Now that the president has gone, will violence in the Central African Republic stop?

Decades of strife have left the Central African Republic with a damaged infrastructure and a tense peace that seems like it could end at any moment.

Michel Djotodia on 21 December 2013. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty.

The resignation of Michel Djotodia as president of the Central African Republic on 10 January prompted a rare eruption of joy in the beleaguered capital, Bangui. But after weeks of turmoil the situation remains extremely volatile.

Political violence has stalked the Central African Republic (Car) since French colonialists left in 1960. A half-dozen military coups have wrecked the country’s infrastructure, and entrenched ethnic divisions as each group in power has promoted its own interests. After Seleka, an alliance of predominantly Muslim militias, overthrew the national government in March 2013, violence once again took hold. From the beginning of December, Bangui suffered a wave of sectarian killings. Thousands of French and African Union soldiers struggled to secure the city.

Residents across Bangui have lived in fear of street battles between Seleka and its opponents, known as the anti-Balaka, who emerged in Car last summer. The anti-Balaka, rumoured to be supported by Djotodia’s predecessor as president, François Bozizé, have been killing Muslims indiscriminately.

By Christmas, up to a hundred thousand of the city’s residents were sleeping out at the airport. Thousands of others had sought shelter at monasteries and community centres – anywhere with a veneer of security. The streets surrounding the main morgue stank of decomposing flesh. Most shops were shut for ten days and the banks for two weeks, so very little money was circulating and many were hungry. The curfew was from 6pm to 6am; after dark the streets were empty except for military and militias. Inside the hôpital communautaire, or public hospital, young men lay bandaged and bleeding in the corridors and a woman wept, telling me: “Both sides are killing us like animals.”

At least 1,100 people have been killed in recent weeks and many more injured. According to the UN, roughly 370,000 people, almost half the population of Bangui, fled their homes amid “unprecedented” attacks on children, including the beheading of two children on New Year’s Eve. Across Car, one million people – a fifth of the population – have been displaced.

When Michel Djotodia and his prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, resigned during regional peace talks in neighbouring Chad, celebrations erupted in Bangui. Djotodia was Car’s first Muslim leader. What credibility he had was eroded by his failure to control rogue elements of Seleka and his inability to stem December’s chaos. He was particularly despised by many Christians, who make up 80 per cent of Car’s population. “The Christians were really celebrating,” says the journalist Vera Macht, “but there were also some anti-Balaka guys getting drunk and chanting, ‘We kill Muslims today.’”

Much of the reporting on Car has described the country as being on the brink of a war between Muslims and Christians, but many Central Africans disagree.

“This terrible crisis is about politics, not religion,” says Joseph Bidoumi, president of the Central African League for Human Rights and a veteran activist. “Since March [2013] people have been living in terror of the government.

“There has been complicity between some Muslim communities and Seleka. But the anti-Balaka are equally capable of horrific violations. Trust between communities has been completely shattered by this political violence, and we have to rebuild it.”

As news of Djotodia’s resignation spread, those camping out around the international airport began to pack up their scant belongings, saying they were now free to go home. In the ragged district of Bimbo, on the outskirts of Bangui, Seleka and anti-Balaka fighters laid down their arms and embraced each other.

The challenges facing Car are still vast. French and African Union troops will double to 6,000 by the end of this month but there are weapons everywhere. The National Transitional Council has just two weeks to organise a presidential election; parliamentary elections are also due in the next 12 months. But infrastructure has been badly damaged by decades of strife.

Yet finally there is some sense of hope in Bangui. Joseph Bidoumi insists he is “optimistic” that Car can pull itself back together. Despite the rampant killings, he points out that there are still cities and towns across the country where mixed communities are coexisting peacefully.

“Right now state institutions such as our judiciary are barely functioning,” he says. “But with security and the rule of law, our broken communities can start to be reconciled. We have to relearn to live together.”