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Why the threat of genocide hangs over the Central African Republic

The Central African Republic (CAR) – a byword for human rights abuses for decades – is slipping towards a bloodbath.

New Statesman
A young Seleka coalition rebel poses on March 25, 2013 near the presidential palace in Bangui. Image: Getty

The word genocide does not easily trip off the tongue of senior United Nations staff. But now it’s been used by Adama Dieng, the UN special official with special responsibility to advise the UN on the prevention of genocide.  He warned that the Central African Republic (CAR) – a byword for human rights abuses for decades – is slipping towards a bloodbath.

“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion,” Dieng told reporters briefing the UN Security Council on Friday. “My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don't act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring."

This vast, mineral-rich country of 4.6 million people has seen terrible rulers in the past. Jean-Bédel Bokassa ruled for a decade after seizing power in 1966. In that time he proclaimed himself Emperor in a ceremony modelled on Napoleon’s coronation. He was feted by foreign leaders from Gaddafi to the French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, whom he presented with diamonds and took on hunting expeditions. Bokassa’s excesses almost certainly included cannibalism, with human remains being found stored in his fridge.

The present situation is the result of an attack by northern Seleka rebels who seized the capital, Bangui, in March, ousting President Francois Bozize. Since then the already fragile state has lurched towards total anarchy. 

Speaking to the New Statesman off the record, an international source still working in the Central African Republic said the country always was what they described as a “phantom state” – since it had so little impact outside of Bangui. Now even that had collapsed. “Virtually everyone who works for the state has now fled from everywhere except the capital.” Outside of the city, chaos now reigns. “There is a terrible combination of extortion, looting, beating and rape,” they said.

The Seleka rebels, led by Michel Djotodia Am Nondroko, who came from the North East, are predominantly Muslim, with some of its fighters coming from neighbouring Chad or Sudan. The majority of the population – particularly in the West of the CAR - are Christian. The current conflict has taken on a distinctly religious character.

This is reflected in an investigation by Amnesty International, which contains detailed reports of attacks on Christian communities. A senior Christian leader is quoted as saying that he and other religious leaders had told the authorities of their fears of religious persecutions. “He said that the Seleka leadership did little to stop soldiers from targeting Christian institutions. The perceptions and fears that factions within Seleka are persecuting non-Muslims in the CAR must be urgently addressed in order to prevent religious conflict,” warns Amnesty.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports that tens of thousands have fled from their homes, fearing fresh attacks. In Bossangoa an estimated 28,000 people are sheltering in the Catholic Mission, too frightened to return to their houses and fields, even though they are just a few hundred yards away.

Ellen van der Velden, who heads the MSF mission in the country, told the New Statesman that what is urgently required is for international experts to be sent into the country by the UN and other aid agencies. “We need to have experienced aid workers deployed in all areas of the country where humanitarian needs have increased because of the extreme levels of violence. We have noticed that the provision of assistance has a re-assuring influence on people, even in Bossangoa where aid workers provide vital support for the basic survival of this displaced population, terrified by indiscriminate killings,” she notes.

The descent into chaos is taking place despite the presence of international troops. France has maintained a small presence in the capital for many years, but the 410 soldiers are there solely to protect the embassy, the airport and French nationals. African Union and regional troops number just over 1,000, according to Amnesty. They face the Seleka rebels, whose numbers have been swollen since they took Bangui from 5,000 to around 20,000. But even self-proclaimed President Djotodia’s orders reportedly carry little weight, and arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions continue with impunity.

The difficulty for the African Union and the United Nations is that there are few countries willing to provide outside support. Burundi has offered to send 500 soldiers, but other African states have been reluctant to commit their military to join this morass.

South Africa would be an obvious troop contributor, but this is unlikely to take place. On the eve of the coup, Seleka killed at least 13 South African soldiers. Their deaths resulted in scathing criticism of the South African government’s handling of the mission and in April this year President Jacob Zuma pulled the remaining forces out of the country.

French President Francois Hollande and his South African host discussed the situation in the Central African Republic in Pretoria last month. “We [South Africa] agreed that we need to do something and act quickly,” declared President Zuma. “We have committed... that we are going to be ready to be part of the solution to help the Central African Republic come back to its normality.” But with an election looming in 2014, President Zuma is unlikely to risk the lives of his troops in another foreign mission.

Despite the dire warnings of genocide and the deteriorating situation in the country, the people of the Central African Republic are likely to be left to their fate. Only a slaughter on the scale of Rwanda could really mobilise the international community, already preoccupied with Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and all the rest of the global agenda.  But this time no-one will be able to argue that the alarm bell was not sounded.