Home inContext Sectarian Fighting Threatens Central African Republic

Sectarian Fighting Threatens Central African Republic

Michael Johnson

Hundreds of vigilantes attacked the Central African Republic (CAR) town of Bouar late last month with guns and machetes, according to local officials. Four people died in the ensuing clashes before government troops could reestablish order. This latest round of unrest highlights an increasing sectarian conflict and looming humanitarian crisis as violence between the Christian majority and Muslim minority escalates.

In March, rebels from the organization Seleka (“Union” in the Sango language) overthrew President Francois Bozize, causing new conflict in an already unstable region. Seleka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, assumed power becoming CAR’s first Muslim president. But anger against the rebel group’s violence and looting prompted locals to take up arms. Vigilante groups, comprised of both Bozize loyalists and aggrieved Christians, have created a new militia called “Anti-balaka” (anti-machete), spreading violence.

Forces loyal to the government of Michel Djotodia on patrol in the Central African Republic. (Photo: AFP)

CAR’s population of 4.5 million remains in the crossfire, feeling the effects of the conflict. The UN estimates almost 400,000 people have been displaced as they fled the violence. Over a million people suffer from moderate to severe hunger, while food shortages compound the unrest. The organization Doctors Without Borders reports that both Christians and Muslims have have been targeted, and UN representatives warn that sectarian killings could lead to genocide.

Over the past few months the international community has taken a greater interest in CAR’s unrest. In early October, the UN Security Council called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to outline a plan to support a proposed African Union (AU) mission to CAR. France, a former colonial ruler, also has a small contingent protecting the country’s capital airport but is wary of committing a greater force.

Without foreign assistance, the prospect of CAR becoming a failed state worries Western observers. French President François Hollande said without meaningful intervention from the UN or AU, the CAR risks “Somalization,” or a situation in which no central government exercises authority and militias – including al Qaeda – find territory in which to hide, train and plan future attacks.