Central African Republic: new hope?

by Ilmari Käihkö

Chaos, religious violence, cannibalism and genocide – these are likely to be some of the thoughts that spring to mind when you hear ‘Central African Republic’. These are, anyway, some of the most common expressions the news media have used to describe the conflict following the takeover of power by the rebel coalition, Seleka, in March 2013.

This conflict was the result of the difficulty faced by many rebel leaders. It is not easy to control forces during a war, let alone after one when the minimum unifier – typically regime change – has been achieved. In many cases this is when the real problems begin; when interests begin to diverge and promises made by the politicians to the fighters are betrayed.

Seleka was disbanded soon after the coup, as its leader Michel Djotodia declared himself the new interim president. The coalition subsequently fragmented and began to act with impunity, to the extent that the population founded self-defence groups called Anti-Balaka (anti-machete) to protect itself.   Because Seleka was predominantly Muslim and the self-defence groups Christian, and because the latter used Christian rhetoric and visual symbols, the conflict came to be described as a religious one. While this would be a gross oversimplification, the conflict has nevertheless continued, despite the intervention by France and the African Union.

The resignation of Djotodia on 17th January, 2014, makes plain that if there had been an attempt at revolution, the result was merely a short-lived rebellion. Unable to control the situation and due to international pressure, Djotodia left to go to Benin. For a few days violence, at least in the capital (few voices are heard from the rest of the country), decreased. Djotodia was succeeded by Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui since last year, thus beating two sons of former presidents to the top position. The new interim president certainly possesses many qualities that are appealing to the international community: she was involved in the reconciliation process a decade ago, and is described as untainted by involvement with Seleka and Anti-Balaka, as well as being a successful businesswoman.

But one person is not enough to change the trajectory of the Central African Republic. While the first reports have been positive, there is much reason for (always much easier) pessimism. This can also be interpreted as the view of the new interim president, as she immediately pleaded for the deployment of more international peacekeepers. Nordic participation in the forthcoming European Union force is certain.

Still, the needs are enormous in the country that has been called “a phantom state”, or a “state of anarchy”. The already poor infrastructure has been damaged by the years of conflict, half a million people are said to have fled their homes, grievances do not disappear overnight and the capital’s hold on the rest of the country has never been strong. Samba-Panza faces the same problem as Djotodia did only ten months before, but with increased urgency. This time political inertia is not an alternative. But will her momentum lead to a revolution in the Central African Republic, and one that results in a viable political future for the country?

Ilmari Käihkö - Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute and PhD candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University

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