CAR: Not simply a religious conflict

Recent fighting in Central African Republic (CAR)’s capital city, Bangui, has led to increased publicity of the violence afflicting the landlocked country. While CAR has experienced a relatively violent political history since its independence from France in 1960, the most recent 43 deaths are being noted as particularly brutal. Violence has been on the rise since December 2012 with surges up to and following the March 2013 Séléka state takeover. Tensions continue to rise over control of Bangui. In a BBC article published today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-25979967, roots of the conflict are quickly summarized as having been “fueled by ethnic rivalries” and that the conflict has now, “become religious in nature.” This sort of cursory explanation for the conflict in CAR, and unfortunately for many complex African conflicts, continues to perpetuate the notion that ethnic and religious differences are insurmountable and are inherent roots of instability, not only for countries like CAR and Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also for the African continent more generally. While I am in no way discounting the ethnic and ethno-religious nature of the current violence, I think the situation and particularly the tragic loss of human lives deserves a slightly more critical analysis before it is written off as just another example of some sort of intrinsic ethnic divide plaguing Africa.

      This surge of fighting, as well as CAR’s turbulent political history since independence, seems to me more of a problem of poor governance, weak institutions and political capture. President François Bozizé’s leadership illustrates my point that this conflict should not be written off as simply ethnic or ethno-religious. Not unlike Charles Taylor of Liberia or other predatory state actors, Bozizé is widely critiqued for his use of CAR’s diamond revenue to benefit his own ethnic group (see ICG’s 2010 article for a brief summary: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/central-african-republic/167-dangerous-little-stones-diamonds-in-the-central-african-republic.aspx). Diamonds account for about half of the country’s export earnings, with an unfortunate proportion of this income historically being diverted away from citizens and instead used to maintain political office, often through patronage channels. This trend noted in discussions of Africa’s “resource curse” as well as ideas of predatory state actors (thoroughly addressed by Pierre Englebert’s Africa: Unity, Sovreignty & Sorrow) is again not specific to CAR. However, with a 2013 corruption’s perceptions index ranking of 144/177 (http://www.transparency.org/country#CAF), the country illustrates these two democratically corrosive trends well.

      In addition to resource capture and manipulation, institutions are widely up for grabs in CAR, which has faced more coups than electoral turnovers. In Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa, Daniel Posner explains his view of ethnicity being manipulated over resource control just as Benn Eifert, Edward Miguel, & Daniel Posner’s article, “Political Competition and Ethnic Identification in Africa” shows that ethnic salience is not necessarily inherent but rather correlated with political competition. These sorts of analyses demonstrate that ethnicity is not necessarily an issue by itself. However, among weak institutions and uncontrolled executive control such as CAR faces with its problems of corruption and disproportionate presidential control, ethnic salience can quickly become a façade for a deeper resource scarcity and political instability.

     Taking into account Africa’s “resource curse,” high levels of inequality across CAR, a history of political turmoil including multiple coups and Will Reno’s depiction of the African warlord rebel in Warfare in Independent Africa, simply out to gain for his or her “in group”, this sort of ethnic fighting should be reframed as a problem of poor governance, weak institutions, political capture and patronage politics. I am not trying to problematize patrimonialism outright as patronage politics happen to some degree at most levels of government and within most regimes, when paired with weak institutions like a legislative body and court system infiltrated with presidential appointees, as is the case in CAR, it is easy to see how patronage networks can become an extremely negative force for countries in the nascence of their democratization process.

      The basis of this most recent fighting in CAR should be given more serious attention for what it is, the head of a deeply rooted mix of predatory state actors, weak institutions, corruption and failed democratization due to a multitude of civil and international factors. In addressing peace talks and negotiations in countries like CAR and the DRC, these are crucial considerations as the core of these devastating conflicts seriously shapes how peace and reconciliation are approached. While I hope I am wrong, I do not foresee a sustainably peaceful outcome until these conflicts are more holistically exposed, analyzed and addressed.

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2 Responses to CAR: Not simply a religious conflict

  1. amandacatalina says:

    http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/131226/central-african-republic-conflict-political-not-religious

    This article mentioned above seems to echo your sentiments. I think the conflict can definitely be rooted in political motivations and attempts to retain power within the country. Before the recent events of religious violence, Muslims and Christians in CAR lived in peace within the same areas. I think there might be some sense of revenge on the Muslim rebel group that briefly held power, on behalf of Christian militias. However, this might seem like violence based solely on religious identity, since the majority of victims are Muslim civilians. I think you correctly state that the issue is not solely about religion. Especially in a country like CAR, with weaker institutions, it seems that religious issues can be utilized for political motivations.

  2. kenneycj says:

    I agree completely with your post. The media, and particularly the media outside of Africa, seem to want to dichotomize conflict in African (and elsewhere) and to boil it down to ethnicity and religion, despite a history and presence of a number of different issues that often, as you point out, have little to do with these identities. It seems clear that religion and ethnicity are often hijacked by political elites in order to achieve their own personal goals and are not some sort of primordial aspect of African societies.

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