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Another Balkans unfolding in Africa?

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Monday, 28 April 2014

When the former Yugoslavia fragmented into civil war and genocide, it came out of an ethnically homogenised federation. When Tito died, the overarching Yugoslav state almost immediately began to erode - and with it, the common Yugoslav identity. This power vacuum produced a spiral of ethnic retrenchment. Fear of ethnic mobilisation by Serbs drove a counteracting ethnic mobilisation by Croats in order to address their growing insecurity. Two culturally homogenised groups, visually inseparable, speaking largely the same language, living side by side, and extensively intermarried, fragmented into sub-identities to the exclusion of the other - triggered singularly by the emergence of fear. Ethnic Bosnians quickly followed suit, and the Balkans became witness to the worse human suffering in Europe since 1945 – suffering that the region is still struggling to come to terms with today. The Central African Republic (CAR) has followed the same model of violent collapse.

The crisis in CAR is a slow moving genocide. Thousands have been killed across the country, yet the deep communal and targeted nature of the violence is better expressed in the scale of the displaced population. Entire towns and villages, particularly in the West of the country, have been ethnically cleansed, with 400,000 refugees flooding into the neighbouring countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicts another 160,000 before the end of the year, with Chad and Cameroon as the primary recipient countries, significantly limited in their capacity to manage the humanitarian challenge. Beyond this, 2.5 million people within the CAR are currently in need of emergency humanitarian assistance – half the country’s total population. This from a country that pre-violence, already held the world’s joint-lowest life expectancy.

From the end of 2012, a coalition of at least 16 separate, and largely Muslim, militias self-labelled as ‘Seleka’ launched a rolling coup d'état against President Francois Bozize. Bozize had led a corrupt and significantly incompetent national government for almost a decade, during which CAR’s Muslim minority, though not exclusively so, felt excluded from economic opportunity. By March 2013, the Seleka had claimed power, with Michel Joatadia Djotodia heading the new government, as the CAR’s first ever Muslim leader. The communal violence that accompanied the coup, quickly escalated as the Seleka, who had not supplied firm backing for Djotodia, fragmented back into autonomous militias. The Christian majority, as the primary target of this violence, began to mobilise into their own protective militias. In early December 2013, following a 2 day massacre of over a 1000 Christians in the Capital City Bangui, these militias, colloquially known as the ‘Anti-balaka’, though unmistakably already operating more out of revenge than protection, adopted the complete ethnic cleansing of the entire Muslim population as their raison d'être. Djotodia’s government collapsed in January this year, since when the CAR has completed its societal erosion, with Muslims and Christians alike fleeing systemic violence, disguised only superficially by a lack of centralised coordination.


South African hopes to calm the violence in its early stages, by shepherding Bozize’s government to transition, and democratic elections, as a means to appease Seleka forces were shattered as their meagre troop numbers were openly targeted as the Seleka swept to power – 13 peacekeepers were killed. Over the following year, as the violence escalated the African Union peacekeeping mission, ‘Mission in the CAR’ (MISCA) has grown to a 6,000 strong force, complementing 2,000 French troops, with an authorised 1,000 further European Union (EU) forces still the process of deployment. However, although the EU contingent has been scheduled to deploy since January this year, it has been consistently delayed by a lack of meaningful support from member states. The French presence, though an admirable commitment from a single nation, has as much do to with securing economic interests as it has with protecting civilians, with French companies holding significant investments in the timber industry, and particularly in the uranium mines of its former colony. Yet the most alarming development in the peacekeeping operations to date, has been the open partiality of MISCA forces.

Taking their lead from the CAR military, MISCA have in large part failed to target, or even disarm Anti-balaka militias. In some cases Anti-balaka, acting with seeming impunity, have utilised the MISCA presence, following their troop movements in order to attack Muslim communities that are left vulnerable after the Seleka have been pushed out or disarmed by the ‘peacekeepers’. Conversely, the Chadian, and largely Muslim, contingent of MISCA, have played a less covert role in the conflict, by directly engaging in the communal violence on behalf of, or in tandem with the Seleka, with first-hand witnesses to mass atrocities laying the blame on Chadian soldiers.

In light of such failing, the United Nations Security Council has just authorised a 12,000 strong peacekeeping force for the CAR. The scheduled start date for this operation is September 15, though if history is anything to go by, the date, and troop size, will fail to meet this standard, due to the vacillation of member states. However, even if this operational standard is achieved, it is painfully obvious the current troop numbers/compositions are insufficient to make an impact on the extant violence. As such, the UN mission is a recognition that the CAR must endure another 6 months of suffering before there is any realistic chance of abatement. 

Sadly, this is but a taste of the coming humanitarian disaster. Over three quarters of the CAR’s work force is employed within, and over half of the CAR’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is produced from its agricultural sector. Beyond the societal wide collapse of economic structures, the large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons means there simply are not enough farmers, nor is there safe farming land for what is now the start of the planting season. In a country that is largely based on subsistence living, the ensuing food shortages will correspond to country-wide famine and mass starvation – a humanitarian crisis on the scale of that in Ethiopia in the 1980’s. When such economic cycles are broken, history shows they take years to restore. The burden of which, the international community has already proven unwilling or unable to shoulder.

Just as in Yugoslavia, the societal divides in CAR are not one-dimensional - yet the impact that fear has on identity is the grand narrative of the violence. A psychological phenomenon explained by Freud - “it is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness”. Prior to the onset of violence, the CAR was an integrated, homogenised society. Christian and Muslim identities were unmistakable, yet no more significant than identities of family, friends, community or that of Central African nationalism. Perceptions of grievance and persecution within an identified group often precipitates an entrenchment into that identity as a means to satisfy that insecurity. Counteracting cycles of fear produce counteracting cycles of mobilisation, and an ever deepening attachment to exclusionary identities - identities that had previously been no more prominent than any other.

There is a simplicity at the heart of such communal violence - a simplicity that tends to produce feelings of contempt for the failures of such societies to overcome their hatred. However, it is hard to overstate the hypocrisy in this moral superiority. It is precisely this fear driven identity-seeking that keeps us (the international community) at a distance, and largely indifferent to the CAR’s suffering. The attachment and belonging we hold to our national identities come to the exclusion of a belonging with those in need abroad. A sentiment aptly expressed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dismissing the plight of Czechoslovakia at the hands of Hitler’s Germany, as merely a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. Our compassion radiates outwards from ourselves in accordance with our attachment to identity. Our emotional attachment to other human beings diminishes as our concentric circles of identity and belonging also diminish. As such, the Central African Republic is just too far removed from our moral horizons to evoke meaningful sympathy. As natural as this might seem, it is a stance that delineates moral concern in no less an arbitrary manner than the Seleka or Anti-balaka. It legitimises chance of birth as a barrier to moral obligation, it narrows sympathy to commonality and circumstance, it destroys all hope of a truly cosmopolitan human ethic – it means that, insofar as they occur in the Central African Republic, mass atrocities and immeasurable human suffering are easy to ignore.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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