Armed conflict in the CAR: religion, identity, and political dialogue

Armed conflict in the CAR: religion, identity, and political dialogue

The Central African Republic is again engulfed by conflict. This time, the conflict centred on the Presidential election of December 2020. As the country prepared for the elections, the Constitutional Court rejected former President Bozizé’s candidacy. There were disagreements over the electoral process, voter registration, and the inclusion of refugees and internally displaced persons.

In that context, a new coalition of rebels – the so-called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) – emerged. The former President, Bozizé, is reported to support and help coordinate the coalition, which within a short period perpetrated multiple attacks, created a climate of fear, disrupted the voting process, and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the re-election of sitting President Faustin Archange Touadéra. 

The CAR has long suffered from political instability, and after the December elections, the situation is becoming increasingly complex and multifaceted, with shifting and overlapping allegiances and foreign entanglements.  Amid this complex scenario, here are two issues to keep an eye on; the role of new elites and their instrumentalization of identity, and second, the need for bold action and political dialogue to solve the ongoing crisis. This, however, is compromised by the fact that international actors are not neutral bystanders. 

The first issue deals with the rise of non-traditional elites and their indirect influence on the current situation. The violence that erupted in 2013 has allowed religious entrepreneurs and specific pastors to claim authority and climb CAR’s social ladder. Non-traditional elites have been on the rise, and attention should be devoted to understanding their trajectories and the implication of their rise for CAR politics. In an article “Building the Kingdom of God in the Central African Republic: Trajectories and Strategies for Success beyond the Traditional Bangui Elite” (forthcoming in Africa Today, 2021), I argue that some pastors, close to the current President, have been using religious repertoires and local understanding of status and authority as an alternative avenue for achieving success.

By doing this, they have politicized religion and sought to maintain Christian influence in the political space – in a context where Muslims have claimed to be discriminated against. This is important because of the proximity they have to the President and the fact that one objective has been to build the “Kingdom of God” in CAR. These new elites claim to have the knowledge and power to address the problems that elites cause, and they are not necessarily state-sanctioned elites. What is important here is the discourse they articulate about God’s kingdom and their proximity to the government. 

The violence that erupted in 2013 has allowed religious entrepreneurs and specific pastors to claim authority and climb CAR’s social ladder

Moreover, the identity dimension of the latest armed violence should not be underestimated. After the recent attacks in the capital Bangui, General Henri Wanzet Linguissara, Minister of Security, went on National TV on January 13, 2020, with a captured soldier for propaganda-like activity, arguing that the government had captured a “foreign” soldier. The proof offered in support was the fact that that soldier could not speak either Sango or French. However, there are numerous Central Africans who do not speak either of these languages.

The general asked the population to continue denouncing these foreign fighters and to stop being too kind. The minister continued and claimed that “the time has come; the war will continue until their last stronghold is reached.” Here, “their” could represent both foreigners and the rebel coalition. Such statements add to the conflict’s identity dimension that ensued during the 2013 coup when foreignness and Muslims equated Séléka rebels. The minister’s comments should be denounced and condemned by CAR partners and the government.

The second point is the question of political dialogue. There needs to be a political solution out of the crisis, even if the current government has ramped up military solutions. Russian and Rwandan troops have been helping the UN and the government forces fight the rebels. Accordingly, President Touadéra currently has less appetite for a dialogue with armed men, but the bold solution here needs to be political. During my doctoral research trip in 2017, many interviewees had argued that there had been too many dialogues in the country and that this was a reason not to hold more of them. 

President Touadéra with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 11 April 2019 (Wikipedia)

The UN and the international community have not helped and have failed to pressure President Touadéra to initiate dialogue. They have also failed to hold him accountable for corruption and bad governance that had appeared under his presidency. In that sense, there is little chance that a dialogue occurs, but this should not be ruled out. For now, the government is cracking down on perceived Bozizé’s supporters and ruling out discussions. The opposition is undoubtedly divided and has lost credibility a long time ago. Andreas Mehler analyzed how rebellion in CAR harmed opposition political parties and their representation.

On the one hand, this is because opposition leaders have made deals with rebels, further decreasing the importance of non-armed political competition. On the other hand, presidents themselves have used militias and armed groups to defend their powers. With various previous governments refusing and resisting political dialogue as presented, armed opposition becomes the alternative, and we are currently witnessing another iteration of that.

At the risk of engaging in naïve wishful thinking, “one of our strongest weapons [when it comes to making peace] is dialogue.” This is a lesson from Nelson Mandela. By saying this, I do not mean impunity for rebels, but a safe compromise among Central Africans, civil society organizations and the international community. Third parties must find a way to hold rebels and politicians accountable for CAR’s situation after a political dialogue. This is easier said than done because international involvement has been part of the problem. For instance, the international community’s previous interventions have legitimized weapons’ use to get a say at the negotiation table. If elected officials are not accountable, rebels will resist being accountable too.

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