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?

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution