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.

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.

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

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war