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?

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".