rarely resolved militarily, unless one side is completely exterminated literally or figuratively through deportation or state cleavage. The second urges a more thorough review of the less obvious factors that are contributing to the violence, which if addressed, may go some way towards reducing it if not addressing it entirely.

Inside Story – CAR: At a crossroads of conflict

Three such factors in the CAR merit further attention. First, the CAR is part of a conflict system that involves South Sudan, Sudan, northern Uganda, north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad (not to mention the tacit involvement of neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Cameroon). My theory of conflict systems argues that as primarily economically driven conflicts, modern wars are rarely self-contained. Instead they form part of an economic and social network that links discrete points of violence within a region, where one player at one point may seek to exacerbate a conflict in another region for profit, to deflect attention from domestic problems, or to support historical allies in exchange for support against domestic opponents.

Conflict systems generally correlate to pre-colonial social networks and post-colonial economic systems. In the CAR, although geographically, the current war is occurring in a separate independent political entity, it is also part of a broader system of violence that links to ongoing or apparently resolved conflicts in the region. Historical exploitation through the slave trade, similar patterns of colonisation and neo-colonial economic pressures that unite the Sahelian mining belt, link the CAR as much to the DRC as to Sudan or Chad.

Which begets some important secondary questions. First, where is the LRA? In 2008 the Lord’s Resistance Army moved from northern Uganda into north-western DRC, through South Sudan and the CAR. During the infamous Christmas Massacres, they killed, raped and maimed hundreds of civilians, and then ominously diffused throughout the region. Although their violence in the CAR was mostly concentrated in the south-east, keep in mind that except for the leadership, no one knows who is or isn’t in the LRA. Where did all of the combatants go? The LRA’s modus operandi is to inflict brutality on children kidnapped from the region and then unleash them on civilians in remote regions: Can this unchecked movement through the CAR be ruled out as part of the systemic violence we’re witnessing?

Related to this is the influence of neighbouring countries, particularly Chad, over the armed groups in the region. To stave off domestic rebellions, political leaders in Sudan, Chad and the CAR have been providing tactical and military support to various groups across their borders. This was part of the genesis of the crisis in Darfur and has had an impact even in Mali. Beyond a simple Christian-Muslim binary therefore, does the dividing line between Seleka and anti-balaka correspond to militia groups who have been financed in order to destabilise the presidency in the CAR or in neighbouring countries? What about the influence of formerly deposed leaders who retain an interest in the presidency?

Thirdly, we must examine the economic interests of the leadership and other actors before dismissing the violence as wholly irrational. Most violence – structural or physical – today is deployed to get or retain control of state mechanisms, but it’s not simply about wealth. It is also about the relative security or insulation from struggle that the wealth secures very quickly, particularly in some of the toughest regions in the world. The difference betweeen being in power and not being in power is often the difference between life and death. This means there is significant incentive to secure state resources for a small coterie, and to exclude others by any means necessary.

Tied to this are the incentives for international actors to foster just enough instability to cripple accountability mechanisms in conflict regions. The public ignorance of the economic significance of the CAR (and indeed other Sahelian countries) does not impinge on their economic and strategic significance. Yes, the CAR is landlocked but it is also home to significant reserves of uranium, the key ingredient in nuclear reactors. As of 2010, 90 percent of the deposits in Bakouma were owned by Uramin, a private corporation in which Areva, the French nuclear giant, is 100 percent shareholder. The impact of this wholly unequal set up is exacerbated by the fact that 75 percent of France’s energy is derived from nuclear sources, giving Areva and France significant financial interest in what happens in the CAR.

Which perhaps explains the presence of 1,600 French troops in one of Africa’s poorest countries, intervening in a conflict that has been characterised by sporadic, if intense and grotesque, bouts of violence. It’s not that the fighting in the CAR isn’t serious or brutal. It is just that in a world in which there is a Somalia, a Syria, an Afghanistan and even a DRC, wherein thousands are dying each year, for a European nation to respond so quickly and relatively robustly questions must be raised about just who or what France is there to protect.

A peaceful and lasting resolution is only possible if we understand and as far as possible address local fears and perceptions. Places that the news cycle may ignore are haunted by economic, social and historical ghosts we have never bothered to understand, and what may appear irrational or unnecessary from the outside can sometimes be explained by taking a step back and examining all the factors, not just the easily deployable ones. To the people living with them, these ghosts have as much an impact on the decision-making process as the cost-benefit analyses of the Western Homo Economicus, and just because Homo Economicus won’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not real.

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst currently based at Harvard Law School.