Christians, Muslims, animists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’i: People of many different creeds and belief systems once lived together peacefully in the Central African Republic. But that was until the crisis of 2012 changed everything.
International media often describe it as a sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians but that is a misguided view of a complex situation. To understand what is really going on, one needs to look more closely.
Islam first arrived in what is known as the Central African Republic today in the 17th century. Rabbah, a powerful warlord who hailed from an area that is modern Sudan, violently conquered many villages. Local people who had previously worshipped as animists, were largely converted to Islam.
Christianity first arrived in 1894. And the strange new religion spread quickly and widely, particularly Catholicism and Protestantism, both of which were introduced to the people as offering the only legitimate God for worship. This religious branch of European colonialism can be seen as an advance guard for later colonial rulers; it prepared the locals to accept the French rule more quickly. If they accepted that, their new spiritual leaders told them, they’d be richly rewarded in heaven.
Current statistics suggest that today around 51 percent of the people of the Central African Republic are Protestants, 29 percent are Catholics and 10 percent are Muslims with the final 10 percent following other religions. In contemporary society it is often possible to differentiate between Christians and Muslims by the clothing they wear or the jobs they do: For example, many local Muslims are merchants or breed cattle.
Until 2002, there was not any marked discord between the religions in central Africa. Religious freedom is written into the Constitution and this meant that various communities could live harmoniously alongside one another. Apart from the local Jehovah’s Witnesses, about whom many locals are still prejudiced, the society here tended towards laicism, a form of political secularism that was simply generally accepted.
However when Michel Djotodia took over the government on March 15, 2003, a fundamental division between two religious groups - Christian and Muslim - was created. The difference between the two groups was based on social and political criteria and this had explosive potential.
The name that has sadly become infamous and now stands for arbitrary violence is Seleka. This is the name of the mainly-Muslim militias who have performed gruesome horrors in the service of Michel Djotodia’s regime. In order to preserve his power, Djotodia, who took control of the country in 2013, recruited countless mercenaries. A lot of them acted more like career criminals and that is also what accounts for the Seleka’s terrible reputation. Under Djotodia, murder, torture and rape were all banal, everyday occurrences.
When new armed groups - called the Anti-balaka - arose to defend themselves against this, they were automatically described as Christian militias, simply because they were opposing the mainly-Muslim Seleka. However both groups count members of both religions among their members. Here the facts are obviously being manipulated! Any community clashes are being falsely defined as part of a crisis which operates along religious lines. Since December 2005, the Central African Republic’s political crisis has become a pseudo-religious one, thanks, in part, to statements by the Western media.
A lot of central Africans have arranged their lives around these social divisions. Some have used the insecure situation to plunder the riches of their own country. During the nine months that the Seleka were in power, truckloads of timber and elephant tusks made their way southwest, toward Chad, every week. It was a few cunning locals using the war to satisfy their own greed.
In December 2012, the Seleka started their march toward the capital, Bangui. All along the route, they systematically plundered local churches. They left mosques alone - and eating pork was forbidden. Their objectives were clear: To make the Central African Republic an Islamic country, under the cover of a coup. But there was no way that ordinary Muslim locals profited from the Seleka’s ways – they too had to pay protection money, or give them free beef.
When the Seleka were removed from power in 2013, the country was supposed to be divided: south for the Christians and north for the Muslims. Today we still live in segregated neighbourhoods and many Muslims are still residing in camps for the displaced, that they won’t leave. Since that time too, there have been high levels of distrust between non-Muslims and Muslims, there is suspicion and there is fear. The social unity we used to have in both religious communities no longer exists. Instead there is a spiral of provocation, rape, arson attacks in villages, kidnappings and mob justice.
Given this grim state of affairs, the spiritual leaders of the three largest religious groups decided to unite behind a strong message of unity and reconciliation for the nation. Catholic cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, pastor Nicolas Guerekoyamè Gbangou of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic and Omar Kobine Layama, representing the Muslim community, founded the inter-faith project, the Plateforme des Confessions Religieuses de Centrafrique, or PCRC, (in English, Platform of Religious Confessions).
Together they want to show that this conflict, that we are still suffering the consequences of, was not founded in religion. Rather, it was the work of political extremists. Through their example, they show that people can cooperate despite having different beliefs. Inter-faith dialogue works on the principle that it is every believer’s right to be different and to be respected.
But the extremists continue to launch surprise attacks, kidnapping and murdering innocent people in their attempts to spark conflict again. We can only describe them as enemies of the peace in the Central African Republic.
Against this backdrop, inter-faith dialogue is so important. It is the best weapon against the manipulation of the people by political and military actors who play the religious card to try and gain power. We need to recognise religious pluralism because only then will all people be on an equal footing.
In central Africa, the idea that “might is right” often seems to triumph over reason. So maybe it is not surprising that discussions about non-violent methods, peace and justice give the impression of weakness. That impression is strengthened by the fact that some locals, who took part in riots on the edges of the conflict and robbed the families of those involved, are being rewarded with important jobs in the country’s ministries.
Solutions are often externally imposed and dependent on the provider’s own interests. Central African deal brokers seem to be motivated mainly by political calculations and their own survival instincts and therefore they’re not in any hurry to establish peace. As is the case in many other African countries, politics in the Central African Republic are still the best way to make a living by far.
Hardly any of the attempts to pin down agreements have yielded positive results. Some negotiations, such as those conducted in Libreville in January 2013, even triggered another coup. All of that just widens the gap between the genuine wishes of the people for peace and the scandalous indifference with which political decision makers approach the nation’s very real problems.
But without the political will, there can be no peace here. That is why we, as the citizens of central Africa, need to take a different view of power. It is no longer satisfactory simply to exchange one leader for another. We must understand political power as a way of serving ordinary people. Of course, performing this service should be a paid. But the most important qualification should be a desire to work in the interests of the people with respect for communal good.
We need a political system that fights for democratic values and for human rights, and against every form of immunity from prosecution and arbitrary justice. The peace process in central Africa is complex and cannot be the task of politicians alone. Every single citizen must do their part. Only then will peace become more than just a word.
With assistance from Albert Mbaya
Translated from the French by Caroline Härdter